For the safety of fighters, the UFC must abandon gloves

Edward L'Orange Roar Guru

By Edward L'Orange, Edward L'Orange is a Roar Guru

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    Mark Hunt’s withdrawal from November’s UFC Sydney has again brought chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) into fans’ consciousness. The UFC appears to be making a stand on brain injury, and therefore the time is right for a discussion about gloves and wrist wraps.

    Contrary to popular belief, and perhaps common sense, gloves and wrist wraps do not actually make combat sports safer. In fact, the opposite is true.

    Gloves and wrist support allow fighters to punch with impunity, exerting extreme power with much more regularity than bare knuckles. The force generated greatly increases the threat of serious head trauma for fighters.

    Being the single greatest health concern associated with combat sports, mixed martial arts’ leading promotion, the UFC, needs to take a stand.

    Interestingly, the original UFC promotions were indeed fought bareknuckle, a rule which followed trends set by other promotions of the time. However, this changed at UFC 6, with the introduction of future star Tank Abbott, who was the first to wear gloves.

    Abbot’s use of gloves, was not, as I am sure he himself would attest, for the benefit of the opponent. Gloves allowed Abbot to increase his already formidable punching power, as was shown in the most brutal fashion that night.

    Abbott knocked out his opponent, John Matua, in 18 seconds. Matua then went into convulsions and did not regain consciousness for almost four minutes.

    The brutality of that image, and Abbot’s mocking imitation of his convulsing figure, was immortalised by a quote from the then head of the UFC, Campbell McLaren: “That will be the last time anyone in UFC will ever be allowed to wear gloves.”

    This statement was proved wrong, of course, and now MMA gloves are ubiquitous across all UFC promotions.

    The argument for removing gloves is simple: the likelihood of brain trauma is increased with the number of damaging shots taken to the head; gloves allow for more damaging shots to connect, when compared to bare-knuckle. Therefore, without gloves, the incidence of brain trauma would be decreased.

    There are, however, certain reasons that the UFC might not wish to abandon gloves.

    The first is fight style. Gloves were introduced for combatants, like Abbot, who preferred a style of fighting focusing on boxing and knock-outs. Arguably more spectacular to the casual fan than submissions, this type of victory brought fans and fame to the UFC.

    As a result, the new owners of the UFC, WME-IMG, would be reluctant to take any steps which may result a less spectator-friendly, and therefore less profitable, product.

    Despite the obvious argument that a fighter’s health should come before a spectator pleasure, in reality, it is difficult to argue that the UFC would be any less spectacular without gloves.

    According to a breakdown by fightmatrix.com, only 28 per cent of UFC fights end in (T)KO, with over two thirds ending in either decision or submission.

    Removing gloves will not stop knockouts.

    For one thing, of the 28 per cent, a certain number of knock-outs obviously occur from strikes other than fists, such as kicks or knees. However, punches will still be a large part of the sport.

    But if some martial artists do change the way they approach fights, surely this innovation would be all the more exciting for fans. The ‘spectacle’ of the UFC is no longer simple knockout punches, which ingenuity and creativity of fighters has superseded – just look at Demetrious Johnson’s recent suplex to armbar submission of Ray Borg.

    Another argument against abandoning gloves is a possible increase in facial lacerations, notably ones that are bloody. However, fear of damage is not really the concern here – just how it appears. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with superficial injuries will be women’s bouts. The UFC are aware that the attitude toward female fighting is still in its infancy, and seeing women badly bloodied, they will claim, is not in the interest of the casual fan.

    Again, their concerns about promotion should pail into insignificance when considering the long-term benefits for fighters. But, from a promoter’s point of view, MMA has progressed beyond the original claims of excess brutality to be genuinely accepted by fans of combat sport. More superficial injuries will be unlikely to change this trend in any meaningful way – with proper marketing, it may even attract new fans.

    Finally, the popular belief that gloves are civilised (an ideology imported from of boxing), is far too prevalent to dismiss. The UFC may fear that pundits will assume the sport has regressed to its more ‘barbaric’ roots, an assumption which will discourage fans and sponsors.

    However, this fear could be allayed by an effective marketing campaign. The UFC could promote itself as the only organisation in combat sports that is properly taking responsibility for the long-term health of its fighters, and in doing so educate fans about brain injuries.

    The NFL is going through a revolution of its own in attitudes to brain trauma, with documentaries such as League of Denial and movies like Concussion educating the public about the risk of head impacts. The UFC could tack onto this new trend towards athlete safety, and project itself, rightly, as a safer option than boxing. It is entirely arguable that it would increase ratings.

    Abandoning gloves has been promoted by many fighters and UFC experts, most notably Joe Rogan.

    With the life-changing consequences of brain injury at the forefront of public consciousness, now is the time for the UFC to take steps to protect the health of their fighters by banning gloves and wrist wraps.

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    The Crowd Says (11)

    • October 18th 2017 @ 8:56am
      Gray-Hand said | October 18th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

      They shouldn’t abandon gloves entirely. Thin gloves would still cut down knuckle and facial lacerations which would help decrease the chances of infection, while not increasing power in any significant way.

      I agree the gloves used today in the UFC are too big.

      • Roar Guru

        October 18th 2017 @ 9:23am
        Edward L'Orange said | October 18th 2017 @ 9:23am | ! Report

        Not a bad idea, I think, Gray-Hand. Thin knuckle coverings would protect from lacerations, but with no heavy padding, and importantly, no wrist wrapping, the power would be reduced significantly.

        And by the way, sorry about the Tank Abbot clip, everyone. It was the only one I could find, but it’s certainly better on mute.

    • October 18th 2017 @ 6:46pm
      In brief said | October 18th 2017 @ 6:46pm | ! Report

      Agree with the lighter gloves idea. There’s also a degree of engineering in the UFC rules that doesn’t help either.

      For example, a fighter on the receiving end of a typical ‘ground and pound’ beating has little defence options.

      A Thai boxer in this situation would use elbows to the apex of the skull, which is a very dangerous knock out blow banned by the UFC.

      But if fighters could defend themselves within the rules these ‘engineered’ scenarios of one fighter beating down on a largely defenceless opponent would become less common.

      • October 18th 2017 @ 7:59pm
        Alex L said | October 18th 2017 @ 7:59pm | ! Report

        Elbows from a fighter on their back aren’t banned in the UFC, it’s the top down 12-6 elbow that’s not allowed.

        • Roar Guru

          October 18th 2017 @ 10:01pm
          Edward L'Orange said | October 18th 2017 @ 10:01pm | ! Report

          Yes, this was my first thought too. And my other thought, and I might be wrong, was that Thai boxers would never really be in “ground and pound” situations. But I’m not a fan of the “12-6” rule either, it seems arbitrary to me: 11-5 is fine?

          But I certainly do agree that there is some engineering in the UFC that favours striking.

          • October 19th 2017 @ 9:28am
            Alex L said | October 19th 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report

            Matt Hume happens to agree on the 12-6 rule, but it’s generally applied to the downwards point of the elbow strike rather than the precisely 12-6.

            I think the strike “In brief” is talking about though is the elbow to the head from the bottom position on the ground (like at the end of the Anderson Silva / Travis Lutter fight).

          • October 19th 2017 @ 5:06pm
            Gray-Hand said | October 19th 2017 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

            There’s also plenty of engineering that depowers striking:
            No headbutting
            No strikes to the back of the head
            No throat strikes
            No outstretched fingers aimed towards the face
            Certain elbow strikes are prohibited
            No kneeing or kicking the head of a downed opponent
            No stomping

            All of those are well justified, but they definitely cramp the options available to a striker.

            • October 19th 2017 @ 7:20pm
              Alex L said | October 19th 2017 @ 7:20pm | ! Report

              Most of those are more limiting to wrestlers than stand up strikers, imo.

            • Roar Guru

              October 19th 2017 @ 9:26pm
              Edward L'Orange said | October 19th 2017 @ 9:26pm | ! Report

              I have to agree with Alex here, in that a lot of those are not necessarily targeted at strikers. But I’m not sure they are directed at any style in particular; it’s probably more just trying to moderate the risks for all styles.

              have to say I disagree with a number of them. I think soccer kicks should be allowed in certain circumstances. The resent changes which classify one hand on the mat as standing is a step in the right direction.

              • October 20th 2017 @ 12:32am
                Alex L said | October 20th 2017 @ 12:32am | ! Report

                Moderating risks, fighter safety, and honestly protecting the entertainment value of the product too; watching Mark Coleman bludgeoning guys into oblivion with headbutts back in the day was brutal.

      • October 19th 2017 @ 8:42am
        Jay said | October 19th 2017 @ 8:42am | ! Report

        If a fighter is defensless or is not adequately defending themselves then the fight is stopped.

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