Mixed martial arts rules
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Most rule sets for mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions have evolved since the early days of Vale Tudo. As a result of health, legal, and moral concerns, many different rulesets were created, which give different countries and promotions very different tactics and strategies. Similarly, shoot wrestling organizations, such as Shooto, expanded their rulesets to integrate elements of Vale Tudo into their sport. However, for the most part, fighters accustomed to one rule set can easily acclimate to the others.
The most prevalent rule set in the world being used currently is the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, adopted by all state athletic commissions in the United States that regulate MMA and is used most notably in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Unified Rules are the de facto rules for MMA in the United States, and have been adopted by other promotions and jurisdictions worldwide. Other notable sets include Shooto's, which were the first to mandate padded gloves, and Pride rules, after PRIDE Fighting Championships, which were also adopted by UFC.
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Some main motivations for these rule changes included:
- Protection of the health of the fighters: This goal was partially motivated to clear the stigma of "barbaric, no rules, fighting-to-the-death" matches that MMA obtained because of its Vale Tudo and no holds barred roots. It also helps athletes avoid injuries which would otherwise hamper the training regimens that improve skill and ability and lead to better fights in the future.
- Providing spectacle for spectators.
Weight classes emerged when knowledge about submission holds spread. When more fighters became well-versed in submission techniques and avoiding submissions, differences in weight became a substantial factor.
Headbutts were prohibited because it was a technique that required little effort and could quickly turn the match into a bloody mess. Headbutting was common among wrestlers because their skill in takedowns allowed them to quickly transfer bouts to the ground where they could assault opponents with headbutts while not being required to alter their position. There has been some criticism that techniques banned from MMA, including headbutts, are actually very effective fighting techniques. 
Small, open-finger gloves were introduced to protect fists in punches while still allowing for effective grappling. Gloves were first mandatory in Japan's Shooto league, but are now mandatory in matches for nearly every promotion. Although some fighters may have well conditioned fists, others may not. The small bones in an unprotected and unconditioned fist are prone to break when it hits a torso or forehead with power. Gloves also reduce the occurrence of cuts (and stoppages due to cuts) and encourage fighters to use their hands for striking, both of which enable more captivating matches.
Time limits were established to avoid long fights on the ground with little perceivable action. No time limit matches also complicated the airing of live events. Similar motivations produced the "stand up" rule, where the referee can stand fighters up if it is perceived both are resting on the ground or are not advancing toward a dominant position.
Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts
In April 2000, the California State Athletic Commission voted unanimously in favor of regulations that later became the foundation for the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. However, when the legislation was sent to California's capital for review, it was determined that the sport fell outside the jurisdiction of the CSAC, rendering the vote superfluous.
In September 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board began to allow MMA promoters to conduct events in New Jersey. The intent was to allow the NJSACB to observe actual events and gather information to establish a comprehensive set of rules to effectively regulate the sport.
On April 3, 2001, the NJSACB held a meeting to discuss the regulation of MMA events. This meeting attempted to unify the myriad of rules and regulations which have been utilized by the different MMA organizations. At this meeting, the proposed uniform rules were agreed upon by the NJSACB, several other regulatory bodies, numerous promoters of MMA events and other interested parties in attendance. At the conclusion of the meeting, all parties in attendance were able to agree upon a uniform set of rules to govern the sport of MMA.
The rules adopted by the NJSACB have become the de facto standard set of rules for professional MMA across North America. All state, provincial, & municipal athletic commissions that regulate MMA have assimilated these rules into their existing unarmed combat competition rules and statutes. For a promotion to hold MMA events in a sanctioned venue, the promotion must abide by the commission's body of rules.
Every round is five minutes in duration with a one-minute rest period in-between rounds. Non-title matches must not normally exceed three rounds, but the governing commission can grant dispensation for non-title five round bouts, as is usually done for the Main Event in the UFC. Title matches can be sanctioned for five rounds.
All competitors must fight in approved shorts, without shoes or any other sort of foot padding. Shirts, gis or long pants (including gi pants) are not allowed. Fighters must use approved light gloves (4–6 ounces) that allow fingers to grab. A mouthguard and protective cup are also required and are checked by a State Athletic Committee official before being allowed to enter the cage/ring. Furthermore, approved leg and chest (in the case of women) protectors must be provided by the contestant.
The ten-point must system is used for all fights. Three judges score each round with ten points to the winner and nine points or fewer to the other fighter. In New Jersey, the fewest points a fighter can receive is 7. If the round is even, both fighters receive ten points. Penalty points (usually one point for each offence, occasionally two points) decided by the referee are deducted from each judge's score for that round for the offending fighter.
The Association of Boxing Commissions has published a guideline of what judges in the US should consider most when scoring a round. "Effective striking/grappling" (defined as legal strikes that inflict more damage on one fighter in that round, as well as successful takedowns, reversals, and submission attempts) is seen as the primary criteria, with judges also asked to take each round on its own merits rather than consider cumulative impact of strikes. "Effective aggression" (where judges consider who made more of an effort to finish the fight in that round) is a secondary criteria, followed by cage generalship and dictating the pace of the fight. The ABC also encourages its judges to score rounds 10-8 if a judge feels that one fighter has landed a substantial amount of "impactful" strikes or spent large amounts of time in dominant grappling positions, as "it is absolutely essential to the evolution of the sport and to demonstrate fairness to fighters" that rounds where a fighter controls much of the action are properly scored to reward that fighter.
At the end of the fight, each judge submits their total score for all rounds for each fighter, to determine the result by the following criteria.
- Unanimous decision win: All three judges have the same fighter as the winner.
- Majority decision win: Two judges have one fighter winning the fight and the third judge scores it a draw.
- Split decision win: Two judges have one fighter winning the fight and the third judge has the other fighter winning it.
- Unanimous draw: All three judges score it a draw.
- Majority draw: Two judges score it a draw, and the third judge has a winner.
- Split draw: One judge scores it a draw, and the other two judges have different winners.
There are 11 classes of weight for fighters:
- Atomweight (women) - up to 105 lb (47.6 kg)
- Strawweight (women) - between 105 and 115 lb (47.6 and 52.2 kg)
- Flyweight (men/women) – between 115 and 125 lb (52.2 and 56.7 kg)
- Bantamweight (men/women) – between 125 and 135 lb (56.7 and 61.2 kg)
- Featherweight (men/women) – between 135 and 145 lb (61.2 and 65.8 kg)
- Lightweight (men) – between 145 and 155 lb (65.8 and 70.3 kg)
- Welterweight (men) – between 155 and 170 lb (70.3 and 77.1 kg)
- Middleweight (men) – between 170 and 185 lb (77.1 and 83.9 kg)
- Light Heavyweight (men) – between 185 and 205 lb (83.9 and 93.0 kg)
- Heavyweight (men) – between 205 and 265 lb (93.0 and 120.2 kg)
- Super Heavyweight (men) - Over 265 lb (120.2 kg) with no upper weight limit
As set out by the Association of Boxing Commissions:
- Grabbing the fence
- Holding opponent’s shorts or gloves
- Biting or spitting at an opponent
- Hair pulling
- Intentionally placing a finger into any orifice, or into any cut or laceration of an opponent
- Eye gouging of any kind
- Groin attacks
- Downward pointing of elbow strikes (see 12-6 elbow)
- Small joint manipulation
- Strikes to the spine or back of the head or anything behind the ears (see Rabbit punch)
- Throat strikes of any kind, including, without limitation, grabbing the trachea
- Fingers outstretched towards opponent's face/eyes
- Clawing, pinching, twisting the flesh
- Kicking and knee-striking the head of a grounded opponent (see Soccer kick)
- Stomping an opponent on the ground
- Swearing or offensive language in the cage (although nobody ever received deductions or disqualifications in fights)
- Any unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to opponent
- Attacking an opponent during a break
- Attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee
- Timidity (excessively avoiding contact, consistent dropping of mouthpiece, or faking an injury)
- Throwing opponent out of the ring/fighting area
- Interference from a mixed martial artist's cornerman
- Flagrant disregard of the referee’s instructions
- Spiking an opponent to the canvas on his or her head or neck (see Piledriver)
- Attacking an opponent after the bell has sounded the end of the period of unarmed combat
When a foul is charged, the referee in their discretion may deduct one or more points as a penalty. If a foul incapacitates a fighter, then the match may end in a disqualification if the foul was intentional, or a "no contest" if unintentional. If a foul causes a fighter to be unable to continue later in the bout, it ends with a technical decision win to the injured fighter if the injured fighter is ahead on points, otherwise it is a technical draw.
- Contestants shall complete all pre-licensure medical examinations and tests required by the jurisdiction licensing the contest.
- The jurisdiction licensing the contest shall conduct or supervise all pre-contest weigh-ins and may hold or supervise a rules meeting for all contestants and their cornermen.
- Post-contest medical examination.
- Immediately following a contest, each contestant shall be given a medical examination by a physician appointed by the commission. The medical examination may include any examinations or tests the commission deems necessary to determine the post-contest physical fitness of a contestant.
- Any contestant who refuses to submit to a post-contest medical examination shall be immediately suspended for an indefinite period.
- Use of prohibited substances: The use of any illegal drug, narcotic, stimulant, depressant, or analgesic of any description, or alcohol substance, by a contestant either before or during a match, shall result in the immediate disqualification of the contestant from the match and disciplinary action in accordance with the commission licensing the contest.
- Detection of prohibited substances: In order to detect the presence of any prohibited substance, a contestant shall submit to any pre-contest or post-contest urinalysis or other laboratory procedure that is ordered by the physician appointed by the commission. Refusal to submit to such testing shall result in the immediate disqualification of the contestant from the match and an indefinite suspension from the sport of MMA.
- All contestants may be ordered to complete a pre-contest urinalysis exam to detect the presence of any drug.
- In addition to a pre-contest analysis, the local commission may, at its discretion, decide to test for the presence of performance-enhancing drugs and thereby require additional urine specimens to be produced at any time after the completion of the contest.
- Collection of specimens for urinalysis testing shall be conducted or supervised by a commission official. Refusal to submit to such testing shall result in the immediate disqualification of the contestant from the match and an indefinite suspension from the sport of MMA.
PRIDE Fighting Championships (defunct)
Historically, PRIDE's rules events and Bushido events. However, it was announced on November 29, 2006, that Bushido events would be discontinued. When holding events in the US, PRIDE abided by the Unified Rules, but added the prohibition against elbows to the head.
The first round is five minutes in duration and the second and third rounds are five minutes in duration. There is a two-minute rest period between each round.
PRIDE allowed fighters some latitude in their choice of attire, most notably the allowance of a gi or amateur wrestling shoes, but open finger gloves, a mouthguard, and a protective cup were mandatory.
If the match reaches its time limit then the outcome of the bout is determined by the three judges. The fight is scored in its entirety and not round-by-round. After the conclusion of the bout, each judge must decide a winner. Matches cannot end in a draw. A decision is made according to the following criteria in this order of priority:
- the effort made to finish the fight via KO or submission,
- damage given to the opponent,
- standing combinations and ground control,
- takedowns and takedown defense,
- aggressiveness, and
- weight (in the case that the weight difference is 10 kg (22 lb) or more).
If a fight is stopped on advice of the ring doctor after an accidental but illegal action, e.g., a clash of heads, and the contest is in its second or third round, the match will be decided by the judges using the same criteria.
PRIDE allowed the following techniques:
- Stomps to the head of a grounded opponent.
- Soccer kicks to the head of a grounded opponent.
- Knees to the head of a grounded opponent.
In addition to the common fouls, PRIDE Fighting Championships considers elbow strikes to the head and face to be fouls.
In the event that a fighter is injured by illegal actions, then at the discretion of the referee and ring doctor, the round is resumed after enough time has been given for the fighter to recover. If the match cannot be continued due to the severity of the injury then the fighter who perpetrated the action will be disqualified.
- If both fighters are on the verge of falling out of the ring or become entangled in the ropes, the referee will stop the action. The fighters must immediately stop their movements and will then be repositioned in the center of the ring in the same position. Once they are comfortably repositioned, they resume at the referee's instruction.
- If fighters commit the following actions, they shall be given a yellow card by officials: Stalling or failure to initiate any offensive attack, making no attempt to finalize the match or damage the opponent, and holding the opponent's body with the arms and legs to produce a stalemate. A yellow card results in a 10% deduction/fine of the fighter's fight purse.
PRIDE Bushido events instituted distinct variations to the full PRIDE rules:
- Bushido bouts consist of two rounds; the first lasting ten minutes and the second lasting five. Intermissions between each round remain two minutes in length.
- In full PRIDE rules, a total of three yellow cards results in a red card (disqualification). In Bushido, yellow cards can be given out in an unlimited number without disqualification.
PRIDE discontinued Bushido events in late-2006 and their rules were last used for lightweight and welterweight fights at PRIDE Shockwave 2006. As the lightweight and welterweight divisions will now be on the main PRIDE shows, the rules for the lighter classes are also changing to reflect standard PRIDE rules.
ONE Championship uses the Global MMA Rule Set which blends a combination of Best Practices from Asian and Non-Asian Rules. Like the Unified Rules, its fights are 3x5 minute rounds (5x5 minute rounds for championship matches), elbows to the head of a grounded opponent are legal, and attire is limited to close-fitting shorts and shirts, but ONE permits 12-to-6 elbow strikes and knees to a grounded opponent's head, banned in the Unified Rules. (Stomps to grounded opponents are also permitted in ONE, but not to the head: head stomps were previously legal in PRIDE.) Soccer kicks were also previously legal in ONE, but have been banned since 2016 as part of the company's worldwide expansion plans. The judging criteria in ONE is also similar to that in PRIDE, with fights scored in their entirety and effort to produce a finish/damage inflicted noted as more important for judges to consider than under US judging protocol.
RIZIN Fighting Federation
RIZIN Fighting Federation uses a ruleset largely similar to that of PRIDE's, which is appropriate given the involvement of longtime Japanese MMA promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara in both promotions. Men's fights in RIZIN are either two rounds with Round 1 lasting 10 minutes and Round 2 lasting 5 minutes, or 3x5 minute rounds. Championship fights in RIZIN are 3x5 minute rounds, as are all women's MMA matches, and all matches are held in a ring in order to allow for both MMA and kickboxing fights to be held on the same card. Judging is done based on the entirety of a fight and the criteria goes damage/effective aggression, effort to finish the fight, and ring generalship, in that order. Soccer kicks and knees to the head of a grounded opponent are both legal. Elbows (including 12-6 elbows) to the head of a grounded opponent are allowed if both fighters agree to permit them.
Other mixed martial arts promotions
- Uses A, B, and C levels. The C level is considered for amateurs only.
- Every level has its own rules and restrictions.
- The C level rules require headgear to be worn and prohibit striking on the ground.
- In case of a knockdown (when any part of a competitor's body touches the mat solely as the result of a strike) the referee will perform a 10-count. The competitor has until the count of 10 to return to a standing position. Three knock downs in a single round will end the bout. There is also a mandatory standing 8 count.
- Uses two 5-minute rounds.
- Does not use judges. The fight is declared a draw if there is no KO, TKO, Submission.
- Allows elbow and knee strikes only if they are covered by padding.
- Does not allow attacking head with strikes when one fighter is in downed position.
- Uses two 5-minute rounds, with an extra round option should the judges be unable to determine a clear winner of the fight.
- Prohibits elbow strikes to the head, kicking by a fighter in the standing position to the face and head of a fighter in the ground position (When both fighters are in the ground position, kicking to the face and head of the opponent fighter is allowed). Knee kicking to the face and head of a fighter in the state of any ground position including 4-point position etc. is also illegal.
- Has moved to a tournament format similar to that seen in K-1, with an eight-man tournament. However, the final matches are not decided on the same evening, but at later events.
Cage or ring
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MMA is often referred to as "cage fighting" in the US as it is associated with the UFC's octagonal caged fighting area. Most major MMA promotions in the US, Canada and Britain use the "cage" as a result of directly evolving from the first UFC events. There are variations on the cage such as replacing the metal fencing with a net, or using a different shape for the area other than an octagon, as the term "The Octagon" is trademarked by the UFC (though the 8-sided shape itself is not trademarked). In Japan, Brazil and some European countries such as the Netherlands an area similar to a standard boxing ring is used, but with tighter ropes and sometimes a barrier underneath the lowest rope to keep grappling athletes from rolling out of the ring. The usage of the ring in these countries is derived from the history of Vale Tudo, Japanese pro-wrestling and other MMA related sports such as kickboxing.
The choice of cage or ring is more than aesthetic, however, as it impacts the type of strategies that a fighter can implement. For example, a popular and effective strategy in a cage is to pin an opponent into the area where the fence meets the mat, and then pummel him with strikes. Randy Couture is well known for this tactic. Defensively, the cage is often used as support to fend off take-down attempts, or as a support to get from underneath an opponent (known as "walking up the cage"). These positions are not possible in a roped ring. On the other hand, the roped ring can result in entangled limbs and fighters falling through the ropes, requiring the referee to sometimes stop the fight and reposition the fighters in the center, as well as carrying the possibility for either fighter to sustain an injury. In either a cage or ring, a fighter is not allowed to grab the fence or ropes. Some critics[who?] feel that the appearance of fighting in a cage contributes to a negative image of MMA in popular media.
The following table shows what each MMA organization uses:
|Organization||Cage or Ring||Primary Event Location|
|Bellator FC||Circular cage||USA|
|Cage Rage||9-sided cage||UK|
(8-sided cage for Cage Impact series)
|Extreme Fighting Championship||6-sided cage||South Africa|
|Jungle Fight||8-sided cage
(Has used ring)
|Cage Warriors||6-sided cage||UK|
|King of the Cage||8-sided cage||USA|
|Invicta Fighting Championships||8-sided cage||USA|
(Has used circular cage)
(also uses a ring when there are kickboxing and/or Muay Thai bouts in the card)
(Has used ring)
|Pacific Xtreme Combat||Circular cage||Philippines|
|Rizin Fighting Federation||Ring||Japan|
|Road FC||8-sided cage||South Korea|
|Full Contact Championship||6-sided cage||India India|
|Super Fighting League||8-sided cage
(Has used 6-sided cage)
|World Series of Fighting||10-sided cage||USA|
|Superior Challenge||8-sided cage||Sweden|
|One Pride MMA||8-sided cage||Indonesia|
|Organization||Cage or Ring||Primary Event Location|
|Art of War FC||Ring||China|
(Had used 6-sided cage)
(Had used circular cage)
(Had intended to use 6-sided ring)
|Legend FC (Hong Kong)||Ring||Hong Kong|
(Had used 5-sided cage)
|World Victory Road||Ring||Japan|
Amateur MMA rules
Competitors shall wear UWW approved head guards, gloves, knee pads and shin-instep guards of their assigned red or blue colour. They shall also wear personal groin and mouth guards. Female competitors may wear a chest protector. Protection gear may not contain any metal part whatsoever. The protection gear shall be in a generally clean and serviceable condition and the padding shall not be displaced, broken or imperfect in any way.
- Strikes to the neck, throat, spine, kidneys, joints, groin, knees and below
- Kicks and knees to the head in ground position (from either athletes)
- Stomp kicks
- Intentional breaking of bones or joints (i.e. not giving the opponent’s enough time to tap in submission situations)
- Head butts, malicious cross faces
- Eye, ear, or nose gouging, fish hooking
- Pulling of hair, nose or ears
- Spikes (i.e., standing throws onto the head or neck and landing onto the thrower’s knee)
- Slams in defense of submission attempts and if opponent’s body is above waist level
- Back splashes from standing position
- Combination of joint locks and throws
- Use of the fingers for throat/trachea choking techniques
- Inside or outside heel hooks
- Chin ripping
- Neck cranks (crucifix, full-nelson, can opener, etc.)
- Small joint manipulation
- Holding fewer than 4 fingers or toes
- Coating the skin with any kind of substance or using gauzes or any kind of protective materials without the authorization of the Head medical officer and in agreement with the referee
- Intentional grabbing of competition uniform and protection gear
- Initiating an attack once both competitors are out of bounds
- Strong verbal language (i.e. racist slurs) towards anybody present in the competition hall
- Pretense of injury
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In the U.S., state athletic and boxing commissions have played a crucial role in the introduction of safety rules because they oversee MMA in similar ways as they do for boxing. Small shows usually use more restrictive rules because they have less experienced fighters who are looking to acquire experience and exposure that could ultimately lead them to getting recruited into one of the larger, better paying promotions. In Japan and Europe, there is no regulating authority over MMA competitions, so these organizations have greater freedom in rules development and event structure. In general, a balanced set of rules with some organization-specific variances has been established and is widely used, and major rule changes are unlikely, allowing for fighters in one organization to transition to others easily.
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