The Hitman loves Reyes
By Thomas Hauser
The Romans forced gladiatorial slaves into combat wearing cesti weighted with iron spikes on their fists. Getting hit with cesti must have hurt. Now boxers wear gloves; not to protect an opponent's face but to safeguard their hands.
Modern gloves date to John Broughton, whose "Broughton's Rules" governed boxing from their promulgation in 1743 until 1838, when the London Prize Ring Rules were adopted. Broughton's "mufflers" were used for sparring and, unlike today's gloves, were designed primarily to protect the faces of his well-to-do students. Then the Marquess of Queensberry Rules came into play, mandating that matches be contested with "fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new."
In the early years of the Queensberry Rules, gloves were often little more than skin-tight mittens weighing several ounces. John L. Sullivan is widely known as the last champion of the bare-knuckle era. However, "The Great John L" wore gloves for most of his fights. In 1892, when he lost to James Corbett in the first heavyweight championship fight contested under the Queensberry Rules, each man wore five-ounce gloves. Present-day regulations require 8-ounce gloves for fighters in weight divisions up to 147 pounds and 10-ounce gloves above that.
In recent decades, the color of gloves has changed from brown to red, which better enables fans to see the punches. Artist LeRoy Neiman, who calls himself "a product of the brown-glove era," says, "I suppose it's just a matter of time before some fighter comes into the ring wearing polka dots or stripes on his fists."
Regardless, boxing gloves aren't particularly fashionable; although promoter Don Elbaum opines, "If you put a pair of boxing gloves on a good-looking woman, she immediately looks sexier." There will be more from Elbaum later in this article.
The oldest major brand name in boxing is also the largest manufacturer of gloves. The "Everlast" logo is affixed to approximately one million pairs of gloves each year. Most of these are used for sparring, bag-work, and other gym activity. Training gloves are for learning and developing, not doing damage in the gym. They have more padding than fight gloves and weigh up to twenty ounces.
Only a small percentage of the gloves that Everlast makes are worn by professional fighters. These are hand-crafted at the Everlast plant in Moberly, Missouri. Much of the company's other glove manufacturing is outsourced to production facilities overseas.
Everlast offers a substantial discount on gloves sold to gyms, promoters, and others in the trade. It often gives away gloves for fights that will be seen on television. "We don't think about making a profit where gloves worn by professional fighters are concerned," says company CEO George Horowitz. "The fact that professional boxers wear our gloves is important to us as a marketing tool for all of our products."
Everlast's primary domestic competitor in the sale of gloves is Grant, which was founded by Grant Elvis Phillips in 1995. "I was 29 years old, managing fighters, and selling boxing equipment on the side," Phillips recalls. "I always felt that I could make a superior glove, but I didn't have the money to get started. Then Luis Santana, who was my fighter, fought Terry Norris and won on a disqualification. They fought again, and Luis won again on a disqualification. Norris knocked him out the third time they fought, but by then I'd made a half-million dollars. I put it all into starting the company, and things went from there."
Grant gloves are crafted in Mexico City. The other major manufacturers of boxing gloves are Reyes (headquartered in Mexico) and Winning (a Japanese company).
Reyes has a reputation as a "puncher's glove," which stirs a measure of debate. "Some people say this one is a puncher's glove and that one is something else," says Donald Turner, who has trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes. "That's nonsense. Eight ounces is eight ounces. The gloves don't knock you out; the fighter does."
But trainer-commentator Teddy Atlas (who is an Everlast consultant) disagrees. "There's some truth to the idea that Reyes is a puncher's glove," Atlas notes. "A puncher's glove is in the construction. You can get ten ounces with soft spread-out padding or you can get ten ounces with tight-stitching and compressed padding. Everlast now makes a glove that feels comfortable and conforms to the hand and is more tightly-packed," Atlas continues. "But with Reyes, there's less cushion around the punching area and the leather is pulled tighter so the glove absorbs less of the impact. That leaves more impact for the opponents face."
However, by the same laws of physics, a puncher's glove also leaves more impact to be absorbed by the hand.
"Thomas Hearns loved Reyes gloves," recalls Emanual Steward, who trained and managed Hearns through most of the fighter's career. "But puncher's gloves are harder on the hands too. When Thomas started having hand problems, I insisted on a clause in all his fight contracts stipulating that the fighters wear Everlast gloves."
In virtually all jurisdictions, it's the responsibility of the promoter to supply gloves for each fight, subject to approval by the governing commission and the fighters' contracts. Many states (including New York and Nevada) require that new gloves be used in main events and any championship fight. Used gloves in good condition are acceptable for other contests.
In New York, for championship fights, four sets of new gloves are set out on a table at the rules meeting prior to the bout. The champion chooses his fight gloves first. The challenger has second pick. Then the champion chooses a back-up pair followed again by the challenger. Gloves for all non-title fights are given to the chief inspector. He then gives proper-weight gloves for each fight to the inspector assigned to that bout, who gives them to the fighters. A fighter can object to a particular pair, in which case he'll be given another pair chosen by the inspector.
Boxing maven Charles Jay points out that, to his knowledge, no commission actually weighs the gloves, which opens the door to wrongdoing. Here, Don Elbaum admits, "There were times when I manipulated a situation so my guy wore six-ounce gloves and the opponent wore eights. I've done it with eights and tens too," Elbaum adds. "But I haven't done it in this century. Whatever I did, the statute of limitations has run on it."
On the lighter side, Elbaum was the architect of one of boxing's great glove stories. On October 1, 1965, Sugar Ray Robinson fought Peter Schmidt (known as "The Fighting Milkman") in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The bout took place almost twenty-five years to the day after Robinson's first professional fight. To get some pre-fight publicity, Elbaum arranged for a dinner in Ray's honor. There was a 25th-anniversary cake. The media and assorted dignitaries were in attendance. The highlight of the affair came when Elbaum got up and said, "Ray, don't ask me how I got these. It took a lot for me to convince Harry Markson [president of Madison Square Garden Boxing] to part with them. But twenty-five years ago, you made your professional debut at the Garden, and these are the gloves you wore that night."
Robinson's eyes teared up. He was genuinely moved by the moment. He took the two battered gloves and cradled them in his arms like he was holding a newborn babe. Then someone suggested he put the gloves on for a photo op. That's when the world discovered that Don Elbaum had given Sugar Ray Robinson two left gloves.
But some glove stories have an ugly aura. In an earlier time, fighters were masters at causing damage with parts of the glove that weren't meant to be used that way. Rubbing the laces in an opponent's face and thumbing him in the eye were common. Fritzie Zivic, it was said, could beat an opponent without even punching by inserting his thumb in his opponent's eyes, biceps, and kidneys.
To counter those tactics, "thumbless" gloves became mandatory in the 1980s. Technically, the term "thumbless" is a misnomer. The glove has a thumb, but it's attached to the underside of the striking surface by a short piece of fabric woven into a seam at either end.
The most famous charge of wrongdoing related to gloves was leveled against Jack Dempsey by his one-time manager Doc Kearns. Kearns, who decades earlier had fallen out with the fighter, told writer Oscar Fraley that Dempsey's gloves were loaded with plaster of Paris when he brutalized Jess Willard to win the heavyweight championship on July 4, 1919. The allegation was published after Kearns's death in the January 13, 1964, issue of Sports Illustrated. Dempsey sued the magazine for libel, which led to a retraction and financial settlement.
An uglier incident occurred on June 16, 1983, when 21-year-old Billy Collins Jr fought journeyman Luis Resto in a ten-round bout at Madison Square Garden. Collins was a fighter on the rise with 11 knockouts and a 14-0 record. In the dressing room before the fight, Panama Lewis (Resto's trainer) removed much of the padding from the punching area of his fighter's gloves. Resto battered Collins for ten rounds and won a lopsided decision. Both of Collins's eyes were horribly swollen. He suffered permanently-impaired vision, was unable to fight again, began drinking heavily and, nine months after the fight, was killed in a car accident. Resto was convicted of assault, conspiracy, and criminal possession of a deadly weapon, and served two-and-a-half years in prison. Lewis spent a year in prison and was permanently barred from working as a trainer in the United States.
Nor are glove stories confined to decades past. Before the first fight between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, Barrera wanted to wear Reyes gloves while Morales voiced a preference for Winning. Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner decreed that the issue would be resolved by a coin toss. Barrera said that was fine with him but, if he lost the toss, he wouldn't fight. The coin turned his way, so the issue became moot. Nevada now allows fighters to wear different-brand gloves as long as they're on the state's approved list (which includes Everlast, Grant, Winning, and Reyes).
One year later, Barrera found himself emeshed in another glove controversy when he fought Naseem Hamed. The contracts called for both boxers to wear Reyes gloves. The Nevada commission had agreed to requests that Hamed be allowed to wear green and Barrera yellow. Then, at the weigh-in, Barrera chose a pair of yellow gloves for himself. But Hamed had first choice under the contract and, changing his color preference, decided that the pair chosen by Barrera was the one he wanted. Thereafter, the situation degenerated into chaos. Two hours before the fight, the gloves still hadn't been chosen. Mark Ratner brought six pairs of red Reyes gloves to Hamed's dressing room. Naseem tried on each pair and pronounced them all unsatisfactory. Three more pairs were presented. Finally, after examining each glove, Hamed choose a pair. Then Ratner journeyed to Barrera's dressing room, where Marco Antonio's hands were being taped. Ratner set the remaining eight pairs of gloves on a table. One of Barrera's seconds walked over and, without looking twice, pointed to a pair at random.
And then there was the weigh-in for Roy Jones versus John Ruiz. Norman Stone (Ruiz's trainer) accused Alton Merkerson (his counterpart in the Jones camp) of tampering with Jones's gloves by removing them from their shrink-wrapping without a representative of the Ruiz camp being present. Actually, Ratner had done it. Regardless, one word led to another. Stone grabbed Merkerson by the shirt; Merkerson whacked him with a pretty good righthand; and the two men topped off the weigh-in platform into the crowd.
But the fighter with the most glove anecdotes to his credit is -- drumroll, please -- Muhammad Ali.
In his ninth pro fight, Cassius Clay fought Alex Miteff in Louisville. Teddy Brenner, who was affiliated with the promotion, later recalled, "A couple of hours before the fight, we realized that no one had brought boxing gloves. The stores were closed. It was too late to bring gloves in from someplace else. Finally, we found two pairs that were half-horsehair and half-foam-rubber. They'd been lying around in some gym for a long time and were hard as a rock. We thought it would help Miteff. He was a good puncher, and Clay couldn't punch. After five rounds, it was an even fight. Then, in the sixth, Clay hit him on the chin and knocked him out with one punch. In the dressing room afterward, Miteff kept asking what happened. He couldn't believe that Cassius Clay had knocked him out."
Ultimately, Ali would play a role in the elimination of horsehair from most gloves. According to George Horowitz, Ben Nadorf (then president of Everlast) attended Ali-Frazier III in Manila and was mortified by the fact that, as the fight wore on, the fighters' gloves (manufactured by Everlast) began to lose their shape in the heat and high humidity. Thereafter, Nadorf decreed, horsehair would no longer be used in Everlast gloves. Everlast's padding now consists of a mixture of poly foam, latex foam and PVC foam.
Meanwhile, on June 18, 1963, Clay (18-and-0 by then) fought Henry Cooper in London. Marking time until he could make good on his prediction of a fifth-round knockout, Cassius got clocked with a left hook with five seconds left in the fourth round. He fell through the ropes, rolled back into the ring, and staggered to his feet, quite literally saved by the bell.
There are two kinds of being "hurt" in boxing. The first is when a fighter feels pain; most often from a body shot or blow to the ears, eyes, or nose. The second kind of hurt is when a fighter is dazed and loses control over his reflexes. At that point, Clay was feeling no pain.
"Cassius split his glove on the seam near the thumb," Angelo Dundee later explained. "Actually, it happened in the first round. I spotted the tear and told him, 'Keep your hand closed.' I didn't want anyone to see it because everything was going our way. Then, at the end of the fourth round, he got nailed. So when he came back to the corner, I helped the split a little, pulled it to the side, and made the referee aware that there was a torn glove."
No back-up gloves were available and, after a brief delay, the fight resumed. " I don't know how much time that got us," Dundee acknowledged. "Maybe a minute, but it was enough. If we hadn't gotten the extra time, I don't know what would have happened. I think Cassius would have made it through, but we don't have to answer that question."
Eight months later, in his next fight, Clay was in the ring against Sonny Liston. In one of boxing's most dramatic crises, he fought the entire fifth round with impaired vision believed to have been caused by an astringent that dripped into his eyes after having been rubbed onto Liston's gloves.
But the most endearing tale of Muhammad Ali and gloves dates to his 1975 encounter with Joe Bugner in Malaysia. That happening was notable for the pre-fight rules meeting. After going through the normal, interminably boring regulatory minutiae, the local commissioner announced that the fighters' gloves would be held in a local prison until the day of the fight. That got Ali's attention.
'Wait a minute," Muhammad interrupted. "You're putting my gloves in jail? This is awful. How can you do that? How can you put my gloves in jail? They ain't done nothing (pause) yet."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.