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It seems obvious that punches would be far riskier without hand protection designed specifically to cushion the knuckles and stabilize the hand, but I don't have any idea how much it would change the sport. To be clear, I am talking about a change to the unified rules of MMA, not a complete change to "anything goes in the streets."

I am hoping to get more practical evidence, and online searches aren't helping. The closest sport I could find was the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, but it disallows almost everything except boxing and still uses hand wraps. Warfare has always been primarily armed and armored, so that's no help. There are endless self-defense resources, but the takes are often conflicting, undemonstrated, or untested (to get a sense of how much BS there is, look up knife defense tests).

I'm looking for historical sports that approximate MMA minus hand protection (allow striking and grappling that target most of body) and an overview of their techniques, or personal knowledge from sparring and unarmed combat.

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    Comments should be used for clarifications or improvement of the question, not answers. – mattm Oct 25 '20 at 19:35
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From my experience in sparring without a gi both with and without gloves/wraps, there will be two main differences:

  • Some submissions, like straight armbars, might become more difficult since it is easier to slip out (or retain control) when the arm doesn't get stuck at the wrist due to the glove. To talk more generally, things get more slippery.

  • Due to slippery grappling, it's not like there would open up a whole new world of new techniques. Basically yes, one would be able to attack the wrist. And you see some wrist locks in no-gi BJJ, i.e. highly controlled groundwork. So there's that.

As of standing fights, I would not expect too much of a difference regarding the grappling itself, since due to the lack of clothing, there simply isn't much there which is hindered by MMA gloves. Mind, the reason they feature open fingers basically is to enable grappling.

What will probably happen are the occurrence of more blood and maybe less ruthless punching. There is quite the possibility to cut or break your hand if you just punch like you are used doing with gloves, not what professionals whose bodies are their capital love to see. This may - and I am theorising at that point - lead to a shift towards elbows, kicks (including knees), and grappling. No idea how much of a shift, but a shift. It becomes exceedingly more difficult to check and keep your distance with jabs and the threat of a follow-up punch to the head when the other one knows how to move the hard parts of their head into the way of the punch and you cannot risk ending the fight by breaking your hand.

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  • Great insights on the economic dimension, including risk of breaking the hand! – DukeZhou Oct 27 '20 at 0:18
  • Also theorising at this point, but from what I've seen of Bas Rutten in Pancrase, it's possible open-handed strikes would replace the jab. It's a shaky theory for sure because closed fisted strikes against the head were BANNED, probably due to the lack of gloves and wraps. It's hard to use that to say what would happen if punches were allowed. (Also the widespread opinion that Pancrase had fixes; I have no solid proof on specific fights, but sometimes it sure looked like it). – BatWannaBe Oct 27 '20 at 0:52
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    @BatWannaBe: While palm-strikes certainly will occur, I, personally, deem them a poor substitution for proper jabs. Firstly, because there still is quite the chance to still break some (wrist-)bones or of other injuries, eg. ripping your hand at the opponent's nasal bone. That is if you strike and you mean it. Secondly, it may not seem like much, but the loss of range from a normal jab to palm-strike is meaningful when it comes to range-control. These few inches do a lot regarding the danger of knees, elbows, or clinch. Thirdly, for a trained grappler, open hands can be caught much easier. – Philip Klöcking Oct 27 '20 at 8:45
  • That's a good point; I can imagine my wrist hyperextending if I miss and hit with anywhere above the heel. Traditional martial arts including very early bare-knuckle boxing certainly didn't replace all punches with palm strikes. – BatWannaBe Oct 27 '20 at 9:18
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One change, relatively minor, but important individually, is that it might further reduce the risk of injuries due to hidden weapons. Aside from the stereotypical weighted gloves sometimes seen in media for boxing, some MMA competitions have problems with loaded hand wraps and the consequences can be career ending (the linked video is Ramsey Dewey recounting how this is what led to his retirement, as well as to his characteristic speech patterns resulting from how he compensates for the brain injury he sustained). The less covering you have, the harder it is to hide such weaponry, pro wrestling shenanigans aside.

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  • I've watched quite a few of his videos, I had no idea that's what ended his fighting career. If some extra tape can do that, might as well start handing out brass knuckles; unarmed combat sports should be unarmed – BatWannaBe Oct 26 '20 at 5:25
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    @BatWannaBe: my understanding was that it was a bit closer to a few players of tape on top of something soaked into the lower levels of tape to turn them into something more rigid and heavier. But yeah, also surprised me to learn that his deliberate speech pattern is because otherwise he loses track of what he's saying. – Macaco Branco Oct 26 '20 at 10:38
  • This is a great angle, but can we truly say injuries overall would be reduced by removing even the minimal protection of gloves? (My sense of the overall evolution of MMA as a popular sport, out of the old-school "Gracie Rules" which are a better gauge and closer to real-world combat, was the need to reduce risk of serious injuries in the ring. I recall that, at one point, it was difficult to find states that would allow the matches.) – DukeZhou Oct 27 '20 at 0:22
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    @DukeZhou Truthfully, there's a lot of give and take, kind of like how heavyweight boxers are more likely to get knocked out, but lightweight boxers are more likely to suffer overall brain trauma because they suffer lighter impacts, but they have longer fights where they get hit more. Similarly, no gloves/wraps means people can't hit quite a hard, but that means the fights are less likely to end by knockout. Or maybe it will be more knockouts by knee and elbow. – Macaco Branco Oct 27 '20 at 0:44
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    If they ever do ban gloves and wraps for realism, I predict there would be a spike in career-halting hand injuries that gradually goes away as people adjust their striking – BatWannaBe Oct 27 '20 at 9:19

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