Headgear is one of the most important pieces of safety gear a fighter will purchase. While studies have shown that good boxing headgear can reduce the force delivered to the brain significantly, not all fighters are convinced it actually reduces concussions. There is little debate that headgear greatly reduces the amount of superficial cuts and bruises to the face that can quickly ruin a match or pre-bout training.
If the best defense to head injuries is not getting hit in the first place, the second best is using good safety gear. The best boxing headgear protects your face during those important sparring sessions, reduces bruising, and over time can reduce the cumulative force delivered to your brain. Not surprisingly, even the best cheap headgear is no match for the high quality stuff. This guide dives deep into the best options for Boxing, MMA, and Muay Thai.
Headgear padding covers the most sensitive areas of the face where gloves can easily cut the skin. Organizations and competitions have gone back and forth about wearing headgear in recent years. Removing the headgear may be safer, but the drawback is a huge increase of bouts being derailed by cuts. The padding on headgear protects your eyes, cheeks, and jawline. For added cut protection you can apply Vaseline to the remaining exposed areas for the face.
(Pro) Protects the Nose & Chin
The nose makes a nice target for a punch, and makes a heck of mess when broken. Boxing headgear with cheek padding and a face saver can really protect the nose from taking that kind of beating. Fighters who do hard sparring may really benefit from headgear, saving a lot of wear and tear on their noses.
(Pro) Reduces Bruising
Cuts are obviously bad, but bruising can be just as detrimental, if not more painful. Amateur boxers most likely have other jobs to pay the bills, and coming into work with black eyes all the time may not be an option. In those situations, good headgear is a solid investment.
(Con) Reduces Range of Vision
The presence of foam padding creates blind spots in your vision. The more padding there is on the headgear, the more it can impede your vision. For this reason, competition headgear has the least amount of padding, removing the cheek, chin, and face padding in favor of being able to see your opponent to better avoid punches. The best protection is avoiding getting hit, but the next best is a high quality boxing headgear.
(Con) Creates a Larger Target
One reason amateur boxing organizations are moving away from headgear during competition, is they claim the padding creates a larger target for gloves to land punches, leading to more head injuries. Critics of this decision say the evidence is anecdotal and the increase in facial cuts far offsets the chance of head injury from the headgear. The bottom line is, use the gear your organization requires, and always wear good headgear during sparring and full contact training sessions.
(Con) Creates False Sense of Security
Strapping on a cushy headgear may give you a sense of security, but it can be a bad thing if it makes a fighter box recklessly. Just because you have headgear on, doesn’t mean you can’t sustain a brain injury from a direct blow. Trainers know that without the right mindset, sparring with headgear can be harmful. It’s good to feel confident with the best headgear protecting your head, but it is critical to your face and head that a fighter box as if they had no protection.
Does Headgear Prevent Concussions?
You may have noticed we did not mention prevention of concussions as a benefit of headgear. Contrary to conventional wisdom the primary use for headgear is used to prevent facial cuts, nose injury, and bruising. Head guards do not necessarily prevent concussions. The best protection long term is to wear headgear along with a mouth guard.
Despite many studies, the data is still inconclusive as to whether wearing headgear helps reduce the occurrence of concussions in any of the fighting sports. Even though the IOC eliminated the headgear requirement for Olympic Boxing, it is important to note that the Association of Ringside Physicians does NOT support the removal of headgear from amateur boxing competitions.
Styles of Headgear
Some gyms have community headgear for anyone to strap on. That may work in a pinch, but think about all the baked in sweat and blood in those things, it’s really gross. That should be reason enough to invest in your own set. Depending on your sport there are different needs for headgear and each style is outlined below.
Competition headgear has more streamlined padding, and has less cheek padding. This design helps keep your head as mobile as possible, and allow more vision. The punch you can see coming is a punch you can react to and reduce its impact. In the same respect, lighter headgear allows you move quicker, slipping punches that might otherwise catch your chin or cheeks. Look for headgear that is certified by USA Boxing or AIBA, which you can tell by the approved label stamped onto the padding.
Sparring headgear, sometimes called “Face Saver” headgear, features thicker padding and padded cross bars protecting the nose or chin. Headgear protecting the nose can decrease visibility, and some people find this annoying. Some headgear has the bar lower to protect the chin, which has the benefit of increased visibility.
Muay Thai (Kickboxing)
Thai kickboxing headgear is much like boxing headgear, and in many cases they can be used interchangeably. Many times the only difference is the brand (Boxing brand vs Muay Thai brands), but you can be sure they perform similarly. Thai boxing does not involve wrestling like MMA. It does involve knee and elbow strikes, as well as high kicks. Thai style headgear may also more commonly have chin protection because of the variety of strikes.
The main difference between Thai and boxing vs MMA headgear is the shape and size of the design. MMA has grappling so it borrows design aspects from wrestling. Boxers don’t have to contend with holds and ground wrestling, so they can afford thicker, softer padding. Good MMA headgear tends to have a little firmer padding.
Winning is a Japanese fight sports gear company known for high quality that comes at a premium price. The FG2900 is a “Mexican” style design, which means it has full cheek coverage instead of a face bar. The Fg2900 is the best headgear for sparring they make.
Winning gear typically has a minimalistic design, but they keep it clean to keep the gear light. Lightweight headgear is super important to improve fighter’s ability to not get hit. So this is why they have no padding in the back, and a simple chin strap instead of a heavier buckle. The plastic ratchet allows you to secure your chin strap without a large buckle hanging in there.
The material is not real leather, which is surprising for one of the most expensive headgear out there. But it is durable, with some fighters reporting hundreds of rounds without showing any signs of wear. The cheek padding has good coverage and while it can’t replace a full face bar, it does protect really well for this style.
Is the Winning FG2900 worth the money? The FG2900 is hand crafted in Japan, the padding is great, and weighs just 10 ounces. All we can say is that if you want the best and don’t want to think too hard about it, no doubt the FG2900 is a solid choice.
If you’re looking for a good Winning FG5000 alternative, the Ring to Cage Deluxe 2.0 is about as close as you can get. The biggest difference beside the price is the weight. The FG5000 weighs in at a ridiculously light 15 ounces vs 24 ounces for the R2C. The Deluxe also uses genuine leather compared to the synthetic leather from Winning, and has a “Dri-max” fabric liner that some fighters prefer over the vinyl. It dries fast but some think it feels hotter while sparring.
This model is bulky looking but it has a really awesome face saver that protects the nose. The window is large enough to have decent vision, which face savers aren’t exactly known for. The chin strap is a 1 inch wide hook and loop strap and has a nice loop sewn into the bottom to keep the strap from coming loose.
The rear of the headgear snugs up to the head with a large hook and loop pad and laces over the crown of the skull. The padding consists of foam and gel that helps absorb a lot of shock. Overall the Ring to Cage Deluxe 2.0 is a really good sparring headgear for Muay Thai or regular boxing.
The TITLE Boxing Gel headgear is a solid option for sparring and can double as a Muay Thai Headgear set. It features an all real leather construction, with a layered padding inside. There are the outer foam layers and an inner gel layer for better force distribution and dissipation than the traditional all foam designs.
If you currently have an all foam head guard now, you should notice a nice difference with a gel model.
There is no chin strap, but you snug up the fit with the large Velcro strap on the rear of the gear. This is how they can get away with just two sizes, Regular and Large. The chin bar there in place of the buckle offers just minimal protections, but it is certainly better than nothing. The cheek pads are medium sized so your nose may be more exposed than if you had a full face head guard.
TITLE has a good reputation for good boxing gear, and they stand behind their products. There are certainly cheaper models with similar coverage, but they lack the enhanced gel padding. Overall the TITLE Gel is a good headgear for the money and is durable enough to withstand the punishment of hard sparring and kickboxing.
There are only a few models of head guards that are USA Boxing certified for official amateur competitions. The laminated foam design has been proven to be a good performer, so the Ringside Competition model earns our recommendation for this style head guard.
The Ringside has a layered foam construction, with leather surfaces, and silky smooth suede lining that keeps the face cool as well as fast drying. Since it’s made of leather, keep in mind there may be a break in period before it is ready for a real fight.
There are four adult sizes, and several youth sizes, making it one of the best fitting headgears you can buy. This is a highly adjustable boxing helmet thanks to three points of securing it. There is the lace on top and Velcro strap on the back to help conform it to the head, and then the leather chin strap to snug it down on the face.
Ringside Elite Competition – This is an upgraded and newer version of the TITLE Competition. It has a modern design, with flexible panels for a nice fit. It does cost quite a bit more than the regular version, but the upgrades to the padding and chin strap might be worth it for some fighters.
TITLE Competition – This head guard is a lot like the TITLE, but for some reason the sizes seem to run small. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad piece of kit, just something to be aware of when measuring and sizing for the TITLE.
RDX Combox (Good Cheap Headgear)
The RDX Combox is a pretty nice performer for the price. Like most RDX gear you get great padding, in this case a three layer foam, gel sheet, and sponge-x for nice diffusion of power when hit. The outer material is the excellent Mayahide synthetic leather that RDX is well known for.
The Combox has no chin strap, you just put it on your head, snug it down into place and strap on the big Velcro flap on the bag and it’s done. There is a sort of funny looking plastic grill face mask on this one, but it’s totally optional and removable. Once you remove it, you will see there are standard cheek guards like on most sparring head gears.
Overall people seem to have been very satisfied with this RDX head guard, and for the price it seems like the best cheap boxing headgear you’ll find.
Hypnotik Base – A very basic, but passable head guard. It has no chin strap, but has a web on top and a nice padded Velcro strap on the back to tighten. This would be a good buy for the casual boxer who likes to spar a little but doesn’t want to wear the loaners at the gym.
Hypnotik Pro Ultra Light – For close to the same price the Hypnotik Pro is lighter, and has a more contoured foam body. It also has a chin strap to help create that secure fit that fighters need when sparring.
Everlast Everfresh – The Everlast is very cheaply made, and is really only useful as a beginner head guard, or as a throwaway. The Everfresh is a little barrel shaped, not nearly as contoured as the RDX or Hypnotik. Just know going in that this won’t be a long lasting piece of gear.
The Tokushu Regensis is a premium MMA headgear. It’s lightweight but has lots of protection for sparring and grappling. The padding has good coverage around the top of the head and ears, a medium sized face guard, and a chin cup to protect your jaw. Even with all that the Regenesis maintains a large window to see the opponent.
The shell of this head guard is made of synthetic leather called Vylar-2. The material is really durable and is designed to prevent cracking and flaking that can occur in leather if it gets dried out. This also makes it easy to wash and maintain.
Inside of the head guard is a fabric liner that draws sweat from your face and helps it all dry quickly. It seems like most of the really good MMA headgear use some form of soft fabric liner.
The Regenesis uses crossing straps on the back to secure the helmet to the head. One strap goes across and the other comes down to secure the straps. It seems to work very well from the forum comments. The great padding, good visibility, and the AG fabric with XT2 anti-microbial technology put the Regenesis at the top of its class.
When you are practicing your grappling, a full size headgear doesn’t really make sense. It’s too bulky to practice escaping holds and really impedes the vision on the mat. For that reason many fighters carry both a sparring head guard and a grappling guard.
The F5 Tornado is a lot like a wrestling head guard, but so many people are using it for MMA and BJJ. IT provides good ear protection, yet has plenty of breathability with an air vent system. This headgear straps to the head via three straps. Once you size the top straps for your head shape, all you have to do is snug the chin strap.
The shell around the ears is hard, but has just enough flex to give a little when pressure is applied. That goes a long ways to making it a good option for you and your training partner. This all makes the F5 one of the lightest and best grappling protection guards around.
Venum makes popular Muay Thai gear directly in Thailand, and the Elite Headgear is no exception. The Elite is open in the back, with nice sized forehead padding, a wide berth for good vision, low sitting cheek pads, and an under chin pad to protect the jaw. There are also nice ear cups which sometimes get overlooked in Thai boxing.
The Venum Elite is made of premium Skintex synthetic leather all around and has a soft liner. Some people think the liner is a little rough at first, and tends to break in after a few sweaty sparring sessions. Overall, the main points that make the Venum Elite a good buy are the excellent padding, wide eye window, and the secure fit thanks to that chin bar and big strap on the back.
Fairtex is another Muay Thai brand, and the Super Sparring Head Guard is also made by hand right there in Thailand. The HG10 looks quite similar to the Venum, but there are also some key differences to note. Overall the shape is very similar to the Elite, but the chin bar sits a tiny bit higher, more over the front of the chin instead of under.
The main differences are the materials and how it is secured to the head. The Supper Sparring HG10 is made of real leather, and has a soft inside. Then on the top you have loops and a lace to tighten the top which some fighters prefer. It’s a little lighter that way, yet still gets the gear tight. Whatever your preference, the Fairtex Super Sparring model is a very solid choice for Muay Thai kickboxing.
Headgear Selection Criteria
Unlike a lot of mixed martial arts gear, there isn’t a single “best” feature for headgear. There are trade-offs that have real implications when a fighter steps into the ring or octagon. Some of these criteria will be set by your gym or trainer, while others will be totally a personal preference. Here is a breakdown of the key aspects to consider before buying.
If you have plans for boxing in amateur competitions, you absolutely will need USA Boxing Certified headgear. How do you know if a headgear is certified? It will have the white rectangular patch sewn onto the padding somewhere, or the description online will explicitly call out the certification if it’s not visible in the photos. Even if you don’t want to box competitively, the certification should give you confidence in the quality of the headgear.
Secure & Comfortable Fit
It is critical to have properly fitting headgear in order to get the best performance and safety from wearing it. Headgear that is too loose can slide around during sparring, impeding your vision and increasing the chances of taking a hard hit. Utilize the sizing charts from each manufacturer, and make sure they have good laces and chin straps.
The other thing regarding fit and comfort with headgear is the lining material. Smooth vinyl lining can become very slimy and slippery when drenched with sweat. A loose fitting and slippery headgear can shift and twist on a fighters head. It’s just another way ill fitting gear impairs the ability to see and slip punches. The other style of lining is suede or microfiber. Those linings absorb moisture better but does gross some people of because of the way it feels when damp.
Remember that headgear needs to be broken in just like any other piece of gear which is why proper fit from the start is so important.
Chin Straps & Laces vs Velcro
Look at the type of chin straps and closures the headgear has before buying. A buckle style chin strap is far more secure than a Velcro strap. The hook and loop style straps can stretch and work themselves loose during use, whereas a buckle isn’t going to budge.
The same principle goes for the top closure. Headgear with lace up tops are typically more secure than a hook and loop closure. If any of the straps slip or stretch it puts the fighter at risk if the headgear slips or settles down where it affects the match.
Padding Coverage vs Visibility
This is one of the biggest questions that need answering before buying headgear. More padding coverage means better protection of your face, eyes, and nose, but it comes at the expense of your vision. As said before, the best defense is not getting hit, and more padding does not help this. This is why competition headgear has smaller cheek pads, and usually no nose or chin pad.
Think about it this way, even if you take a hit, if you can see the punch coming you can at least partially evade a direct blow. This is especially true when considering hooks and uppercuts. With a jab you can see it coming directly in front of you, but a hook or uppercut originates in your peripheral vision where bulky padding can impede it.
Foam Padding vs Gel
Gel padding is a popular alternative to foam in hand wraps, shin guards, MMA gloves, and boxing gloves. Gel doesn’t experience compression set after repeated blows. It is also supposedly more effective at dissipating the impact force from a punch or kick. Some fighters swear by gel padding, saying when they switch to gel the soreness from using flattened foam disappeared and allowed them to continue training.
Size and Weight
Thicker padding makes for a larger target, and heavier for the fighter to move and avoid punches. So this is again another tradeoff a boxer have to make. Thinner padding provides less cushion, but can make you feel lighter and more nimble and give you the confidence you need to train. Likewise, headgear with nose bars or mouth bars usually weigh more at the expense of the extra protection. Much of this is personal preference, but the higher quality headgear is usually also lighter.
Boxing Headgear for Women
The best boxing headgear for women is going to follow all of the same guidelines as for the men. Pick quality gear if you can afford it and don’t look back. Amateur boxer Lisa Creech Bledsoe suggests female boxers avoid anything with face cages, nose bars, or mouth bars if they can help it. Some gyms will require one type or another. Just know you will have to learn to spar with some blinds spots in your vision.
She recommends you test out headgear by borrowing the community gear from the gym first, the move up to cheap headgear. Then you can shell out a little more cash for the good stuff with lace up backs, buckle chinstraps, and USA Boxing certification.
Headgear Sizing Guide
Exact sizing varies between the brands so just consult with each company’s guidelines once you find preferred headgear. There are usually four sizes starting with Small and Regular, up to Large and X-large. Here are size charts for some of the most popular headgear brands. Measure the circumference of your head, from just above the eyebrows, around the upper part of your skull. Then take that number and compare it to the size chart for your chosen brand.
Sparring – Because this is the most popular style of headgear, it’s also the hardest to make a final recommendation. If you are serious about sparring and want the best, it is easy to recommend the Winning FG2900. But for most other people the Ring to Cage Deluxe or Ringside Ultra Light are great choices. If you simply want to try out headgear and need a good cheap option, go with the RDX HGR T1B. The price is right, and has tons of positive reviews.
Boxing Competition – For certified competition use, there is one that stands above the rest and that is the Ringside Competition Headgear. It simply has a higher level of quality the others don’t have. The Ringside Elite is an adequate alternative, but don’t bother with the others.
MMA – The Venum Challenger 2.0 is the top choice for full coverage MMA style headgear. If you want to have better protection for grappling training, the smaller Cliff Keen F5 Tornado is the best option. It is designed more like a wrestling headgear that can be used for MMA as well.
Muay Thai Kickboxing – Kickboxing is similar to boxing but you have the added knee, elbow, and kicks to watch out for. The Venum Elite and Fairtex Super Sparring combine good padding with good visibility for protection during kickboxing sparring matches.
Featured photo by maxtm via Flickr CC, adapted by MMA Revolution. Product images courtesy Amazon.com.