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MMA Gloves and Boxing
How To Save Your Hands When Fighting With Light Gloves
© 2011 James LaFond
James is also the author of The First Boxers, now in print, and available via this link.
Anyone who has studied film, photos and illustrations of old-time boxers and bare-knuckle boxers realizes that these fighters punched differently than modern boxers. This has been explained as evidence of the evolution of punching mechanics, finally resulting in a more skilled modern boxer. So, when an MMA fighter looks to develop punching skills he looks to the latest in boxing techniques. The problem with this very reasonable assumption is that it ignores the primary influence upon the evolution of boxing techniques: the development of the boxing glove. The result has been a high frequency of hand injuries (particularly to the unprotected thumb) among MMA fighters. (See Ultimate MMA, September 2010, pages 92, 123).
While giving a boxing and stick-fighting clinic to an MMA club based at Randolph Macon College in Ashland Virginia in April 2010, a jiu-jitsu practitioner informed me of the high-frequency of thumb injuries in MMA. I informed him, that as a fighter who has fought 20 submission boxing bouts with bare-knuckles, foam karate hands; kenpo gloves and MMA gloves, and had suffered 8 breaks to my hands (3 boxing, 5 stick fighting) I had studied fist injuries extensively as a matter of manual preservation.
I had conducted an extensive study of the use of the fist for punching among modern, old-time, bare-knuckle and ancient boxers. I concluded from this study, that the evolution of punching mechanics in ancient, old-time and modern boxing was predominantly an adaptation to improved hand gear, ultimately culminating with the use of the gauzed and taped fist sheathed within the modern thumb-attached shock-absorbent glove, in actual fact a weapon system.
For any punching glove to be a functional MMA glove it must not protect the thumb. Any attempt to protect the thumb would impair the fighter's ability to apply wrestling and jiu-jitsu techniques. Therefore, the modern MMA fighter must, if he wishes to minimize hand injuries (particularly those to the thumb), utilize the same skills that ancient boxers, ancient MMA fighters (pankratiasts), bare-knuckle boxers, and small-glove boxers used.
Rather than present a comprehensive study, let me offer advice based on my research and actual use of these skills. If you have not suffered a thumb injury, keep in mind that "Smokin'" Joe Frazier, commonly regarded as the toughest heavyweight fighter of the late 20th Century, once had to postpone a fight because of a thumb injury, and he fought and trained with a glove that offered significant thumb protection.
Before we continue let us establish the terminology.
  • A fist that lands with the palm and thumb down is pronated.
  • A fist that lands with the thumb up is vertical.
  • A fist that lands with the palm and thumb up (like an uppercut) is supinated.
Applications must be worked out with your trainer, and will often feature a trade off. For example, bare-knuckle boxers did not hook or uppercut to the body because of the danger posed to the thumb by the defender's elbows. Straight punches to the body tend to leave the puncher open for a counter to the head. This was not a problem in the London Prize Ring, because fighters were more than willing to take a counterpunch to the skull that might break their opponent's bare hand. However, as an MMA fighter, your opponent may very well punch you in the head with his tapped hands and 4 ounce gloves and not suffer a broken hand. There are also kicking and grappling concerns to consider, and these are areas I am not qualified to comment on. One note: the first bare-knuckle boxing champion, James Figg, won one of his bouts via a standing arm bar. It has been postulated that this was a counter to one of his opponent's supinated jabs to the face.
The Jab
The vertical jab was the overwhelmingly dominant punch for 4,000 years of boxing. It is not as powerful, and does not have quite the reach of the pronated jab. Its advantages are that it gets through the opponents hands more easily, with minimal risk of thumb injury. It was used primarily for striking up the middle to the nose and mouth (Bare-knuckle punches to the mouth that are pronanted or supinated can result in teeth entering the fingers or knuckles.) Modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call it the sneaky jab.
The supinated jab was used primarily for punching over the guard while stepping to the outside. It offers total protection to the thumb. It was called the "special punch", a maiming blow intended to strike the eye-ball directly as the two large knuckles slide into the socket from below. With MMA gloves this can be used to crack the orbital bone or cut the eye-lid. Those few modern coaches who teach this punch sometimes call this an up-jab.
Before boxing gloves pronated jabs were used primarily to strike the body, allowing the thumb to hang safely beneath the hand, away from the descending elbow. Other applications included striking the jaw of an opponent with a low guard, or the forehead of a shorter fighter.
Straight Right
Like the jab this was used as a sneaky vertical punch up the middle, or pronated to the body. It was used as a finishing blow to the jaw over a low guard. Bare-knuckle boxers were primarily jabbers, and were very picky about when they uncorked the right hand. There is no evidence that a supinated straight right was ever used. The only time I ever landed one was rolling to the outside out of a clinch against a southpaw, and it didn't even slow the guy down. I wouldn't recommend it.
Modern boxers throw supinated (shovel) and vertical (Philadelphia) hooks to the body, and vertical and pronated hooks to the head. This was reversed in the days before thumb protection. To keep the thumb out of harm's way pronate the hook to the body and throw it with a vertical fist to the head. You don't want to have someone duck under your pronated hook to the head and have your thumb snap on their skull.
The ancients and old timers only used this for striking the groin and while in the clinch. It is a punch you definitely want in your arsenal, but should be used sparingly, primarily to the chin, where it may well finish the fight. It does not make any sense to slam an uppercut or shovel hook into the body of a highly conditioned athlete who can take it, just to have him come down with a late block or intentional elbow catch to your thumb, which could disable that hand for punching, grappling and parrying for the rest of the fight.
More and more, the job of the modern boxing coach is as a contributing member of an MMA coaching staff. I recommend more mitt-drills with MMA gloves and a lot of small glove work on the double-ended and reflex bags to develop a fighter's awareness to possible thumb injuries, and the expansion of his arsenal to include the sneaky jab and up-jab.
American Fist is an anthology of James LaFond’s boxing commentary and instructional literature, in which the above article appears as the first chapter. The author did not want the book released until we could get a hold of a certain Sam Langford photo on the cover.
Includes analysis of recent fights for the learning boxer. The ad posting is worth checking out just for cover.
To read a sample of American Fist visit:
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