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From this YouTube video by Today I Found Out,

Most pertinent here, is that neither boxer would be wearing gloves in such a classic match. As paradoxical as it sounds, boxing without gloves is actually widely considered to be safer than boxing with them, among other reasons because bare knuckle boxers don't punch one another in the head with full force so the risk of brain injury or knockout was dramatically lower. You see lacking protective hand gear, punching someone in the head with every ounce of your physical might is a great way to very seriously injure your hands, particularly when it's done repeatedly.

That sounds believable, but it also sounds like something crafted to go viral from buzzfeed.

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    I don't know about the safety factor, but the reasoning is sound: punching someone in the skull or jaw with your bare fist is a good way to break your fist. – Mark Jan 8 at 23:12
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    "As paradoxical as it sounds, boxing without gloves is actually widely considered to be safer than boxing with them, among other reasons because bare knuckle boxers don't punch one another in the head with full force so the risk of brain injury or knockout was dramatically lower." Seems like that's a reason why it's less dangerous to box with an opponent that isn't wearing gloves, not that it's less dangerous to box while you aren't wearing gloves. – Acccumulation Jan 8 at 23:33
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    There is similar reasoning in other sports. Behavioural changes caused by helmets are a significant reason why American Football is more dangerous than rugby, for instance. – Nathan Cooper Jan 9 at 10:18
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    This reminds me of "traffic calming"... basically make the road feel less safe, so that drivers will go slower. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traffic_calming – user3067860 Jan 9 at 17:05
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    From experience I can say that the better you get at punching hard surfaces with bare hands (more correct technique and physical conditioning), the less your odds of breaking your fist become. So I feel like there is a possible asymmetry here, or more poignantly, a stratification of lethality: the most skilled and conditioned punchers who have overcome the psychological aversion to doing injury to another human and whose ethics don't preclude it will hit with the same force, and without cushioning that's more brutal, while most normal people will hit weaker, and injure less. – mtraceur Jan 9 at 20:05
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Some studies came to the conclusion that bare knuckle boxing may be safer because people punch harder with gloves. This was also attributed to it being painful to punch really hard with just your fists.

Here's a good summary of the studies:

Smith and Smith et al. found that the boxing and karate gloves were not particularly effective in preventing knockouts in boxing or full-contact karate. In fact, higher momentum levels were recorded for gloved punches on a heavy bag as compared with bare fisted punches. The karate glove would most likely cause concussions due to the higher impulse values. It spread impact forces over a longer period of time at higher velocities and caused greater accelerations of the impacted object.
Injury rates during the 1988 US Olympic Team Trials for taekwondo

The studies cited in that paragraph (all done by the same one or two people: Smith and Hamill) are:

  • Punching impact effect of the karate, boxing, and the thumbless boxing glove
    • It mentions a highly relevant study too:

      Dessureault and Therrien (1981) determined that large force and weight variations existed between gloves of supposedly the same weights. The Canadian study also found that gloves lost almost 50% of their force absorption ability after 11 impacts and that some gloves had been used in up to 100 fights.

    • The study isn't properly referenced but I think it's the same one cited by this also relevant article: Dessureault, J., and Therrien, R. G. Caracteristiques de l'energie absorbee et de la force transmise par les gants en boxe. Regie de la securite dans les sports, Trois-Rivieres, mars 1981, 60 pp.
  • Smith, P.K. 'Transmission of force through the karate, boxing, and thumbless boxing glove as a function of velocity' In Terauds, J., Gowitzke, B.E. and Holt, L.E. (eds.), Biomechanics in Sports III and IV, Academic Publishers, Del Mar, CA, 1987
    • I couldn't find the article online
  • Karate and boxing glove impact characteristics as functions of velocity and repeated impact:
    • It was surprising to find the boxing glove transmitted more momentum to the bag than the bare fist. Possibly the cushioning effect of the gloves allowed subjects to punch harder since impact would be less painful to the puncher. Without the impending pain from impact as a constraint, the subject could feel freer to apply more momentum to the bag.

  • Smith, P. K. and Hamill, J. The effect of punching glove type and skill level on momentum transfer J Hum Mov Stud 1986, 12, 153-161
    • I couldn't find this one online either.

Another thing that's interesting to note is that many gloves being sold online only mention how they protect the wearer's hands or wrists (but mention nothing about them better for the person getting punched):

Gel Infused foam provides superb protection and softness to help prevent injury to your hands while training —Sanabul Essential Gel Boxing Kickboxing Training Gloves

Great for punching bag training and sparring, these gloves from renowned boxing equipment maker, Everlast, feature dense, two-layer foam padding and a patented Thumb-Lok for superb hand and thumb protection. — Everlast 1200026 Everlast Women's Pro Style Training Boxing Gloves - Black

The ultra-lightweight Force Training Gloves are equipped with triple-layered foam padding for optimal shock absorbency and energy dispersion, ensuring that your hands are always protected. The fully-adjustable, hook & loop elastic strap system found on these gloves provide secure wrist support to prevent against common striking injuries. — Amber Fight Gear FORCE-103 16 oz Amber Fight Gear Force Sparring Gloves Navy & Black

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    Good answer; but are you aware of any studies that measured velocity etc in circumstances other than when training with a bag? An actual fight is very different to training with a bag where every punch lands, you're never on the defensive, and there may be fiction burn or scrape if it's your skin against the bag material. – user568458 Jan 8 at 21:18
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    @user568458 I'm pretty sure you couldn't ethically set up a study where you have people punching each other to see how many people get injuries, so the best that could be done is probably correlation, based off data found "in the wild", which isn't too high quality since injuries are underreported. In any case, I haven't found any, and the original quote only says things are "widely considered" to be this way. – Laurel Jan 8 at 22:35
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    @Laurel you could hook up accelerometers/force sensors/motion tracking to some volunteer boxers/MMA fighters who were going to fight anyways and check forces and such. No need to go to the point of injury, although you would need to argue about what kinds of forces/impuleses/momentums are "better". – mbrig Jan 9 at 0:53
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    @mbrig In an actual match those sorts of things would likely be a rules violation. The organizing body itself would have to approve it, as would all fighters probably, and they'd probably want some sort of scientific data beforehand that it's safe, won't elevate risk injuries, etc., which was kind of the point of putting it there in the first place... – zibadawa timmy Jan 9 at 4:23
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    "Gloves are designed to protect the fists of the wearer and do nothing to prevent brain injury unless they are so large as to be unwieldy" from this 1993 study by the British Medical Association. citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/… – C Henry Jan 9 at 21:17

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