Although the mandatory use of gloves in Mixed Martial Arts was one step which helped bring the sport from its ‘human-cockfighting‘ stigma into greater mainstream acceptance, this requirement likely increased the incidence of brain trauma for the sport’s participants.
Gloves protect fighters’ fists from injuries and reduce superficial cuts to opponents but do little to protect an opponent from brain injury. Given the greater understanding of the long term harm that accompanies head trauma, I decided to look at objective evidence of the greater rate of knockouts from punches in MMA with the addition of gloves. In short, the knockout rate from punches increased from 1% to 10% after gloves became mandatory for the sport. While I appreciate that correlation does not always prove causation this is, at the very least, a compelling statistic.
I reviewed the official results from the numbered UFC events from UFC 1 to UFC 50 as reported on Wikipedia. Where only a KO was noted with no accompanying information as to the cause of the KO, I reviewed the bouts to determine if the KO was from punches or other strikes. In the early tournament format UFC’s I excluded any alternate bouts as video footage was not readily accessible to review any ambiguously reported knockouts. TKO stoppages were not included in this study.
Gloves became a required part of the sport at UFC 14. For this reason the study broke these events down into two categories, the events from 1-13, and 14-50. In the first 13 events a total of 101 bouts occurred. Of these only 4 knockouts by punches were noted. However, 3 of these occurred with the winner wearing gloves. The only bout with a knockout stoppage noted from punches with the winner not wearing gloves occurred at UFC 3 with Harold Howard defeating Roland Payne with a KO at the 0:46 mark.
This leaves a margin of one glove-less knockout via punches out of 98 bouts, a frequency of about 1%.
Moving on to UFC 14 – UFC 50 the data reveals a total of 279 bouts. Of these 27 ended via knockout noted by punches. This is a total of approximately 10%, a tenfold increase in the rate of KO by punches.
Removing gloves from MMA will increase the rate of fractured hands and superficial lacerations to competitors. “Bare knuckle” fighting is also likely to be met with resistance by government regulators so the likelihood of the removal of gloves from the sport is slim. That said, the above shows that the removal of gloves from the sport can reduce head trauma. If government and MMA stakeholders review the rules of the sport with brain injury in mind the data is fairly clear that gloves protect the hands, not the brain.