In modern day combat sports, whether the rules are to knock out one’s opponent or to out score him/her by gaining points, it has become mandatory in most, if not all such disciplines for competing athletes to be equipped with gloves.
Why do martial artists wear gloves? There is a possibility that readers will roll their eyes at the mere question, as to most the answer may appear to be glaringly obvious. The consensus is that martial artists wear gloves to protect their hands from cuts, bruises, fractures and breaks, and to assure a general measure of safety while sparring.
More Dangerous than Bare-Knuckle Boxing?
Despite gloves being considered a protective measure, there are those who argue that their introduction to full contact martial arts may have made combat more dangerous, as padding the hand allows fighters to hit as hard as possible without being concerned with injuring themselves. As a result, amateur and professional boxers often use rapid punches to the head at full force within three minute rounds as a winning tactic.
While the bone on bone impact of bare knuckle fighting may be riskier in terms of the fighters receiving broken bones to the hands and face, it is argued that the acceleration of a powerful punch combined with the blunt force of the glove is just as harmful to the brain which is where the most irreparable damage can happen.
Despite these arguments gloves are mandatory throughout most combat sports today. In this blog, I will give a short history of the use of gloves in combat sports, and briefly describe some common gloves used in various styles of full and semi contact martial arts.
COMBAT GLOVES IN ANTIQUITY
Who wore the first gloves in combat? I honestly don’t know, but based on available information relating to ancient literature and modern archaeology, it is accepted that combat sports existed in many civilizations before the common era. Among the ancient societies, the Aegean civilizations of the Bronze age such as Minoan and later Mycenian Greek civilization stand out because of surviving artwork, epics, and other sources describing popular recreation and cultural activities such as boxing and wrestling.
Classical sources describe thin, narrow strips of ox hide plaited together and wrapped around the hand leaving the fingers bare. These early gloves or “Himantes” were used during early Greek boxing competitions, and are said to have been more of a protection for the fists and not a measure to soften the impact of the punches.
With time, these early boxing gloves changed, and by the 3rd century BC, the rise of the gladiatorial games in the rising Roman Republic and later Roman Empire made the Roman equivalent of the boxing glove (Cestus) an important tool of the gladiator.
The design of the cestus was inspired by the ancient Greek boxing gloves but ran the length of the arm and was typically modified by having sharp objects or metal plates mounted to the fists, in order to cause maximum damage. It should be noted that Roman boxing more often than not ended with the death of an opponent.
For well over a thousand years, the Roman Empire influenced the culture of the western world, and after it’s collapse in the 5th century AD, pugilistic sports seemed to have declined. This decline continued throughout the middle ages. Some scholars theorize that pugilistic contests may have been held among the serfs and villeins of medieval Europe, but were disregarded and perhaps even frowned upon by the upper class and because of this did not receive significant recognition and financial backing in order to gain traction and evolve into organized sports.
Despite the decline in unarmed combat sports during the middle ages, it is worth noting that various folk practices such as wrestling may most likely have persisted throughout parts of Europe, and that unarmed combat did not completely disappear as it was still a staple of military training during this time.
Some late medieval treatises such as the “Codex Wallerstein” detail unarmed methods of fighting for the battlefield such as grappling. These methods of combat would most likely have been practiced by both lightly and heavily armored soldiers, who were equipped with gloves and gauntlets.
BOXING GLOVES FROM THE 18th CENTURY TO TODAY
Most regard the prize fights of 17th century England as the reemergence of the sport of boxing in the western world. Prizefighting was a spectator sport which attracted the middle and upper class. Fights were fought bare knuckled and had no codified rules. Wrestling was permitted and therefore it was not uncommon for fights to devolve to scuffles on the ground. Headbutting, eye gouging and hitting a downed opponent were all common tactics used in order to win a bout.
By 1743, a prizefighting champion named Jack Broughton introduced written rules after unintentionally killing an opponent. Broughton’s rules aimed at creating a more humane sport, and as part of this effort, he also created early versions of modern day boxing gloves called “mufflers” which were to be used for training and exhibition matches.
These mufflers devised by Broughton were said to have been somewhat modeled after the ancient Roman cestus, with all potentially lethal attributes such as fitted blades and metal plates omitted. Mufflers were also padded with softer material than traditionally used by the ancient Greek and Roman boxers, and were said to have the appearance of oversize padded gloves.
In an effort to further refine the sport of boxing, new rules continued to be drafted and by 1892, the Marquis of Queensbury Rules had become the official code under which all boxing matches were governed. Under Queensbury rules it became mandatory for boxing gloves to be used in all boxing matches. At this time, boxing gloves appeared to be smaller and tighter leather versions of what is used today.
Modern Boxing Gloves
Boxing gloves have changed since the 1800s, and today there are a variety of brands, all with specific features. Some gloves may be utilized for both training and competition, while others are made specifically for either training or competition. Modern gloves are measured in ounces and can weigh from 10oz to 20oz.
Heavier gloves provide more resistance and conversely lighter gloves are less resistant allowing more punching speed. To a boxer, the total weight of each glove and the degree of padding on specific sections of a pair of gloves are all deciding factors on whether the pair should be used for light bag work, heavy bag work, light sparring, or competitive boxing.
Today, there are many competitive fighting styles which originate from different regions of the world. Some of these styles emerged from traditional forms of fighting in their respective regions, but were eventually systematized into sports during the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is evident that Boxing as developed in Great Britain played an influential roll in the development of some of these sports even if to the smallest degree. Clear evidence of this is the fact that Muy Thai from Thailand, Sanda from China, Savate from France, Japanese Shoot boxing, and American kickboxing all use versions of the modern boxing glove today.
SEMI CONTACT GLOVES IN KUMITE
Around the time that the sport of boxing was evolving in Europe and the Americas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, martial artists in the country of Okinawa were making a concerted effort to transmit their knowledge of martial arts to the younger generation.
Part of this effort was teaching martial arts to children in elementary schools. During this period, the main evolving Okinawan striking art was a synthesis of traditional Ryukiuan fighting arts and Chinese martial arts specifically from the Fujian Province. The practitioners referred to their martial art as Karate which at the time could be loosely translated to “martial art from China”
Introducing Karate into the education system in Okinawa would eventually create some of the most well-known and influential teachers of the art such as Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Shinpan Gusukuma. These three teachers were among a group of Okinawan karatekas (practitioners of Karate) who would then bring Karate to mainland Japan and into the Japanese education system.
Initially, most Karate teachers from Okinawa frowned upon promoting the free fighting aspect of Karate as a sport. For these older teachers the discipline was for self perfection, and if necessary self-preservation but never for competition, however, by the 1920s Karate had become popular in Japan and as a result was adopted by a society in which martial arts from the feudal era were being transformed to competitive arts with sport like conduct.
Judo, western Boxing, and Kendo were popular contact sports at this time and upon Karate’s introduction, features such as point sparring were adopted from these other established martial arts.
In Okinawan Karate, the word Kumite or “grappling hands” referred to attacking and counter attacking drills performed by two opponents, but as the martial art changed, Kumite became associated with free fighting. Today there are many regional and International governing bodies responsible for Karate as a sport, and within competitions hosted by these governing bodies, Kumite is more often than not an integral part of competition.
Many styles of karate practice semi contact point sparring in training and competition. In semi contact point sparring, the competitors are well padded and wear distinctive semi contact open palm gloves. These gloves are usually made of polyurethane foam and are lighter and more flexible than standard boxing gloves which are made of vinyl or leather.
The objective in semi contact sparring is not necessarily to knock out or stun your opponent but to win by accumulated points via controlled strikes to certain parts of the body. These matches are different from full contact karate matches which by contrast promotes strikes at full force, and most times with the exception of groin cups and mouth guards, little to no protection is used.
THE RISE IN POPULARITY OF OPEN FINGER GLOVES
While semi contact gloves or “Karate mitts” are often associated with point sparring, open fingered gloves or “MMA gloves” are more commonly used in full contact combat sports which typically involve heavy striking and/or grappling such as MMA, Brazilian Jiujutsu, Vale Tudo, Catch wrestling, full contact Karate, World Taekwondo sanctioned matches, Sambo, Kudo, and full contact Lei Tai fighting.
Open finger gloves are smaller than boxing gloves and are designed so that the wearer can effectively use his/her fingers while fighting. These gloves are generally made of either pure leather or synthetic leather and may weigh from 4 to 6oz and in some cases slightly heavier depending on the make and purpose. Open finger gloves are usually classified into three main types:
- GRAPPLING GLOVES
Grappling gloves allow easy finger movement, they tend to be lighter and less padded than other open finger gloves. Any padding may cover the third knuckle. While these gloves are pliable and useful for grappling and working within the clinch while sparring, they are not used in professional fights very often because of the lack of protection offered when striking.
2. SPARRING GLOVES
In contrast to grappling gloves, sparring gloves offer added padding for the knuckles, and a grip bar for the hands, thus offering protection to the fist when striking. Because of the padding, sparring gloves are naturally heavier than grappling gloves.
3. COMPETITION GLOVES
Competition gloves are a general name for open finger gloves used to compete in mixed martial arts competitions. The gloves used at a professional level may not necessarily be as heavily padded as sparring gloves, they generally weigh 4oz while amateurs are usually equipped with heavier padded gloves which weigh 6oz. Competition gloves are similar to grappling gloves in that they allow easy movement of fingers. Some gloves are made with wrist straps which secure the gloves to the arms of the wearer. For added protection, competition gloves are usually worn over hand wraps.
Many credit the 1973 Bruce lee film “Enter the Dragon” with popularizing kempo gloves and inspiring the development and use of finger less gloves in combat sports today. Despite this recognition, the use of Kempo gloves did not begin with the Bruce Lee film, but can be traced back to full-contact armored sparring (Bogu Kumite) in Okinawan martial arts and by extension Japanese martial arts, In which armored karatekas sparred at full force.
In Bogu Kumite, kendo armor ( Bōgu) was originally used as the protective helmet, chest guard, shin guards and gloves. Kendo gloves are not open finger gloves, however they do effectively provide padding to the knuckles, hands, and forearms, and it is highly probable that over time this template was used and modified to suit empty hand sparring, eventually giving birth to the “broken knuckled Kempo gloves” which were popularized in the 1970s.
In 1985, Japanese professional wreslter Satoru Sayama created a promotion called “Shooto”. Sayama was a student of the legendary German shoot-style wrestler Karl Gotch, and was himself an accomplished grappler who excelled in various professional wrestling promotions mostly under the moniker of “Tiger mask”. Upon his initial retirement from professional wrestling, Sayama sought to create a training curriculum which produced well-rounded fighters, and showcased their skills via realistic full contact sport.
Today, there are arguments as to whether the early incarnation of Sayama’s promotion was indeed mixed martial arts. Many go back and forth on the subject, and some “MMA purist” site the difference in structure and rules from North American MMA as key reasons why Shooto was not the forerunner to the later mixed martial arts boom despite predating UFC 1 (1993).
Whether MMA or not, Shooto did contain elements which would go on to be present in later mixed martial arts promotions both in Asia and North America. One of these common elements was the use of the open finger glove.
The fists of the open finger gloves used in shooto were more padded than the modern MMA glove, and because of this, finger mobility was considerably restricted. Despite this difference, Shooto was the first promotion to require that fighters wear open finger gloves, a standard that would not be adopted in the North American MMA scene until UFC14 (1997).
I could not possibly cover the entire history of martial arts gloves in one blog. Combat and combat sports are possibly as old as human civilization. Among the myriad cultures spanning the globe, there are numerous classical and modern traditions both discovered and yet to be discovered by the rest of the world. The information that I have presented here is based on the little knowledge that I have acquired through reading, speaking to informed persons and gathering information over time through having an interest in the subject. As always I encourage any input in the form of constructive comments, corrections and/or criticisms as I am open to learning more on the subject.