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Glove at First Sight: Has the evolution of the boxing glove made the sport safer or more dangerous?

Action Images / Andrew Boyers
There is a growing suspicion among some of the sport's key figures that boxing gloves are damaging more than they are protecting, writes Elliot Worsell

INSIDE a boxing glove you will find a hand, a left or a right, wrapped in bandage, covered in tape and curled into a fist. Inside the word glove, meanwhile, you will find the word love, byproducts of which include safety, security and protection.

Protection: a boxing glove is designed to protect a boxer’s fists and allow them to effectively carry out the job of damaging their opponent. Security: this eight- or ten-ounce chunk of leather lends an element of civility and control to an act most would consider barbaric without it. It cushions blows. It reduces the likelihood of cuts. It makes a potentially ugly spectacle a little less ugly. Safety: all the safety a boxing glove offers is offered solely to the hands inside them, not the face on the end of them.

Mike Goodall, a fixture of the British fight scene for some 40 years (in roles as master of ceremonies and the Managing Director of Ringcraft Boxing, chief provider of boxing rings in the UK), believes the boxing gloves he handles when working on events these days are bigger than they have ever been, in terms of the padding used around the knuckle, but not necessarily safer. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“It’s a big issue,” said Goodall, who has been manufacturing his own gloves for the past three years. “At the moment what goes into gloves is very, very dangerous.

“In the olden days, going back to the Sixties and Seventies, you only used to be allowed so much hand wrap and tape. Now you have an unlimited amount of padding on the hand and an unlimited amount of tape; they’ve got big pads before they start bandaging. Gloves in the olden days were only six and eight ounces. Now they are eights and tens.

“In the olden days they used to use horsehair inside. When you hit somebody, you broke your hand before you broke their head. Now you’ve got polystyrene in them or whatever else they put in there, which means the impact on the head is far, far greater than it was in the old days.

“I manufacture my own gloves, so I know what they are like. You can knock a wall down before you hurt your hand. And that, for me, is one of the things affecting the rise in brain injuries. I think the time is coming when they need to look at it and say, ‘Hang on a minute, we’re getting a load of problems here that we shouldn’t be getting. What can we do to stop it?’”

This stance will doubtless confuse those who associate bigger gloves with safety and smaller gloves with danger but Goodall would be the first to stress that often it’s the length and repetitive nature of a beating that causes more long-lasting damage than the alternative: a violent but swift knockout.

“We can’t know that because we don’t have the statistics to show how many boxers were injured when the gloves were just horsehair,” said trainer Adam Booth, typically the first person Goodall will have assess his gloves during the manufacturing process. “Certainly, you can’t take as many shots with what is essentially a bare fist. I think the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) shows that quite well.

“The padding is directly related to the damage it can cause. The less padding, the closer you are to a bareknuckle fighter. But I don’t know whether the muffled thudding you’d get from a foam glove is going to cause more damage because of the amount of blows you are likely to take over a horsehair one, where the knuckle comes through. There’s no exact measurement for that. How many times was he hit? How hard was he being hit? Was he dehydrated? That’s going to be something very difficult to prove either way.

“I guess it could be a bit like the headguard thing. The headguards do more harm than good because they distribute the blow and you end up taking more thuds because they’re not hurting as much.”

In an ideal world, the argument concerning glove size would be redundant. In an ideal world, all gloves would be designed the same way and the distribution of weight would be the same.

However, in boxing, a sport as far from ideal as you can possibly get, we find that not only are gloves dissimilar – colour, size, shape – but that the weight is distributed differently from brand to brand. Some gloves, for instance, will pack the weight into the knuckle area of the glove, while others will choose to store the majority of the weight in the wrist part. This gives boxers the opportunity to select either so-called ‘puncher’s gloves’, that is, gloves with the bulk of the weight on the wrist rather than the knuckle, or gloves with a greater amount of padding, often the go-to for boxers prone to hand injuries.

Gary Lockett, a former world middleweight title challenger, was blighted by fragile hands during his own career and tended to use gloves with plenty of padding when working out in the gym and on fight night. Now an esteemed coach, he has encountered countless types of gloves and just as many types of hands and, like Goodall, has become concerned by a boxer’s ability to pack on the padding and protection.

“I think it’s something that maybe needs to be revised,” Lockett said. “If you look at the Grant and Fly gloves, they’re designed with a lot of the weight in the wrist. There’s only a minor amount of padding in the knuckle area. If you couple that with being able to use as much gauze as you want, as much padding in front of the knuckle, it all adds up to something very worrying, and the likelihood is you will break an opponent’s face and injure their brain before you ever break your hand.

“In the old days it was six-ounce horsehair gloves with only a certain amount of gauze. Then it becomes the flipside of the coin: you’re going to break the bones of your hand long before you injure the opponent’s brain or do damage to their face.”

Bigger gloves, so the argument goes, are making one-track bullies and machines of today’s boxers. They are allowing them to ignore the health of their hands to focus instead on marching forward and damaging their opponent with head shots. They are reducing the need to go to the body, where it is softer, where hands can be confident of sinking rather than breaking. They are reducing the need to think.

Perhaps, in light of this, bigger gloves are changing not only the strategy of a boxer but the very essence of the sport.

“Every time a tragedy happens, I immediately think about the gloves,” said Goodall. “They can hit so hard now. They fight less and train harder than they did in the olden days and it’s all about strength and power. In the olden days they didn’t have all these supplements and God knows what else to build muscle and make them hit harder and train more often.

“Boxing’s as dangerous as it’s been, which is why strict drug testing is so important. Some fighters are taking drugs and using these gloves and they are able to hit even harder and do even more damage.

“We need to get back to the skill of boxing but never will unfortunately because of the money involved and all the rest of it. Boxing should be about skill. It should not be about wanting to do as much damage as you can to someone.”

Though it feels strange correlating bigger gloves with increased long-term damage, when you compare the damage caused by gloves in boxing with the damage caused by four-ounce gloves in mixed martial arts, the argument has foundation. As Goodall rightly points out, “They (MMA) don’t have the problems with brain injuries that we have, do they?”

“I have thought about the mixed martial arts thing,” said Lockett, who trains mixed martial artists at his gym in Cardiff. “If you have very small gloves and very little gauze on your hands, when you crack someone on the head and hurt your hand the first time it’s really going to restrict you throwing the same shot next time. But with the slightly bigger gloves and extra padding maybe you don’t hurt your hand with the same shot in the first place.

“In the old days you were restricted from throwing purely power shots to the head because of the fear of hurting your hands. Or were they just tougher in those days? Were their hands tougher? Did they use certain training methods to strengthen their hands? I really don’t know.”

Whether bigger or smaller, and whether carrying their weight in the knuckle area or wrist area, there is a growing feeling that variety and freedom of choice isn’t always a good thing. Boxers, after all, can now pick the gloves to best suit their hands and strategy, something both a luxury and an obstacle in making a fight as fair as possible.

“For different fights I might choose different types of glove,” said Booth. “If my fighter is fighting someone who has got a hard head and it’s going to be a long fight, like a (David) Haye-(Giacobbe) Fragomeni, or Haye-(Jean-Marc) Mormeck, you always go foam. But if it’s a fight where you’ve got a tricky opponent and you’re not going to be landing a lot of shots you might go more horsehair because you want each one that lands to have as much effect as possible.

“If they’ve had problems with their hands you might go foam for protection. But if their hands are good and they’re not going to be landing many shots, or they might be looking to go to the body more, you might go horsehair.

“I agree, though, regulatory bodies or governing bodies should be a bit more specific about what they do and don’t permit. What’s it made of? What is the composition of the glove? What are the permitted materials?

“I have put on a brand-new horsehair glove, prodded it a few times with my thumb and realised you’ve almost got just a bit of leather between your knuckle and an opponent’s head. Whether they weigh eight or ten ounces, it’s almost like the olden day gloves with no padding in them. Now that is going to cause potential damage, especially to the eyes. But that’s not looked at.

“Before a world title fight, I removed the gloves of my fighter’s opponent from a sealed packet and it was obvious they had been manipulated and broken down. When I put my hand in the glove, my knuckle stood out and I could stroke it. I don’t think enough attention to detail goes into that.”

Robert Smith, the General Secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC), is one of the men responsible for the kind of gloves that can and can’t be used in British boxing rings. A former pro boxer himself, Smith has seen the evolution of gloves over the years, as well as the rise in manufacturers, but insists the testing procedure remains as stringent as ever.

“Anybody who wants to use gloves over here will contact us and then we find out what materials are used in the gloves and ask them to send us a couple of pairs of eight-ounce gloves and a couple of pairs of ten-ounce ones,” Smith explained. “When we get them, we weigh them to make sure they’re the right weight, and then we open a pair up and have a look inside at the material. If we’re happy with that, and we’re happy with the padding on the knuckle area, we’ll send another couple of pairs out to the gym for people to try and give us some feedback. Once we get the feedback, we decide whether to approve them or not.

“It’s quite amazing how many gloves that we weigh are not the right weight. If they’re under we won’t accept them. We send them back and tell them to try again.”

Smith remembers once approving a pair of gloves ahead of a fight only to then later spot the gloves at the weigh-in and realise they weren’t the ones he had approved. They were the same brand, of course, but looked and felt different to the ones Smith okayed. “The knuckle area wasn’t right,” he said, “so we pulled them for the fight and went back to the manufacturers and got it resolved.”

Also rejected were the Everlast MX gloves, which had to be rejigged into an MX2 glove to gain approval from the Board when it had earlier been made clear they weren’t happy with the amount of padding on the knuckle area.

“With some of the gloves we get sent there’s very little padding on the knuckle area at all, which does concern me,” said Smith. “There’s no British standard as such. Really, we set our own British standard but that doesn’t mean you can’t get away with that glove somewhere else in the world.”

It’s vital for the Board to be scrupulous with how they go about approving gloves but, equally, it behoves trainers to adopt a similarly thorough approach.

“There’s a brand of glove I had used a few times and one day we took them apart,” said Booth. “We opened three separate gloves from different pairs to see the shape and the composition and distribution.

“When we did, we discovered that each of them on the wrist part had a nappy. No one knows what’s going in these gloves. It’s a well-known brand, too, one recognised around the world.”

Before a hand even enters a glove, it must first be wrapped, taped and prepared. This happens backstage, usually an hour or two before a fight’s first bell, and will again introduce variety, in terms of technique and quantity of bandage, as a way of securing an advantage. Some coaches, when wrapping a boxer’s hand, will opt to use more bandage than others, whereas others, especially in years gone by, prefer to keep the process a swift one, employing minimal bandage, tape and fuss.

“If you look at the way all these so-called hand-wrappers wrap hands of fighters the amount of padding in front of the knuckle is absurd,” said Lockett. “But you can’t really call it absurd because you’re going to go with what you can get away with. If there was a restriction, if there was a board official telling you it is too much, there would be a rule in place, and you would have no option but to obey it.

“When there’s no rule to the amount of padding you can have on the knuckle, and you’ve got bad hands like I had, you’re going to take advantage of this and have as much padding on your knuckles as possible.

“Some people will think that having more padding on your knuckles is detrimental to you knocking someone out. But if you are a natural puncher, I don’t think it really makes a difference how much padding you have on your hands or what gloves you happen to be wearing. You’re always going to knock someone out. But it’s a very interesting point. Whether they start to look at it or not, I doubt it.”

In theory, a coach can use as much tape as they want so long as they stay an inch away from the metacarpophalangeal joint and it isn’t stacked (which means rather than layered – tape, bandage, tape, bandage, tape – it must be all bandage and then all tape).

“It’s funny,” said Booth, “you see so many kids after fights with the gloves off being interviewed and you can clearly see the tape has gone across the knuckles. They’re showing the world that they’ve been bandaged illegally.

“When you’re wrapping hands you want to try to protect the wrist a bit, the metacarpals, and the ligaments of that, the thumb and also the knuckle joint, or the metacarpophalangeal joint, which is where you have a pad, but not too much so you can still clench your fist. Getting a tight fist is going to offer more protection than anything else.

“If you look at fighters from the Seventies and Eighties, they had no knuckle pads on. It was just bandage and a little bit of tape to hold the bandage down.

“Ultimately, what’s going to protect your hands is your hands being hard and strong, so you condition them. But the overprotection of hands in training means they haven’t been conditioned to be hard and are therefore more susceptible to injury. There’s a fine line between conditioning a hand to harden it and injuring it.”

In his role at the Board, Smith has overseen plenty of boxers having their hands wrapped in changing rooms before fights and says he is often “amazed” by the amount of bandage and tape applied to a boxer’s fists. This, he feels, isn’t conducive to them being able to make a proper fist, or in any way advantageous, but confirms there is no limit to the amount of bandage and tape they can use.

Another thing that confuses Smith, and indeed Goodall, is the sight of a boxer’s trainer trying on gloves at the pre-fight rules meeting. Though the BBBofC encourage boxers to attend the rules meeting for this purpose, Smith reckons 90% of the time it is the trainer who carries out the duty of trying on the gloves, sans hand wraps, and in the end decides whether they are correct for their fighter or not. “But why?” said Goodall. “He’s not going to be the one f***king wearing the gloves in the fight, is he?”

Simpler times: Goodall recalls halcyon days when the British Boxing Board of Control provided the gloves for British title fights and would place them in the ring for both boxers ahead of a contest. He remembers a stool in the ring with a towel draped over it and he remembers the Lonsdale belt, if vacant, being there, and the boxers’ gloves being positioned either side of the stool. “Nice little spectacle,” he called it. “We made something of it.”

Yet this nice little spectacle stopped in the late-Eighties when, Goodall says, television networks preferred the image of boxers coming to the ring already gloved up and raring to go. They wanted all the action but none of the “other b*****ks”, a decision Goodall disliked but understood.

“When I boxed Lloyd Honeyghan (in 1985), the gloves were in the middle of the ring,” added Smith. “And sometimes I prefer that.

“One of the big issues we have now is the argument at weigh-ins or in dressing rooms regarding the gloves. In the old days you were given a pair of gloves and you just got on with it. When they presented the gloves in the ring, you had nowhere to go. You put them on, and you fought.

“By allowing all these different brands you no longer have that. Once upon a time the promoters supplied the gloves and that was it. The brand would usually have a deal with the promoter.

“Then Simon Block was General Secretary and the rule came in that for a major fight, or a championship fight, if we received a request from the promoter for different brands of gloves to be supplied to each boxer – one would wear Everlast, one would wear Grant, for example – we could approve it if we saw a reason to do so.

“But, to be honest with you, it’s a pain. You’re messing around with loads of different types of gloves and people will argue. They’ll have their bandages on and say they can’t make a fist. It can become a bit of a nightmare.”

The old saying ‘give an inch and they’ll take a mile’ is all well and good when applied to the development of, say, tennis rackets or footballs over the years. Yet when applied to the changes witnessed in boxing gloves, these tools used to hit heads of human beings, there’s a far greater need to not give too many inches because miles, in this instance, refer not to speed of serve but the severity of damage.

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