Hey UFC, Bring Back Bare-knuckle Fights to Stop Brain Trauma

In a truly tragic irony, a measure introduced to quell concerns about the brutality of MMA fighting has become the source of serious brain trauma.

John Locher/AP

On July 11, 2015, UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and challenger Rory McDonald were slinging furious punches at each other’s skulls, slick to the elbows with blood. When the bell rang, Lawler, who has tattoos of a gladiator and the Roman Coliseum on his bicep, flung down the gauntlet. He lowered his brows at his rival and huffed a geyser of blood toward MacDonald’s feet. MacDonald moved to center cage in acceptance of the challenge, and the two men locked eyes as the referee and cornermen pushed them apart.

After 20 minutes of skillfully frenetic violence, Macdonald’s face was a red ruin, with dark sheets of blood flowing steadily from his slit brows and rubbled nose. For his part, Lawler was ripped and swollen around the eyes, with his grotesquely split upper lip spread open like curtains. In the fifth and final round, the champion Lawler, who was behind on every scorecard, stormed back to drop MacDonald with a straight left, and then finished him on a mat that was as red and slippery as a butcher’s floor. After the fight, 25-year-old Rory MacDonald couldn’t tell the doctor what year it was, and both men were rushed to the hospital for stitches and scans. At the post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White was elated. Lawler-MacDonald wasn’t the fight of the night or even of the year, White said. With its display of skill and gore and unholy courage, it was more like the “fight of the ever.”

I love MMA. I’ve loved it as a fan for 20 years, and I loved it for the three years that I trained myself, eventually taking part in a fight, as research for a book on the subject. But, for me, MMA has always been a distinctly guilty pleasure.

Fighting sports mainly come down to brain damage contests. A great fighter must have the skill to inflict blunt force trauma on his opponent’s brain and the “good chin” to take it. Fight fans feel trapped in a Devil’s Bargain. We love the drama of combat sport, and revere the skill and bravery of the athletes. But the pleasure lies heavy on the conscience because we know it costs them too much.

But while a certain savagery and danger is intrinsic to fighting sport and cannot be removed without ruining it, the current level of brain trauma is not intrinsic nor inevitable. On the contrary, it 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.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) introduced “no-holds-barred” fighting to the U.S. market in 1993. Quickly condemned as “human cockfighting,” the sport consisted of two men entering a chain-link cage and scrapping—bare-fisted—until one of them couldn’t. By the mid-1990s the UFC had begun a process of reform intended to make the sport safer and more palatable both to mainstream sports fans and to the politicians seeking to ban it. 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, bare-knuckle 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 bare-knuckle 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 bare-fisted 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 bare-knuckle fighting, and they would learn to treat their hands as their most fragile and important tools.

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But, in MMA, wouldn’t taking off the gloves backfire by putting more emphasis on powerful techniques like kicks and knees to the head? I doubt it. A shin has a long way to travel before it can intersect with a skull. And such kicks might actually be harder to set up if fighters didn’t have to be so wary of their opponents’ dangerously gloved hands. In fact, the danger of all of a fighter’s weapons might be limited—kicks, knees, elbows—by reducing the potency of the fists. And there is no question that the gloved fist is, far and away, the most dangerous weapon in the fighting cage. A recent article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine examined every UFC fight from 2006 to 2012 and determined that 85% of KO’s and TKO’s resulted from punches to the head.

So the biggest advantage to stripping off the gloves is that fighting would instantly become much safer for the brain. But, sadly, that’s probably also the main obstacle: fans and promoters might not want that. When I attended my first UFC event in 2011, the fights were a little flat, and the crowd was listless. When the main event came around, a fan at my side screamed down at UFC president Dana White, whose gleaming dome made him conspicuous at cage side, “Dana White, give us our money back! We paid all this money and not one K.O.?” The fan felt defrauded. He had paid good money to see brain trauma, and there’d been too little. But then Frank Mir landed a blow (a knee in fact) that put Mirko Crocop instantly to sleep, and the crowd went berserk.

Gloves weren’t added to make boxing or MMA more exciting; they were added in a misguided effort to make them safer. But the gloves probably have made fighting more exciting by allowing athletes like Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald to put on the kind of reckless slobber-knockers that lift crowds to their feet. Reverting to bare-knuckle would make fighting safer, but it would also slow it down. Fighters would throw their hands more sparingly and carefully, and MMA fighters would spend more time hugging on the mats (both because grappling is safer for the hands and because gloves significantly handicap grappling specialists). For this reason, the UFC, which shapes their roster and their performance incentives to encourage rollicking kick-boxing wars, will not be keen on a return to bare-knuckle (lawsuits from brain damaged fighters, which are surely coming down the pike, may eventually lead them to reconsider). But the UFC has succeeded so well as a business—rising in less than 20 years from a small-time carny sideshow to a mainstream international sport—because they have constantly adjusted their product in hopes of giving fight fans what they want. So what do we want?

Here’s one fight fan’s vote for bare-knuckle. Fighting gloves turned what could have been reasonably sane and safe sports into morally compromising spectacles in which gladiators are armed with de facto weapons and encouraged to do their utmost to wound each other’s brains. We can make fighting sports substantially safer and more ethical if we simply strip off the gloves. Without gloves, combat sports would still be raw, dramatic, and supremely demanding tests, but they’d also revert to a more acceptable level of neurological risk.

Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College, and the author of The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch.