According to sports historian Nicholas Hobbes, gloves in boxing were introduced for two main reasons:
1. To shorten the matches.—The last bare-knuckled match in 1897 went on for 75 rounds.
2. Because “audiences wanted to see repeated blows to the head and dramatic knockouts.”
The reason bare-knuckled boxers took a stance that looks silly to us now is that they were mainly protecting their bodies. The head was not a primary target, since a worthwhile punch to the skull would probably break the puncher’s hand. Not so once gloves were introduced.
Gloves distribute the force of a punch more widely, reducing the instances of broken jaws, knocked out teeth and blindness. (Apparently, slamming one’s opponent’s head is sometimes worth the broken hand.) But they also add 10 ounces to each swing making a full on punch “comparable to being hit with a 12lb padded wooden mallet travelling at 20mph.”
And now, with the pain of clobbering a skull significantly reduced, the head has become a primary target. Before, boxing was messier and perhaps more voyeuristically violent. But now it’s deadly.
Here’s how Mr. Hobbes closes his article,
As the bare-knuckle campaigner Dr Alan J Ryan pointed out: “In 100 years of bare-knuckle fighting in the United States…there wasn’t a single ring fatality.” Today, there are three or four every year in the US.… Worldwide, there have been over 400 boxing deaths in the last 50 years alone.…
A return to bare knuckles would be bloodier and less acceptable to mass television audiences, but one has to ask whether wheelchairs and life-support machines are any easier on one’s conscience.