The Skull Punches Back

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

A certain savagery and danger is intrinsic to fighting sport and cannot be removed without ruining it, Jonathan Gottschall (The Professor in the Cage) reminds us, but the current level of brain trauma is not intrinsic but is the result of a single, simple mistake:

In an honest attempt to make fighting safer, authorities introduced a single rule that made it enormously more perilous. This is a mistake that can, and should, be undone.


They added rounds, they added weight classes, and they banned many of the most dangerous techniques. The UFC also ended the practice of bare knuckle fighting, which was the primary symbol, in the public eye, of cage fighting’s irredeemable brutality. After all, when we say “the gloves are coming off”—as members of the U.S. government did after the terror attacks of 9-11—we mean that we are through playing nice, and we are reverting to a ruthless style of aggression. Strapping gloves on fighters was the UFC’s most visible indication that they were changing cage fighting from a red-toothed Darwinian struggle into a civilized, rule-bound sport which would henceforth be rebranded as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

In PR terms, adding padded gloves was a wise move, but as a safety measure it was a tragic mistake. In the 19th century, boxing made the same mistake. Exactly like the early UFC, bareknuckle boxing was under constant threat from authorities who hoped to—and often did—shut the fights down. In 1867, The Queensbury Rules introduced many reforms intended to make boxing safer, including the mandatory use of padded gloves. The rule seemed logical. After all, if you were going to be punched by a strong, scary man wouldn’t you prefer that he first strap a pillow to his knuckles?

Think twice. The bones of the skull are thick, heavy, and hard; the bones of the fist are small, fine, and fragile. When you punch a man’s skull bare-fisted, the skull punches back. But if you cast a man’s hand and wrist stiffly in tape, and then encase it in foam and leather, you turn the fragile fist into a brutal cudgel. A padded glove allows a fist to attack a brain without having to reckon with its formidable defenses. Gloved-up, fighters can attack the skull savagely and recklessly, with no fear of crippling themselves. If a bare-knuckle fighter threw punches like a gloved fighter, he’d reduce his hands to sleeves of broken bone.

Here’s the bottom line: padded gloves do make fighting sports safer—for the hands. But the consequence of making fighting safer for the hands is making it exponentially more dangerous to the brain. And how would you rather walk away from a fighting career: with gnarled, arthritic hands or with a brain ravaged by CTE?

It’s not that boxing in the bare knuckle era was safe. On the contrary, bare-knuckle fighting was extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. For example, referees didn’t stop fights no matter how lopsided, and there were no time limits—fights could stretch on for many hours in the heat of the day, with both fighters swilling down brandy like Gatorade, and with cornermen repeatedly rousing unconscious fighters and dragging them back into the fray (methods of waking an unconscious pugilist included blowing mouthfuls of brandy up his nose or biting through his ears). Of course, in the bareknuckle era, guys got knocked out. But it was usually because—after hours of scrapping and bleeding–they were too exhausted to rise for the bell, not because they sustained a sudden “lights-out” concussion.

In short, there was exactly one safe thing about fighting in the bare knuckle era, and that was the bareness of the knuckles. Padded gloves instantly turned boxing from a contest of grit and stamina (what the old-timers called “bottom”) into a test of a man’s ability to inflict and absorb brain damage. (It’s worth noting that a similar story has played out in America’s most beloved combat sport, football. Increasingly robust football helmets were introduced in an honest effort to civilize play. But because they encourage players to treat their heads like rams, helmets have been a neurological catastrophe for athletes. Stripped of heavy armor, the brutal smash-up derby of American football would quickly revert to a saner, rugby-like level of mayhem).

Of course, stripping off the gloves would come with costs as well as benefits. The costs might include more injuries to the eyes (ungloved knuckles tuck too nicely into eye sockets) and the hands. But when it comes to hand injuries, I think fighters would quickly learn which punches are more likely to K.O. the barefisted puncher than the punchee (a windmilling overhand right, for example). Bare-knuckle fighting requires a different arsenal of offensive and defensive techniques (for instance, in the bare knuckle era fighters threw hooks sparingly, and threw more punches to the padded torso). Stripped of their gloves, modern fighters would quickly rediscover the lost wisdom of bareknuckle fighting, and they would learn to treat their hands as their most fragile and important tools.

But the fans love knockouts.


  1. Adam says:

    I was familiar with the general point but never heard it captured as succinctly as in the phrase “the skull punches back.” I remember reading a profile of Muhammed Ali by Gary Wills in which Wills referred to the human hand as a “fragile birdcage of bones”.

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