Why do MMA fighters wear gloves?

MMA fighters haven't always had to wear 4oz gloves. But, there are several reasons they became standard.

By: Case Harts | 2 months ago

UFC 14 was the first time the UFC officially made fighters wear gloves, but it wasn’t the first time they had been seen inside the Octagon. Surprising to many, though, it’s not Tank Abbott who was the first to wear them in the UFC.

In modern MMA, with rare exception, commissions and regulating bodies require fighters to wear four ounce gloves when they compete. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually protect an opponent’s face much—except possibly from cuts. The true purpose is to protect fighters’ hands. Fight without set of gloves on and people quickly find out that punching someone in the head is more likely to break a hand than a face. Even with gloves fighters end up with broken wrists and broken hands all the time. There’s a long history of fighters that had to retire because repetitive hand injuries.

The first MMA fighters to wear gloves in the Octagon

The first time a fighter actually got in the Octagon wearing some approximation of modern MMA gloves UFC 4. It was former professional boxer Melton Bowen. But while he was the first allowed to walk into the cage wearing gloves, but he wasn’t the first to try. That was Felix Mitchell at UFC 3. Unfortunately for Mitchell referee Big John McCarthy, controversially told the fighter to leave the gloves outside the cage. Mitchell lost his debut to OG MMA legend Ken Shamrock.

“…American flag on his yellow trunks, preparing to take Felix Lee Mitchell, who I think is electing to take off his gloves. He’s electing to take off his gloves to take on Ken Shamrock.”

It was totally optional for fighters to wear any kind of gloves until UFC 14. Tank Abbott popularized wearing MMA gloves, even though most of his career came after them being legalized, due to his sudden rise as a fan favorite in the wake of Royce Gracie’s exit from the promotion.

The reason Tank Abbott wore gloves in the early UFCs has a lot to do with why fighters wear them today: Instead of trying to protect his face, Tank Abbott wore them to protect his hands as he cemented himself as a one-punch knockout artist. Abbott modified bag gloves to somewhat resemble what would become MMA gloves later, allowing him to protect his knuckles while still wrestling and grappling.

UFC safety regulations mandated and popularized gloves

MMA gloves became mandatory in 1997, as the UFC looked to pivot toward regulation and safety in an attempt to stem the growing backlash against NHB fighting. Gloves had to be regulated and approved by the UFC, among other safety equipment. This is where MMA also got mouth guards and cups and more rules about legal strikes.

Before that fighters weren’t required to wear any safety equipment. To standardize regulation, the UFC required that MMA gloves starting in UFC 14 would have to be between four and six ounces. This was a critical turning point in how the sport was perceived and practiced, since wearing any kind of wraps or gloves can have a significant impact on effective grappling, even with the fingers free.

MMA gloves originated from competitive martial arts

While generally speaking, the UFC popularized the use of gloves like this, they are not the first proto MMA organization to adopt them. Japan’s MMA organization Shooto, which still operates today, goes back as far as 1989 in enforcing the use of MMA-like gloves, likely as a carryover from traditional martial arts like karate, kenpo, and taekwondo.

Fans familiar with competitive versions of all of these martial arts know that they tend to have light, sparring gloves as a standard part of competitive attire. In early MMA, traditional martial artists had a lot of representation. During the early years of MMA, traditional martial artists probably brought these over and influenced early MMA fighters with said gloves.

Bruce Lee and martial arts pop culture

It’s also worth noting that Bruce Lee has heavily influenced early MMA, just as he influenced pop culture. In his movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee can be seen sporting Kenpo-style combat gloves that resemble MMA gloves.

To this day, people still debate on whether Bruce Lee could beat Conor McGregor. (He couldn’t.) Bruce Lee’s influence was profound, perhaps some of the early insistance on gloves in mixed rules martial arts bouts can be attributed to his popularity.

Japanese MMA paved the way

Shooto, the Japanese MMA organization, and early Japanese MMA influenced a lot of MMA as we see it today, with their interest in formal organization and rules, and their willingness to experiment with new combat sports ideas. Alongside Pancrase and their interest in creating a more natural fight-focused pro wrestling style, we saw the evolution of PRIDE, K1 and other late-90s, early 2000s MMA offshoots.

All told, gloves have a practical application in MMA to allow fighters to compete more regularly and avoid injury. They can help prevent cuts and allow fighters to punch with more force without busting their hands. But their origins around the world as a requirement seem to come from many sources. Some stylistic, some just for look and show, and some to appease lawmakers.

Share this story

About the author
Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories