MMA 101: Explaining The New Unified Rules

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The new unified rules governing MMA have been in effect for over a year and a half. We hear them explained before fights begin, but how many of the more casual fans are willing to admit that they don’t know quite what the new rules are, and, more importantly, where they deviate from the previous rules. We’ve laid out some guidelines to help understand what’s new, and why it’s important to know.

Since MMA’s beginning, judging has focused on ‘octagon control’. The fighter that was more aggressive and able to dominate the space in the cage was favored in scoring. That has become problematic over the years as fighters have grown more skilled in grappling and striking. Scoring heavily based on who dominated the floor is very similar to boxing, and doesn’t take into account the unique grappling aspect of mixed martial arts. The new rules place an emphasis on striking and grappling exchanges, with judges awarding the fighter who is the most effective in each exchange. Fighters who are making an impact on the fight, whether by landing bigger/more strikes, or by making more submission attempts, will be favored. This means a fighter with top position in a ground exchange who is doing little more than maintaining position could be at a disadvantage over their opponent who is attempting submissions from the bottom.

There are several specific updates to the rules, and deciding what determines a ‘grounded fighter’ is one of them. Previously, a fighter with both feet on the mat and any additional body part (finger, head, knee) was considered grounded and could not be kicked or kneed in the head or face. This was often an issue when fighters would reach down to touch the mat with their hands when in a disadvantageous position, thereby freeing them from more damage. With the new rules, there are several ways to determine when a fighter is grounded. First, and most importantly, a single knee to the mat means the fighter is grounded. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200. Memorize that one, as that seems to cause the most debate. This has not changed from the previous rule, and it’s still the most important. You do NOT have to be touching the mat with any other part of your body. One. Single. Knee.

Second, putting a few fingers or a hand down while the soles of your feet are on the mat does not make you grounded. Both palms or fists must be touching the mat to be considered grounded. This makes it easier for the ref and the fighter’s opponent to determine when the fighter is down and cannot be kicked or kneed in the head. Previous rules made it tricky to tell if a fighter was down, and requiring both hands/fists to be on the mat allows the fighter to be in better control of being grounded, help his or her opponent decide on their attack, and make it easier for the ref to identify the position. For example, a fighter who is attempting to get up who has pushed themselves to standing is fair game the instant that first hand comes off the mat. During a takedown attempt, if the fighter defending the takedown falls to a knee, he is instantly off limits to knees and kicks to the head.

Only some commissions have adopted the new rules, so fighters must pay close attention in fighter meetings to learn whether the new rules are in effect to keep from being deducted points during fights. For fans, there will often be an announcement before the fights start stating whether or not the rules are in effect.

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Nicki Klein is a mom of three girls who are all too sassy for their own good. She has no idea where they get it from. She enjoys wine, coffee, and long chokes on the beach. If she's not training, she's hunting for deals on rash guards online, buying yet another bottle of Essie nail polish, or hiding from her children in the closet with a bottle of wine and the last ice cream sandwich. Follow her on Instagram at @nickiklein Find more of Nicki's work at https://mmawriteup.wordpress.com