Blood On Our Hands

Ironically, rules to prevent blood from appearing on our hands, put blood on our hands.

Somewhere along the line, someone gave me the impression that boxing gloves made boxing safer. I learned to look down on ignorant ancestors or lowlifes who boxed with bare-knuckles. But in fact, we’ve known for a century that gloves make boxing far more dangerous:

The Marquess of Queensberry rules [requiring boxing gloves] took off not because society viewed the new sport as more civilised than the old, but because fights conducted under the new guidelines attracted more spectators. Audiences wanted to see repeated blows to the head and dramatic knockouts.

By contrast,… “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 … there wasn’t a single ring fatality.” Today, there are three or four every year in the US, and around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career. … A return to bare knuckles would be bloodier and less acceptable to mass television audiences, but one has to ask whether wheelchairs and life-support machines are any easier on one’s conscience.

Imagine proposing to your friends that they attend a bloody bare-knuckles fight, or mentioning to them that you had done so. I expect that for most folks, doing so would risk more social shame than for glove boxing. But why, if glove boxing is more dangerous?

Yes, perhaps most folks don’t know glove boxing hurts more, but how could such easily understood info of such wide relevance remain hidden for so long? It seems hard to escape the conclusion that we just don’t want to know.

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  • Scott

    Malcom Gladwell investigated and found out that American football is actually MORE DANGEROUS BECAUSE OF MORE PROTECTIVE HELMETS:

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  • rapscallion

    I don’t dispute that large modern gloves make things more dangerous, but when I first read the claim that there were no fatalities in 100 years, it sure sounded like BS and from what I can tell it is.

    I found the account of the death resulting from the Lilly and McCoy fight in 1842, for instance. It’s mentioned in footnote 24 of “THE MANLY SPORTS: THE PROBLEMATIC USE OF CRIMINAL LAW TO REGULATE
    SPORTS VIOLENCE,” which can be found here:

    If you google around you can find other references to that fight and other deaths in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from bare knuckle fighting.

    I’m sure the data is sparse on ring fatalities in the nineteenth century, but asserting that there were none at all plainly wrong.

    • luzhin

      it seems hard to escape the conclusion that Professor Hanson just didn’t want to know!

      or, more likely, Professor Hanson had other, more important things to do with his limited time and energy and this particular oversight is an unintended consequence of how he chose to spend his attentional resources.

      • I vote paragraph #2.

        But isn’t markedly lower proportion of fatalities about as impressive as zero? This reminds me of one of the more interesting underanalyzed individual and systemic biases: the attentional preference towards phenomena that are 100%.

    • The claim in the referenced article was: “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 with a John L Sullivan heavyweight championship fight, there wasn’t a single ring fatality.”

      So: was this 1797-1897, in a USA ring fight?

      • rapscallion

        Yup, that’s how I interpreted it. I say no way. Please see the fight I talk about above (it took place in Hastings, New York).

  • Aron

    I was under the belief that gloves were intended to protect the hands more than the face\head, allowing for a longer fight. Anyway, MMA gloves seem minimal.

  • I always suspected MMA was more logical a sport than is given credit. Did you know there was a period where they wouldn’t even air MMA on PPV? Porn? Yes. Boxing? Huge. MMA? Scandalous!

  • Mike

    Mixed martial arts fans remember when what is now known as UFC was called “human cockfighting.” Even though, like bare-knuckled boxing, large gloves were not used. Unlike in boxing, fighters who receive a mini-concussion (and thus are knocked down rather than out) are immediately TKO’ed – which is safer for the fighter.

  • Economics

    Don’t present that those of us who enjoy the Dionysian release of UCF are any worse than closeted homosexuals who wrap themselves in the robes of an intellectual.

  • Good to see Scott’s mention of American Football as an even more popular form of this kind of non-immediate permanent damage. Here’s another fascinating (-ly depressing) article on it:

  • Nick

    My granddad claimed one of his uncles got killed in a bare-knuckle boxing match in Kentucky. Who in the hell knows, though.

  • In an efficiency sense, this kind of thing bugs me, but I’ve really come to accept (OK, I’ve driven people to pulling my hair..) that regulations are based on not only cost/benefit, but also the push-pull of “We’re willing to accept this risk, and don;t think we’re doing anything wrong” vs “We find what you’re doing appalling, and morally wrong”, which results in a regulation that limits some aspect of the morally bad part without always getting to the part that might be morally questionable.

    I’d imagine something could be tossed in about black swans and usable life years, but most people don’t do such calculated thinking, and to be fair, that info often represents educated guesses anyway. So, perhaps doing it by what makes both sides feel fairly treated, maintaining the law’s sense of legitimacy, therefore keeping society together is the only real way to do this kind of thing anyway.

    Then again, I could just be throwing up my arms in abject acceptance…

  • Mark Jeffcoat

    Boxing gloves are indeed intended to protect the punchers hand rather than the opponent’s head — this means that boxers can punch harder than they otherwise would, if they were more worried about breaking their own fingers. Skulls are quite hard.

    (I have been told that brain damage in boxing is more the fault of the “standing eight count” than anything else, that it’s the trauma after the first major insult that does permanent harm; MMA avoids it since fights tend to end very quickly after one fighter is knocked senseless. I can’t put my hands on a good reference, though.)

  • Killian

    Yes, the inherent difficulty of society; with metropolis comes genocide, massive love brings massive war, no bad without good. It seems like every time we try to improve, that improvement brings a dark side.

  • As has already been stated, gloves are for protecting the hand, not the head.

    I’m not inherently opposed to less dangerous forms of fighting sports, just as I’m not opposed to more dangerous forms of fighting sports. For example, I’d be perfectly happy for the original UFC rules to come back (prior to…approx 10-15 it was pretty brutal).

    The answer is of course to get the government out of such matters and allow people to make their own choices. The lame individuals can follow the ‘AMA approved rules’ of poking each other in the chest with feather dusters.

    The men of this world can embrace what it truly means to live and fight properly.

    Everyone wins except for the fascists.

  • In Limine

    Apparently, people also die in MMA.

  • Nick

    Imagine proposing to your friends that they attend a bloody bare-knuckles fight, or mentioning to them that you had done so. I expect that for most folks, doing so would risk more social shame than for glove boxing.

    Maybe if you didn’t explain to them that it was safer. Speaking from personal experience, I find that people’s yuck feeling about MMA all but disappears when you present them with evidence that it is safer than boxing. And that’s pretty similar to telling your uninitiated friends that you attended a bloody bare-knuckles fight.

  • Kevin Dick

    Being a regular practioner of MMA training, I’d say almost all significant rules in boxing are optimized to make the limiting factor brain injury. Padded gloves to protect the hands, standing 8 count, and non-clinching are all designed to insure that the participants can hit each other until one of their brains simply can’t take any more punishment.

    @burger flipper. You’re wrong about going to the ground increasing the risk. Going the ground actually increases the relative effectiveness of grappling vs striking. Moreover, even in a full mount, your punches are substantially weaker on the ground. Your legs aren’t firmly anchored to the floor so the leg muscles are generating only a small proportion of the force–and that’s where most of the power comes from normally.

    Yes, there is a moment of danger if you’re caught with a stunning blow standing and then your opponent rains down more as you go down. But referees are very aggressive at stopping matches when this happens. And I’d say it’s a good tradeoff vs taking round after round of punches to the head.

    • burger flipper

      your point does seem plausible, especially given how often we see fully mounted fighters have a difficult time finishing their opponent from the position. e.g. Carwin punching himself out last night but not knocking out Lesnar.

      I guess the most brutal-looking shots are when one fighter dazes (or knocks out) his opponent and hits him with another flying coup de grace on the ground for good measure:

      • Kevin Dick

        Like I said, there’s that moment of danger. But, look at Henderson’s body position when he hits Bisping the second time. He’s completely in the air! There’s nothing for his body to push against to generate force and you can see the speed of the punch isn’t very high. That punch wasn’t nearly as damaging as a clean hook coming through in boxing after a stunning cross or uppercut.

        Now, the first punch when his legs started from a firm anchor and his hand hit peak speed right at the moment of contact? That one makes me cringe.

      • Jboxer

        Very true, although MMA looks more brutal, the fact that fighters don’t usually recover from being stunned or knocked down means they don’t get punch drunk and don’t take as much punishment. Although I’m not a fan of that last punch that always bounces the guy’s head on the mat.

  • Surely this is an easy case of impressions vs. reality. The skin on the face is thin and close to the bone; it bleeds easily. Any layman can tell that a guy who is bleeding is “hurt” in some sense, since that doesn’t happen much in everyday life. It is “brutal” to have humans enter contests where they regularly shed blood.

    The long-term brain damage is not at all visible during the fight. At a quick glance, it’s trivial for a layman to look at a fight with a lot of blood, and say “that was too violent!”, and then look at a fight with brain damage but no bleeding, and decide that it looks “safer”.

    It takes careful study to realize that these first impressions are incorrect. (Although, of course, it’s been well-known for a century.)

  • lenoxus

    Personally, I’ve always found boxing (with or without gloves) to be much more “ick” to think about, in terms of “that’s gotta hurt”, than wrestling. In my corner of the US, high schools have wrestling teams but (unsurprisingly) not boxing teams.

    (“Professional wrestling”, of course, is another matter altogether. I generally enjoy watching it the least despite it being the safest of them all, simply because of the degree of violence which is simulated. Sometimes, though, I suspend disbelief enough to enjoy it ironically.)

    The very fact that boxing is directly focused on knocking people out contributes to that ick, for me. At least violent sports like hockey and rugby are ostensibly about a puck or ball, with any intentional injuries being punished…

    • prisen

      “Professional wrestling”, while simulated, is probably (a lot) worse for the performers than boxing. When big men throw each other around there is still impact, and unlike boxers who fight once every few months, wrestlers often perform several times a week.

    • Avoen Perryman

      I’d just like to say that boxing is not directly focused on knocking people out. The objective in boxing is to win a bout by scoring more points than your opponent, both under the amateur and professional scoring systems. Knock outs actually occur quite rarely because fights are usually stopped via a Technical knock out, retirement, or medical retirement before most boxers are allowed to be actually KO’d. You would also be hard-pressed to find a boxing coach or boxer that will say that their primary goal is to knock people out during a bout.

      • Jboxer

        I’d say the opposite. The most sure way to win is via KO. You’d be hard pressed to find a coach or boxer not looking for the clearest way to victory. Make no mistake, people love KO artists and are bored by more technical fighters.

  • Microbiologist

    Since this post doesn’t have any information on debilitation due to bare-knuckle, anyone can see that the premise that bare-knuckle is safer is totally unsupported..

  • DS

    Don’t the gloves “protect” the head at least in as much it (I guess) represents a smaller pressure-per-inch? Intuitively, hammering something or someone with a hammer on a light glove will cause more damage than putting a hammer within a boxing glove.

    I’ve heard of people having bones of their head or face broken with MMA lighter gloves, but not with boxing — however, I’m not into the whole thing at all, so it could well be more common with boxing gloves.

    To add something more substantial to the discussion:

    No holds barred sport fighting: a 10 year review of mixed martial arts competition
    G J Buse
    Correspondence to: Dr Buse Cannon USAF Clinics, Aerospace/Preventive Medicine, Clovis, NM 88103, USA;
    Accepted 5 September 2005


    Objective: To identify the most salient medical issues that may be associated with mixed martial arts competition by determining the types and proportions of match stoppages.

    Methods: Publicly available video footage of 1284 men competing in 642 consecutive televised matches from November 1993 to November 2003 was reviewed to determine the reasons for which matches were stopped. Matches were sanctioned by either a United States or Japan based mixed martial arts organisation.

    Results: Of the 642 matches, 182 (28.3±3.4%) were stopped because of head impact, 106 (16.5±2.9%) because of musculoskeletal stress, 91 (14.1±2.7%) because of neck choke, 83 (12.9±2.6%) because of miscellaneous trauma, 173 (27.0±3.4%) because of expiration of match time, and seven (1.0±0.8%) because of disqualification, where the values in parentheses are percentages±95% confidence interval.

    Conclusions: Blunt force to the head resulted in the highest proportion of match stoppages. Further research is warranted to delineate the morbidity associated with participation in mixed martial arts.

  • the dude

    gloves, besides protecting the knuckles thus allowing for harder punches and with heavier weight than without, also offer good protection in a fight. much easier to block with gloves, so the net effect is not quite clear to me.

  • MikeMcK

    Also isn’t it obvious that the median modern boxer is going to be stronger than the bareknuckle fighters of 100+ years ago? I don’t know much about boxing, but I do know modern training and nutrition advances have vastly changed most sports. Wouldn’t this also be true of boxing? And isn’t it reasonable to expect that stronger fighters would punch harder and cause more brain damage?

    Like I said, I don’t know anything about boxing, but there has to be a time component to this as well.

    Of course, maybe this is offset advances in medicine?

  • Bareknuckles fights were short of action since so few punches were thrown. Many rounds would end without a punch thrown. Championship fights could go on for hundreds of rounds. Boxers wouldn’t throw a punch unless they were likely to win on a knockout since they often broke their hand on their opponent’s skull.

    Padded gloves vastly increased the action and led to the golden age of boxing.

  • Jack (LW)

    It seems to me the most plausible explanation for why people think gloves make boxing safer is that are basically small pillows placed on the hands and people think that the cushion will make the punches softer but miss the fact the cushioning enables repeated headshots.

    I wish you would stop trying to fit facts into your Homo Hypocritus narrative. Sometimes people just believe wrong things without thinking about it.

  • Lyle Kossis

    “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States, which terminated around 1897 … there wasn’t a single ring fatality.” Today, there are three or four every year in the US, and around 15 per cent of professional fighters suffer some form of permanent brain damage during their career.

    How do we know that the increased level of fatalities isn’t due to enhanced training techniques, or the use of steroids?

  • Gloves are not the problem; wrapped hands are. MMA fighters are just as free to punch each other in the skull as boxers are due to layers of supporting tape applied to the hands before the fights. Chuck Liddell is already suffering from a nasty case of dementia pugilistica, and many others are sure to follow.

    The absurd and dangerous application of boxing rules to MMA is the result of lobbying by the boxing industry. The subsequent interference of politicians (such as John McCain) and athletic commissions nearly destroyed the original sport (NHB), which was then conquered and remade in boxing’s corrupt image.

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  • Just a quick addition. the standing 8 count is no longer used in the USA for boxing, or at least it shouldn’t be used (it’s been outlawed).

    There are cases of deaths in the ring of bare knuckle fighters, in both the US and the UK, though does it need to be “in the ring”? Most deaths from boxing injuries aren’t deaths “in the ring” but from injuries in the ring? (sorry just picking on a technicality thats been mentioned in the comments.

    Also I seem to feel, that deaths in boxing in recent years owe a lot to artificial weights and dehydration, not something that used to occur to the same extent in the past.

  • Kint Verbal

    Really… safer without? I think people did not know how to hit. Risk to injure my hands? Well, I’d hit a softer area – and have more precision without the gloves. Say, the throat. A single punch to the throat can 
    easily kill, so… safer without gloves? nah. I get the brain injury angle, though, that makes sense.

  • Avoen Perryman

    Interesting discussion and an enjoyable article, but this subject is far beyond the nature of this online forum and requires in-depth research for a fair and accurate analysis. I’m a criminologist and am currentlyccompleting my PhD looking at the commodification of modern bare knuckle boxing. I can say that from my experience of being a boxing coach and boxer for the past 11 years, and a spectator of bare knuckle boxing in my research, that gloved boxing is probably more likely to produce long term brain damage, but less likely to cause short term, bloody and visible injuries such as broken noses and hands, which are fairly common in bare knuckle boxing. However, these short term injuries can lead to long term damage such as arthritis and weakened bones or joints. Also, I should just like to say that there were a number of recorded deaths in bare knuckle boxing between 1797 and 1897, and I’ll be sure to give the references for the sources of where these deaths are recorded in my next post.