Fist fighting has existed as a form of entertainment since the early days of human civilization. Some form of the sport appeared as long as 6,000 years ago in present-day Ethiopia. From there it spread across the ancient world. Throughout the sport's history, segments of society deemed that it was too brutal and have lobbied to restrict or ban it altogether. Partly in deference to those efforts and partly in recognition of the frailty of the human body, practitioners and promoters have developed defenses for use in the sport. The oldest and most little changed of these has been the boxing glove.
Boxing was first put on the Olympic program in 688 b.c., and it was there that one of the earliest records of hand protection appears. Olympic fighters wrapped their hands and wrists in leather strips. Initially, the leather was used as protection. Later, the leather was hardened, making these early gloves into weapons. The Romans called these strips cestus and added iron or brass studs. Sometimes a large spike called the myrmex was also attached; both instruments could kill an opponent.
It is generally acknowledged that the inventor of the modern boxing glove was an English champion fighter named Jack Broughton. Broughton fought, as did all boxers of his day, with bare knuckles. Broughton developed his gloves—known as mufflers—so that the gentry could practice boxing at the gymnasium without inflicting serious damage. The gloves were reserved for such uses; all public contests were still fought with bare fists. In 1743, Broughton codified the first modern rules of boxing. Strangely, his rules make no mention of gloves. Then in 1867, John Graham Chambers, a member of London's Amateur Athletic Club, published the Marquis of Queensberry rules. Line eight of the rules reads, "The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality, and new." (The rules also mention that no shoes with springs are to be used.) The rules were gradually adopted for amateur competition, and the use of thinly padded or skintight leather mitts became more widespread. Still, most public and professional bouts were fought with bare knuckles.
American fighter John L. Sullivan is said to have been one of first to popularize the wearing of gloves in public bouts. Sullivan reigned as World Heavyweight Champion from 1882-1892, but many historians do not consider him to be the first modern champion as all the fights in which he won his title were waged under the old Prize Ring rules, which did not require gloves. Ironically, Sullivan did wear gloves in his last fight, in which he lost to the first champion under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett.
The skin of a boxing glove is top grain tanned leather, most often cowhide or goatskin because of their durability and flexibility. Lesser-quality gloves will be made from vinyl, but most sanctioning bodies—amateur and professional—require leather gloves. Some manufacturers line their gloves with another layer of leather, but the majority use nylon taffeta. Gloves are stitched with nylon thread and padding is of high-density polyurethane, Latex, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foam delivered in sheet form. Historically, cotton batting has been used as padding and many manufacturers still use this material to pad some portion of their models. Some manufacturers also use horsehair.
The primary design consideration involves the glove's padding. In order for a padding material to be effective, it must absorb energy by compressing. The more it compresses, the more energy it absorbs. If a material compresses too much, it ceases to be useful because it becomes simply a thin layer of dense material. Partly because of this, different weight classes require gloves of different weights. A glove's weight is changed by adding or removing layers of padding. If the same glove weight was required for all weight classes, blows thrown by the largest and heaviest boxers would compress the padding beyond its useful range, while blows thrown by the lightest boxers would barely compress the material at all. In addition, many materials that offer excellent energy absorption also display a characteristic known as memory. Once compressed, these materials maintain their deformed state for an extended period of time so that the initial blow with a glove offers normal protection, but subsequent blows are virtually unpadded.
Other design criteria stem from rules and regulations of the various sanctioning bodies. For example, USA Boxing, which regulates much of the amateur competition in the United States and sanctions all Olympic-style competition in the United States, requires that all gloves either be thumbless or have the thumb compartment attached to the body of the glove so that boxers cannot jab each other in the eye. In addition, gloves used for international competition, such as the Olympics, must have a portion of the leather covering the knuckle area dyed white for scoring purposes.
The Manufacturing Process
Paterns and cutting
All boxing gloves are cut, assembled, stitched, stuffed, and finished by hand. The manufacture of a glove begins with a pattern of the individual pieces. While every manufacturer has a different pattern, the basic pieces are the palm, which is cut with a slit down its middle that will eventually form the closure section of the glove; the knuckle area, which is always made from a single piece of leather to avoid seams; the thumb, which is made from two halves; the cuff, which is cut as a wide strip; and a thin strip that will be folded over and sewn onto the edge of the cuff and the closure area to finish the glove. The knuckle piece is cut to be larger than its finished size so that space is left for stuffing.
- 1 Leather arrives from the tannery in large pieces and is laid out on large cutting tables. The patterns are placed on the leather and arranged to make the most efficient use of that piece. The patterns are then traced onto the leather and the pieces are cut with large scissors. Meanwhile, similar patterns are traced onto the lining material and those pieces are cut. Pieces are made to line the palm, the thumb, the cuff, and the knuckle area.
Assembly and stitching
- 2 The leather shell of a boxing glove is first sewn together inside out. Stitching is often done on an industrial sewing machine with some of the smaller pieces and finish work being completed by hand. Many of the higher quality gloves are stitched entirely by hand, and double stitching is used throughout all quality gloves.
- 3 The oversized knuckle piece is stitched to the palm piece. The two pieces are fitted over a buck to assure the correct shape and the seam is gathered so that the knuckle piece balloons slightly. Gathering the seam also causes the glove to take on its trade-mark clenched fist shape.
- 4 Then, the liner pieces are stitched onto this assembled section and the palm is stuffed with padding. The liner is left open at the bottom of the glove, where the cuff will be attached. On many models, the back halve of the thumb piece is cut as part of the knuckle piece, and the inner half is sewn onto the knuckle and palm pieces. On others, the thumb is stitched together separately; its lining is attached, and its padding is stuffed. The assembled thumb piece is then stitched onto the glove.
Stuffing the glove
- 5 The entire glove assembly is now turned right side out. As it is more economical for manufacturers to purchase padding material in standard sheet form, the padding for the knuckle area is made by layering sheets of the material and then cutting it to the desired shape. This also allows glove makers to use one standardized thickness of padding for many glove weights and specifications rather than purchasing or manufacturing a different molded piece for every glove model.
- 6 The pattern for the glove being made is traced onto the padding material and it is cut. Depending on the manufacturer, pattern pieces may be cut in mass beforehand and kept in stock for assembly.
- 7 The cut pieces are layered to the specified thickness and are stuffed into the pocket between the knuckle area and its lining.
Muhammad Ali was bom Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. By 17, Ali had won six Kentucky Golden Gloves tournaments in lightweight, welterweight, and heavyweight categories. In 1959 and 1960 he won the Light Heavyweight National Golden Gloves and the National Amateur Athletic Union (AAUj tournaments. In 1960, Ali won the Olympic gold medal for the United States under the light heavyweight category. In 1964 he became heavyweight champion and converted to Islam, renouncing his "slave name" for Muhammad Ali.
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds. The World Boxing Association (WBA) stripped his title and he was banned from fighting. Joe Frazier was awarded the title, and Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion and fined $10,000. In 1970 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction on a technicality, and the NAACP won its suit proving denial of his boxing license violated Ali's constitutional rights. Ali fought Frazier in 1971 and lost his first professional defeat. In 1974 Ali defeated Frazier but George Foreman now held the title.
Ali reclaimed it in Kinshasa, Zaire, billed as the "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali lost a title defense in 1978 to Leon Spinks, defeating Spinks in a re-match. On June 26, 1979, Ali retired as champion with a professional record of 59 victories and three defeats, but returned in 1980 to fight Larry Holmes for the World Boxing Council (WBC) title. (Holmes won with a technical knockout.) In 1981 Ali boxed professionally for the last time, fighting and losing to Trevor Berbick. In 1977 he was advised to quit boxing because of slowed reflexes, and in 1984 was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome. Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Finishing the glove
- 8 The last piece to be stitched to the glove is the cuff. The cuff and its lining are stitched together, and the piece is stuffed. The ends of this assembly are not stitched together as the piece will eventually form part of the gloves closure area.
- 9 The assembly is stitched to the open end of the glove piece, closing off all the open pockets and sealing the glove's padding.
- 10 On If the glove is to be closed with laces, a template is laid over the opening now formed on the glove's underside by the slit in the palm and the open ends of the cuff, and laces holes are punched with an awl. Each hole is strengthened with stitching, and the entire lace area is finished with several rows of stitching.
- 11 If the gloves are to be closed with hook and loop material, the loop side is sewn onto the outside face of the cuff, and the hook side is stitched onto the cuff's opposite edge.
- 12 A single thin strip of leather is folded over the open edge of the cuff and the lace area and is stitched in place to finish the glove. The maker's label and any required sanctioning body labels are sewn onto the back of the cuff and the finished gloves are packaged for shipping.
Virtually every country and state has a boxing commission that regulates professional bouts. Every one of these commissions has its own rules and regulations governing the conduct and equipment of a boxing match. Most amateur competitions in the United States are governed by USA Boxing or Golden Gloves, and each of these bodies specify particular requirements for gloves used in their bouts. What most gloves used today have in common is that they have been tested by the Wayne State University Sports Biomechanics Department in Detroit, Michigan. The University tests a boxing glove by fitting it onto a maple block in the approximate shape of a human fist. The block is attached to a hydraulic ram that can be fired at predetermined rates of acceleration. The gloved block is fired at a biometric human form (a test dummy) that has been fitted with sensors that measure impact. The impact readings for various accelerations are translated onto a scale called a severity index and gloves must fall within a certain range to be acceptable.
The most surprising aspect of boxing gloves is how little they have changed. The first gloves were leather mitts with little or no padding. Today's gloves have added padding to a greater or lesser degree but not much else. Boxing in general seems to be highly resistant to both change and regulation. For over a hundred years, fighters resisted wearing gloves at all. And since then, they have thwarted most efforts at innovation. The movement to remove the thumbs from gloves, for example, has only succeeded in a few arenas. Gloves have become more heavily padded in recent years and the padding materials themselves have grown more resilient, but many experts insist that this simply allows fighters to punch harder and inflict more damage.
Where to Learn More
Blewett, Bert. The A-Z of World Boxing: An Authoritative and Entertaining Compendium of the Fight Game from Its Origins to the Present Day. New Jersey: Parkwest Publications, 1997.
Myler, Patrick. Gentleman Jim Corbett: The Truth Behind a Boxing Legend. Robson Books, Ltd., 1999.
Ward, Nathan. The Total Sports Illustrated Book of Boxing. Total Sports, 1999.
HickockSports.com. http://www.hickok-sports.com (April 1, 2000).
International Boxing Hall of Fame. http://www.ibhof.com (May 30, 2000).
USA Boxing. http://www.usaboxing.org (March 16, 2000).