For the safety of fighters, the UFC must abandon gloves

Edward L'Orange Roar Pro

By , Edward L'Orange is a Roar Pro

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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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