May 7, 2021

Boxing News Investigates: Has the evolution of the boxing glove made the sport safer or more dangerous?

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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.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BOXING NEWS, February 13 2020 – Subscribe HERE

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