Bare-Knuckles, Blades And Broughton: The Evolution Of The Boxing Glove

It was on this day in 1818 that gloves officially entered the boxing ring
16:00, 08 Oct 2020

From oxhide to metal, hemp rope to horse hair, it’s fair to say those shiny, top-of-the-line gloves that we know and see today have come a fair way since Homer (no, not the yellow one) first documented the sport of boxing in Ancient Greece, almost 3,000 years ago in the Iliad.

Worn by all the greats, Ali to Sugar Ray, Tyson and Mayweather, and by those who never reached such heights but made the fight game their life game. A boxer and their gloves go, well, hand in hand. You don’t get one without the other two.

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Or in the words of Marvelous Marvin Hagler, “If they cut my bald head open, they will find one big boxing glove. That’s all I am. I live it.”

October 8th marks a significant milestone in the evolution of the humble boxing glove. On this day in 1818 came the first recorded incident of gloves being used in a competitive fight. And it just so happened to be between two unnamed English boxers, at Aix-la-Chapelle in France. A French newspaper reported, ‘The two champions were built like Hercules...they entered the ring with their hands guarded with huge padded gloves.’

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To discover how this moment happened, we need to take it back. All the way to Homer (still not the yellow one) and the Ancient Greeks. They were famous for their democracy, philosophy and medicine, but the boxing glove wasn’t there to protect a fighter from any permanent damage to the face or brain (even a medical marvel like Hippocrates would have probably laughed off CTE in 380 B.C.). Oh no, it was created to make life at the amphitheatre more thrilling for the eager pundits. The pugilists of the time, like Onomastus of Smyrna, the first recorded Olympic boxing champion, beat their opponents without mercy using strips of oxhide wrapped around their hands and fingers, known as himantes, tearing through and splitting open flesh with tremendous ease.

It sounds pretty nasty but worse was to come. The Romans took it to the next level, like they always did. Enter the ‘cestas’, a glove made from metal plates, blades and studs. This knuckle duster on steroids went down to the wearer’s elbow, allowing them to parry blows as well as throw them. The only problem? The fights rarely lasted more than one blow - this was a Russell Crowe in Gladiator turning a barbarian’s head into a cloud of red mist at the Coliseum kind of violence.

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Then, almost as quickly as it had risen to the top, engulfing much of the planet in the process, the Roman Empire came to a swift end. With the dawn of the Middle Ages came the presumed disappearance of boxing in Europe. 

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It’s tough to pinpoint how the boxing glove became the thing we know today from the barbaric bladed gauntlets of Rome because during the Middle Ages, otherwise known quite aptly as the Dark Ages, there are very few recorded historical documents. It means that while boxing almost certainly existed during those dark days in Europe in some shape or form, we’ve got no evidence to prove it.

But what we do know is that the most significant change to the boxing glove came in 1743. Significant in the fact that it was probably the first time anyone had designed a pair of gloves with the aim of making the sport somewhat safer. Jack Broughton, the third ever heavyweight champion of England and the formulator of boxing’s first ever set of rules, was also the brains behind ‘the muffler’. This was a glove filled with either lambswool or horse hair to create a padding around the fist. Broughton had actually only intended to introduce the gloves to sparring sessions to help students learn the art of the sweet science (although at just 2oz, it would still hurt a lot!) He still preferred the crunch of bare knuckles to skull in the ring when it came to the real thing, but he had inadvertently sown the seeds for change.

However, like most things in life, change didn’t come overnight. It was another 75 years before gloves officially entered the boxing ring, on 8 October 1818. And they haven’t left since. 

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Almost 50 years on the next huge change to the game of boxing arrived. And just like the gloves, it’s still the essence of fighting to this very day. In 1865 the Marquess of Queensberry rules were introduced, a code of rules that most influenced modern boxing as we know it today, significantly putting an end to the bare-knuckle game and making it law that a combatant must wear regulated hand coverings, culminating in the first ever heavyweight title fight with gloves, the century-defining bout between John L. Sullivan and James J. Corbett in 1892.

In many ways, Corbett was the antithesis to the hard-drinking, bare-knuckle brawling Sullivan in that he was a professor of the sport and appreciated the science behind it, so it was perhaps fitting that this fight represented the transformation into the modern era. And, as Corbett confirmed a changing of the guard in the heavyweight division by stopping Sullivan in the 21st round of their bout in New Orleans, he became the first champion to win the title with a pair of gloves (yes you did read that right, it was the 21st round!)

Sullivan had defined an era in pugilism with his bare fists and was a bona fide 19th century superstar but Corbett’s victory had proven surprisingly popular amongst the onlookers, with attention towards the sport internationally rocketing.

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Today, the weight of gloves has increased for safety reasons, and now varies between eight and 10 ounces. In 1983 Luis Resto, a journeyman junior-middleweight, proved how dangerous fighting with an unpadded glove could be when he dealt out a terrible beating to the previously undefeated Billy Collins.

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After the fight it was discovered, by Collins' father, that the majority of his opponent's padding had been removed from his gloves before getting in the ring. It turns out Resto’s trainer, Panama Lewis, did the removal job with a pair of tweezers. Lewis served two years of a six-year sentence for assault, conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest and criminal possession of a deadly weapon (Resto's fists).

Proving that the humble boxing glove (if proof were ever needed) really is there to protect the fighter. From themselves, as much as from others. It’s been quite the journey, from Ancient Greece and the crude rope wrappings, to a plump pair of red Lonsdales or Everlasts we now see adorning the hands of our biggest fighters. Let’s leave the last word on boxing gloves to one of our favourites of all time, Sugar Ray Leonard, “I tried the gloves on, and it felt so natural. From that moment on I became so embedded in boxing. I found a friend in boxing.”