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Gloves took boxing from bloodsport to big business

In Sports
May 02, 2024

These days it’s taken as an article of faith. It’s almost like a magic trick, the way it flips a switch in our brains.

You turn on the TV (or, let’s be real, click on a video during the day’s endless scroll) and see two people punching each other in the face with bare fists? That’s a problem. That’s vulgar, somehow. Depending on the setting, it might even be a crime.

But, you take those same two people and put them in gloves? Then, something changes. Whether they’re boxing gloves or the smaller, more tactile MMA gloves, it doesn’t matter. The appearance of the gloves suggests a sense of forethought and organization. Precautions have been taken. What would otherwise look like the breakdown of law and order now suddenly looks like sport.

This is a trick in more ways than one. A lot of people assume that the gloves are there for safety. In a sense that’s true, just not how those people think. Sit in the locker room at a UFC event and watch as fighters get their fists covered in mounds of tape, forming essentially a hard cast around their fist. Then watch as they slide that little battering ram into a sheath of leather and ask yourself if that fist seems like anything that just got less dangerous for the person on the business end of it.



The gloves are, in fact, there for protection. But it’s not the head of the punchee who’s really being protected — it’s the fist of the puncher. The human hand is a delicate operation, filled with tiny fragile bones and important ligaments. The protection afforded by the gloves allows people to throw more and harder punches with far less fear of smashing their hands to pieces. The end result is almost certainly more and not less damage to the brains of fighters.

Watching fight promotions like Bare Knuckle FC, you see a lot of blood and a lot of cosmetic damage. You also see a lot of quick fights and probably less prolonged head trauma than in traditional boxing matches or even in the UFC. While it might make us squeamish to watch, there’s at least a chance that, for the brain, bare-knuckle fighting could be slightly healthier.

So how did we get here? How did gloves become the dividing line between good, clean sport and bloodthirsty barbarism for generations of fight fans? I found myself thinking about it after this social media post by attorney and combat sports law expert Erik Magraken.

We sometimes think of the widespread use of gloves as the innovation that civilized boxing. In reality, it’s more like the gloves are what gave it the veneer of respectability it needed in order for people to start making real money off the sport.

Consider the career arc of John L. Sullivan, one of the first American sports superstars. Born in Boston in 1858, Sullivan became something of a bridge between two different eras of prize fighting in America. Even now his name alone conjures a certain image. You can almost close your eyes and see that old black-and-white photo, a big Irishman with a mustache that’s somehow both extremely old-timey while also being newly fashionable again, his bare fists raised and upturned in the classic boxing pose of the late 19th century.

John L Sullivan, American boxer, c1898. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1858, John L Sullivan (1858-1918) is regarded as the first world heavyweight champion. He held the title from 1881 until 1892, when he lost it to James 'Gentleman Jim' Corbett. Sullivan was the first American sportsman to become a national celebrity and the first to earn over $1 million. Artist Unknown. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

John L Sullivan (1858-1918) is regarded as the first world heavyweight champion. He held the title from 1881 until 1892, when he lost it to James ‘Gentleman Jim’ Corbett. Sullivan was the first American sportsman to become a national celebrity and the first to earn over $1 million. (Getty Images) (Heritage Images via Getty Images)

But while he might still be the visual archetype of the turn-of-the-century bare-knuckle boxer, Sullivan didn’t love that bare-fisted style. In fact, he preferred fighting in gloves. It suited his style as a power puncher who depended on big offensive bursts. The “rush” was a tactic he was known for, but technical mastery was not. The gloves allowed him to throw hard with less concern for injuring his hands.



It only really became an issue when Sullivan sought to challenge Paddy Ryan for what was then considered the American heavyweight title. Sullivan had fought under the London Prize Ring rules before — bare fists, throws above the waist allowed, rounds only end when one man hits the ground — but he wasn’t as experienced in it as Ryan. As a brash and slightly arrogant young man, Sullivan had also made the mistake of angering Richard Kyle Fox, the publisher of the National Police Gazette.

The Police Gazette was one of the nation’s leading publications covering sports, and it quickly became the paper of record for boxing in America. Exactly how Sullivan and Fox became enemies is unclear. In his excellent biography of Sullivan, “Strong Boy: The Life & Times of John L. Sullivan,” Christopher Klein suggests that it could have been anything from a nightclub tiff to a misunderstanding about who had the right to book Sullivan’s next bout. What’s clear is that the paper was no friend to Sullivan as he angled for a heavyweight title fight, and it used his reluctance to fight bare-fisted as the main pressure point.

Sullivan had some good reasons to want the gloves, beyond mere stylistic preference. A bare-fisted prizefight to the finish was illegal in most states. Fighters could be and sometimes were arrested for it. But these laws didn’t do much to stop two men from putting on gloves — or “mufflers,” as they were sometimes called when used as a training tool in the London Prize Ring scene — and participating in an “exhibition” for the public.

Before one exhibition in Manhattan, Sullivan told the gathered crowd how much he thought he deserved a crack at Ryan’s heavyweight title.

“Pugilists do not fight for the heavyweight championship with gloves!”James Magowan, Police Gazette business manager



“Pugilists do not fight for the heavyweight championship with gloves!” shouted the Police Gazette’s business manager, James Magowan, who just happened to be in the crowd that day.

Editorials in the paper also ribbed Sullivan, writing that “old patrons of the ring will be under the impression that [Sullivan] … is afraid to fight with bare knuckles.” When Sullivan replied that it was the prospect of jail and costly fines that concerned him more, even the champion Ryan mocked him.

“Any man who is so ambitious to become champion of America should not be afraid to take the chances of getting arrested,” Ryan said.

It didn’t take much of this before Sullivan agreed to a bare-knuckle fight under the London Prize Ring rules. The fight took place in a field just outside Mississippi City, Mississippi, on Feb. 7, 1882. The rural setting was also a holdover from the London Prize Ring days, when sporting men in the know would travel to a secret location outside the city in order to avoid police interference. The fight itself was one-way traffic. Even without gloves, Sullivan battered Ryan to a finish inside of 10 rounds, and thus became the new consensus heavyweight champ of America.

The problem was how to make money off that title. One method was to travel from town to town, putting on gloved exhibitions for paying audiences. Sullivan did a lot of this, and it was extremely popular and lucrative. Sometimes the exhibition fights were against other “professional” boxers, but many times Sullivan would pull into town on a passenger train and vow to pay a cash prize to any tough guy around who could last a few rounds with the heavyweight champ. (No one, at least during Sullivan’s reign, ever lasted long enough to receive that prize.)



As a live performance, it’s not hard to see how this was a hit. Imagine if Tyson Fury or Jon Jones came to your town to beat up local bullies in a packed auditorium. Imagine how those bullies would be pressured into accepting the challenge whether they wanted to or not. Now imagine there’s no TV or movies or even much in the way of widespread pro sports to compete with this form of entertainment. Imagine how much you’d pay for a ticket to see it.

Every once in a while Sullivan would have to take the gloves off and defend his title in another bare-fisted championship fight, but the only way to make money off those was through side bets. The tradition of the London Prize Ring was for each fighter to put up a cash stake, usually provided by some wealthy benefactor who wanted to rub elbows with the tough guy heroes of the hoi polloi, with the winner taking it all. His friends and supporters would also bet on him, and maybe give him a taste of their winnings. But the loser? He often went home with no money and far fewer friends than he started with. Sometimes that was just the beginning of the trouble.

After Sullivan defended his title against challenger Jake Kilrain in 1889, both men were doggedly pursued by authorities for violating anti-prizefighting laws. Sullivan had gotten to be such a celebrity that the whole country was glued to reports of his fights, which also meant that local and state governments felt more pressure to do something about the open flouting of the law. After their bare-fisted bout, both Sullivan and Kilrain were arrested and hauled back to Mississippi, where the fight had taken place. Both wound up paying hefty fines, but neither did any jail time.

(Original Caption) 7/8/1889-Richburg, Mississippi- Last bareknuckle fight, John L. Sullivan against Jack Kilrain, Richburg, MS, July 8th, 1889. Sullivan won in the 75th round when Kilrain's manager threw in the sponge. This rare picture is the only bare-knuckle bout ever photographed.
John L. Sullivan against Jack Kilrain in Richburg, Mississippi on July 8, 1889. Sullivan won in the 75th round when Kilrain’s manager threw in the sponge. (Getty Images) (Bettmann via Getty Images)

Sullivan estimated that the whole ordeal cost him north of $18,000 (around a half-million dollars in today’s money), which was more than he’d made for the fight itself. Afterward, he declared himself done with bare-knuckle prizefighting.



“The country seems to be opposed to it, and there is no money it,” Sullivan told reporters after his case was settled. “I propose to respect the law hereafter. Announcing that you are going to fight a prizefight is like saying you are going to break into a house where there is an armed force waiting for you. It is suicide.”

Sullivan’s fighting career, at least as a serious and consistent defender of the heavyweight title, seemed to be at an end. What helped save it, and what launched boxing into the accepted mainstream of American sports culture, was the gloves.

Those gloved exhibitions that Sullivan and others participated in had become exceptionally popular. And as America’s population became more urban in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, training in “pugilistic science” became a more popular pastime, especially for a young male population whose work life was increasingly sedentary.

In “The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America,” Elliott J. Gorn notes that the popularity of training with boxing gloves gradually transformed fight sports from a criminal activity to a healthy and invigorating leisure time pursuit for many Americans.



It was even hailed in publications like the Boston Evening Transcript, which noted that previously anyone involved in or knowledgeable about fighting “was noted down as a turbulent fellow, fit only for low tavern rows, or drunken encounters. But times have changed, or at least public sentiment has. It is now admitted, that a gentleman may ‘know how to use his fists,’ and not be less a gentleman.”

The gloves made all the difference in the public eye. Bankers and clerks could train with them after working hours. Professionals could put on exhibitions in them without fearing arrest. A bare-knuckle prizefight was criminal, and therefore attracted a criminal element of gamblers and pickpockets at events staged in fields or on river barges. But gloved exhibitions were now taking place in theaters across New York, Boston and Philadelphia, with wealthy attendees paying for tickets.

This is how, in September 1892, Sullivan wound up defending his title against “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in a gloved fight under the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Just three years after he’d been arrested and dragged through the courts for essentially the same activity, Sullivan fought Corbett at the Olympic Club in New Orleans, at an event where the tickets depicted giant bags of money, as if to remind patrons what the fight was really about.

This drawing shows fight action between heavyweight Jim Corbett, left, and John L. Sullivan in New Orleans in 1892. Sullivan, champion for more than a decade, was defeated by Corbett in the first fight fought with padded gloves, $100 ringside seats and a purse of $25,000 with side bets of $10,000. (AP Photo)
This drawing shows fight action between heavyweight Jim Corbett, left, and John L. Sullivan in New Orleans in 1892. Sullivan, champion for more than a decade, was defeated by Corbett in the first fight fought with padded gloves, $100 ringside seats and a purse of $25,000 with side bets of $10,000. (AP Photo) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This represented a major shift that had happened very rapidly. It wasn’t the first time a championship had been contested with gloves, but it was almost certainly the biggest and most lucrative gloved title fight in American history at that point. The Olympic Club scheduled it as the climax of a three-day “fistic carnival” in which titles across multiple weight classes went up for grabs.



Maybe more importantly, it established a major title fight as a thing someone other than gamblers and saloon-owners could make money from. When you were forced to stage your bare-knuckle prizefights in some farmer’s field, there was no efficient or reliable way of charging money for tickets. The “prize” inherent in prizefighting was almost entirely centered around gambling — not event promotion. Slapping the gloves on the fighters provided just enough legal cover to get away with having it in a respectable venue, which meant no one got in without ponying up the cash.

Sullivan lost that fight, which would prove to be his last. Even in his prime, he wasn’t exactly a scientific boxer. Corbett was smaller, and lacked the punching power of Sullivan, but he understood boxing as an art form much better. He was also younger and in better shape, and he didn’t have to spend so much of his training camps struggling to get sober and slim, as Sullivan often did.

Corbett spent the first 10 rounds or so mostly avoiding the champion, absorbing boos from a crowd that demanded he stand and trade punches.

“Wait a while,” Corbett is said to have shouted back at one point. “You’ll see a fight.”

The challenger gradually ratcheted up the offense as Sullivan slowed. Early in Round 21, Corbett battered the champ to the body, then put him down with a right hand to the jaw. Exhausted and bloodied, Sullivan couldn’t rise to meet the count.



The fight was huge news. It also jumpstarted a new profession: fight promoter. Soon it became clear that a man with a little bit of vision and a great tolerance for risk could make serious money putting on fights. Entire arenas were constructed in places like Melbourne, Australia, and Reno, Nevada, all just to host a single fight.

Two years after Corbett’s win over Sullivan, he appeared in one of the first moving images of a boxing match at the request of Thomas Edison, who made it one of the star attractions of his kinetoscope parlors. Within a decade, men like James J. Jeffries became national sports heroes without having to dodge police to do it.

What had been the province of criminals and thugs was now a profitable and legal national pastime. And all it took was a few hunks of leather wrapped around the fist to help it seem just palatable and civilized enough to accept.

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