The UFC has an eye-poke problem. The new gloves missed the point

The UFC has an eye-poke problem. The new gloves missed the point

Maybe you noticed and maybe you didn’t, but there was something different about UFC 302. Right there on every fighter’s fist? That was the newest iteration of UFC gloves.

This was a development the UFC was pretty excited about. The day before UFC 300 back in April, UFC officials gave a whole presentation on the new gloves to media members assembled for the official weigh-ins. We watched a video about the extensive research and development process for the new gloves. We received a handout highlighting all the thrilling new innovations packed into these few ounces of protective material. We got to handle them and try them on. (Naturally the first thing I did was extend my fingers to see if it was possible to poke someone in the eye with these. Turns out, yep, sure is.)

Then at UFC 302 on Saturday, the new gloves finally made their UFC debut. Any hope that they would lower the frequency of eye pokes seemed to get dashed during the very first fight of the night. By the end of the event, multiple fighters had ended up with fingers in their eyes. One thing that didn’t happen, however, was a single finish by knockout or TKO.

Obviously, it’s much too early and the sample size much too small to blame that latter stat on the new gloves. At the post-fight news conference, several fighters said they expected the new gloves to benefit stand-up strikers, with UFC welterweight Randy Brown calling them a “puncher’s glove.”

“But it’s not going to do anything for eye pokes,” Brown added. “It really isn’t going to do anything at all for eye pokes.”

And yeah, it does seem like eye pokes were the main glove concern for everyone except the UFC. Maybe the most notable thing about that new glove presentation in April was that the scourge of accidental (or not) eye-gouging was hardly even mentioned. Instead, the designers seemed more concerned about cuts and comfort, and also about protecting hands while not changing the padding in any way that would significantly decrease or increase knockout rates.

Not that those aren’t important concerns, of course … but what about people’s eyes? When I asked this question, the answer was that designers hoped the increased hand flexibility would reduce eye pokes. The thinking there seemed to be that by making it easier for fighters to form a fist in the new gloves, fighters would simply choose to keep their hands closed more often, thus resulting in fewer eye pokes.

One thing about those new gloves, as reviewed by the first fighters to use them in the Octagon, is that they do make it easier to form a fist. Some noted that they felt less grip and forearm fatigue from fighting against the rigidity of the glove. Others said this made it easier to grab opponents in grappling scenarios as well.

Again, all good stuff. But on the delicate subject of eyes, we’re still just hoping it will all work itself out? It matters not just because it’s dangerous to long-term health and career prospects for fighters to be out there spearing each other in the eyeballs, but also because it does seem to have the ability to drastically alter the outcomes of fights. UFC women’s bantamweight Lauren Murphy recently pointed out a statistic from a judging and refereeing course that noted a study wherein the fighter who committed an eye poke in the first round of a fight went on to win that fight a whopping 74% of the time.

Mitch Raposo checks his vision after getting poked in the eye by Andre Lima during their bout at UFC 302. (Photo by Luke Hales/Getty Images)

It’s a hard problem to solve for a few reasons. You could argue that referees need to get more aggressive about taking points from fighters who can’t keep their fingers to themselves, and there’s merit to that argument. But then, if you skewer someone’s eye in the first round and it diminishes his vision enough to help you knock him out in the second, it’s still worth it.

For years there, accidental eye pokes in UFC fights were all the prompt that commentator Joe Rogan needed in order to go on a rant about glove design. If only we had something with more curve to it, he’d say, something that made it harder to extend those fingers in the direction of an opponent’s eyes. Then, what felt like eons later, a brand new glove design appeared. And that design instead made it easier to poke someone in the eyes, while also ensuring greater hand comfort in the process.

That’s not to say the new UFC gloves are bad. Fighters at UFC 302 seem to like them overall, though a few also said they didn’t care much one way or another. It just seems odd to rework the gloves in order to address issues that nobody else was really bringing up, all while ignoring the big one that still lingers right in front of our faces like an outstretched digit.


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