Fighting Hand Injuries in MMA and the Quest for the Perfect Glove
In perhaps my favorite movie of all time, Enter the Dragon (1973), the greatest martial artist of all time Bruce Lee dons a pair of Kempo gloves. The fingers are individually cut and the thumb is covered. Did Lee know something then that we don't today? The master and founder of Jeet Kune Do, the first world's hybrid martial arts system never lived to see the development of the JKD at its purest form, MMA. Lee died suddenly as he wrapped up dubbing work on his epic film.
"Mixed" Martial Arts also requires a hybrid approach to its glove. The modern glove weighs 4oz and is fingerless to facilitate both striking and the grips necessary for grappling. It is lighter than the 8-10 oz glove used in Boxing, but also lacks a similar surface area. MMA gloves pose two key problems. They are set up for eye pokes, and seemingly an increased number of fighters are breaking their hands.
"Breaking your Hand"
Hand injuries in general account for 10% of all emergency room visits, of which 17% are fractures. MMA is associated with a number of injuries that disrupts the bones and tendons of the hand. Most commonly a classic boxer's fracture may occur that results in a fracture of the 4th or 5th metacarpal bone, with MMA fighters often experiencing fractures of the 2nd metacarpal bone. A properly placed punch involves linear contact with the knuckles of the 2nd and 3rd fingers. With improper form, there is angulation and often the 4th finger (ring) finger leads the punch, and the impact is transferred nonlinearly across the metacarpal bone resulting in a fracture. In MMA, this can be particularly common, given the fact that a fighter can punch from virtually any angle from overhand rights, to ground and pound, to even punching from his back. Minor fractures can be treated conservatively whereas major fractures require surgically placed pins and realignment. This often requires a total of 3-4 months of healing and rehabilitation and the mild pain can often be treated with analgesics during this time. Daniel Cormier's hand fractures sustained in his 5 round war with Josh Barnett kept him off the shelf for almost an entire year.
The thumb is particularly vulnerable to causing injury in MMA. The current gloves have mild padding around the thumb, that make it difficult to "tuck" the thumb inwards as is necessary to throw a punch, and leave it exposed. A miscalculated punch, then results in the punches power being concentrated and transmitted within the thumb alone, and it can poke the opponents eye with significant force.
Evolution of the Glove
MMA has gone from the early days of no gloves to its characteristic 4 oz gloves. The reasons for this are to prevent gashes and bruises on the opponent, as well as bodily harm, and minimize the effect of damage. The amount of momentum transferred is felt to correlate with the weight of the glove. However many believe that hands move quicker with lighter gloves. Floyd Mayweather himself prefers 8oz gloves for these reasons over 10oz gloves, feeling that he is faster in the lighter gloves. Hand wraps are crucial to preventing the translational force across the hand bones that can give rise to fractures. The ideal glove in MMA would prevent gashes and bruises, reduce eye poking, and allow effective grappling and striking with minimal potential for injury.
Bellator Unveils New Glove
Recently Bellator has developed the "Powerlock" glove in partnership with Everlast, debuting these gloves at Bellator 110. The name seemingly refers to the locked or curved design of the glove with additional padding at the 1st and 5th metacarpal (aka pinky and thumb), the commonly injured bones. The foam is apparently improved at the striking area. Anecdotally, according to Bellator, the gloves have been a seeming success. There have apparently been no hand breaks in nine events since the gloves debuted, compared to eight broken hands during Bellator season 8 and seven hand breaks from season 9.
FightMD.com Speaks to the Glove's Designer, Dean Lassiter
Dean Lassiter is the current Director of Fight Operations for Bellator who has also served as the company’s key cutman for most fights over the last several years. Lassiter noted the number of hand breaks amongst fighters, and approached Everlast regarding development of a newer glove. The thumbless design was done so that the fighter may tuck in the thumb for more support during punching. Lassiter noted that conventional MMA gloves, being straight at the fingers, required the fighter to “break in” the gloves by holding their hand clenched often for an hour prior to the fight, possibly leading to hand fatigue. The newer gloves, by design, are naturally “locked” into finger flexion, so that making a fist becomes easier.
“We tried to eliminate two things – eye pokes and hand injuries,” Lassiter told FightMD.com. As a former MMA fighter, Lassiter used the gloves himself in sparring sessions and gave pairs to several high profile fighters for feedback before finalizing the design with Everlast. According to Lassiter, “Most standard gloves are as thin as cardboard and completely flat, nonergonomic and non form-fitting. We doubled the padding over the knuckles using a dense foam, while having a similar weight glove.” Lassiter states that since the new glove's inception in March, there have been no hand breaks, and fighters have raved that the gloves are easier to strike with and to grapple with.
"They were the most comfortable glove I've ever used," Bellator fighter Chris Kelades told FightMD.com having recently made his promotional debut at Bellator 119. The submission ace went on to say "The thing I liked the most was the built in thumb. Most gloves have the thumbless design which doesn't give much support to the hand. Wearing these gloves I was able to have less tape and padding which enabled better gripping for grappling and hand fighting."
As a physician, It is difficult comment or support change based on anecdotal evidence. However, mechanistically the newer gloves make sense and if fighters feel more comfortable in these gloves with fewer injuries, then they can only be a move in the right direction. Fighter safety involves the entire body, and broken hands while seemingly minor, can impact a fighters ability to train striking, drive a car, or even carry groceries. Punching power is affected, as is the grip strength necessary in grappling. Hand surgeries can cost thousands of dollars, and impact a fighter's ability to earn a paycheck. Anything that improves safety without sacrificing the high level of technique and transition that we are accustomed to in MMA is worthy of notice.