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What Is The Purpose Of MMA Gloves In The Sport

MMA gloves being used by fighters.

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When fists are flying inside the UFC octagon and all that lies between one fighter and another is a centimetre of padding. It often makes people wonder why that design. And what is the purpose of MMA gloves in the sport?

MMA gloves were designed out of necessity after some fighters began wearing similar bag gloves. The requirements of the sport determined the fingerless style in which they would be designed, with the UFC making them compulsory in 1997.

Before the introduction of gloves, it was a basic free for all. Some fighters used only their bare knuckles and one individual even choose to have a single boxing glove on one hand.

In its early years, the Ultimate Fighting Champions didn’t really know where it was going. As we have to remember that as yet there was no such sport as mixed martial arts.

That would come later when the rules and fighting styles became more developed. But with many people being seen as the first person to coin the phrase MMA, there’s really no clear winner.

As anyone who has been around the UFC for a long time will tell you. The MMA fighters who first graced the octagon were almost exclusively one-discipline athletes. Whether that was Karate guys, wrestlers, boxers or submission grapplers.

And it wasn’t until athletes like Georges St Pierre that we began to see the first true mixed martial artists come on the scene. No longer just wrestlers with hands, the sport had taken a giant leap forward.

But it was developments some years earlier which would determine the future road mixed martial arts would take. Either going off the rails or becoming one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.

Origins Of MMA Gloves

A pair of MMA glove lying on a table in a room.
Fingerless MMA gloves.

Gloves which are similar in their design to MMA gloves known as bag gloves first appeared in 1994 at UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors. When a little-known fighter by the name of Melton “The Punisher” Bowen wore some gloves during his match.

Competing against Steve Jennum, it was a fight which Bowen lost. But little did he realise he would be remembered as the very first fighter to ever wear gloves inside the UFC octagon.

But, he would not be the fighter with who the use of gloves has forever become associated. As that honour belongs to none other than infamous street brawler David “Tank” Abbott.

Tank was a well-known street fighter who was able to transfer the skills he knew from his over one hundred fights on the streets to success inside the octagon. But it was not just Abbott’s use of bag gloves to great effect which would inspire others in the growing sport to follow suit.

It was that fact that he had adopted the gloves, cutting off the sections which normally covered the fingers. So that if the fight went to the ground, he would still be able to use his wrestling skills.

And it was this adaptation that further down the line would play into how MMA gloves were designed for use in the UFC.

Why Use MMA Gloves

As Tank Abbott had shown, not only could you grapple while still wearing gloves. But you could also throw punches with more force and not have to worry as much about breaking your hand.

And so it was a win-win situation for UFC fighters who wanted to be able to strike without hurting their hands. So they were quick to jump on the bandwagon once they saw a string of knockouts by Tank who seemed to shine while using the added protection.

And while Abbott is aware that he was not the first fighter to use the gloves in the cage. He is very vocal about the fact that he was the original innovator in the UFC, who first inspired others to start using fingerless gloves.

And rightly or wrongly, amongst UFC fans themselves, it’s Abbott and not Bowen who is remembered as the guy who started the trend inside the cage.

UFC Mandates The Use Of Gloves

Tank Abbott wearing some 4oz MMA gloves.
Tanks Abbot wearing MMA gloves.

However, it wouldn’t be until 1997 at UFC 14: Showdown that the Ultimate Fighting Championships would officially mandate the use of MMA gloves. As they struggled to take the sport from cable to mainstream television.

The addition of gloves appeared to be the correct course of action to make this a reality. Helping to remove some of the bare-knuckle no holds barred aspects from the sport. Thereby making it more palatable to the authorities and a much wider television audience.

So with that what we know today as MMA gloves became the new normal. As the sport of mixed martial arts began to take hold around the world, so did the widespread use of gloves. Which can be directly traced back to this period in UFC history.

MMA Glove Design

An original type of glove style dates back to Shooto Japan. A promotion which predated the UFC and was already using a similar style of glove before the UFC came along.

But the glove required for athletes to compete in a sport such as MMA needed to be very different from almost any other. With fighters striking on the feet and also utilising grappling and submissions on the ground.

There needed to be a glove design which would allow the competitors to do all the above without hindrance. While at the same time offering a certain level of protection to those who were competing.

And so the modern-day MMA glove was born, with minimal padding and fingers allowed to move freely. They differed greatly from most other gloves used in combat sports. But a unique sport would require a unique glove.

The MMA Glove Padding

Unlike boxing gloves which can have anything from 10 oz up to 16 oz. MMA gloves range from 4 oz to 6 oz in professional competition, then amateur and training respectively.

And one of the key requirements for the gloves is that they would not obstruct or at least minimise the difficulty in securing submissions. So an excess in padding makes it difficult to sink in rear-naked chokes or the gloves get stuck during scrambles.

A much thinner 4 oz weight with a centimetre of firm padding seemed to be the ideal amount. And while it may appear that such a small glove would offer far less protection than say a boxing glove.

Big Country Roy Nelson MMA fighter.
Roy Nelson wearing UFC gloves.

Studies have shown that when tested alongside a standard boxing glove. MMA gloves offer just a fraction less overall protection than their much bulkier cousin. So a tradeoff for size vs usability seemed like a good deal.

Open Fingers Style Glove

And we cannot forget the open finger aspect of the glove first inspired by David Abbott. As any design would be required to allow fighters to grab and manipulate with their fingers.

The glove would have to be fingerless, so that when the fight went to the ground. The fighters would be able to fully use their hands in order to work their ground fighting and submission skills.

But this one aspect of the glove is something which has come back to haunt the sport time and time again. As while the design allows for grappling, it also allows for eye pokes.

Something which has now plagued MMA for many years due to fighters being able to fully stretch their fingers out straight. And an ongoing issue which yet has not been resolved.

While there is another style of the glove with a curved design that helped to point the fingers downwards. That has been used in Pride Fighting Championships, as well as more recently in Bellator Fighting Championships.

The UFC has yet to make the move to these types of gloves with many in the MMA community still not sure why. The general consensus, even amongst fighters was that they would indeed help in the fight against the dreaded eye poke.

In Conclusion

As I discussed, the purpose of MMA gloves in the sport was due to many competing factors. The UFC needed to go mainstream and one way to do that was to cut out some of the blood and guts reputations that overshadowed the sport.

Gloves not only helped the sport appear more professional. But they also helped to protect the fighters involved, while at the same time allowing them to freely compete.

Offering protection to the hands, while minimising the damage to the opponent’s face. But still giving them the ability to execute their submissions and wrestling ground game.

In a sport that was fading fast, their introduction did not come a minute too soon. So we, as fans, and the fighters who make a living should pay homage to the glove innovators and designers.

Who have helped mixed martial arts to continue growing into one of the most popular combat sports on the planet today. A long way from no holds barred, but still with more road left to travel. Long may it last!