ABC amends MMA’s Unified Rules for grounded opponents, eye pokes and more

The 28th Annual ABC conference is well underway in Las Vegas and Tuesday was a big day for the sport of MMA. Representatives from…

By: Paul Gift | 7 years ago
ABC amends MMA’s Unified Rules for grounded opponents, eye pokes and more
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The 28th Annual ABC conference is well underway in Las Vegas and Tuesday was a big day for the sport of MMA. Representatives from 45 various athletic commissions gathered to vote on a package of six rule changes originally proposed by the ABC’s MMA Rules and Regulations Committee chaired by former Bellator MMA commentator and current commissioner of the Kansas State Athletic Commission, Sean Wheelock.

Prior to the vote, a sometimes spirited discussion and debate took place on the package of changes being proposed: new judging criteria, a new definition of a grounded fighter, the addition of extended finger fouls, the removal clavicle-grabbing and heel-to-kidney fouls, and a change to the regulations on female fighter apparel.

The changes to the judging criteria are about clarity -€” clarity as to precisely how an MMA fight is to be scored. “Striking and grappling makes up the sport of MMA,” said longtime MMA official John McCarthy. Take out striking and grappling and we’re left with, as McCarthy puts it, “dancing with the stars.”

As respected MMA official Rob Hinds told the audience, “If effective striking and grappling are 100% equal, then we move to effective aggressiveness. If that’s 100% equal, then we move to cage control.” He’s been active in trying to convey this message to his fellow judges. “We’re teaching them the order of the criteria and also how to use it, speak about it properly. In explaining this to judges, you see the lightbulb go on.”


In addition to the order of scoring, changes were meant to clarify the concept of effectiveness. The proposed, new criteria originally included the word “damage” since that’s what you try to do in a fight: beat up the opponent. MMA Fighting’s Marc Raimondi has previously provided the proposed clarification of effective striking and grappling with the word “damage” included.

Effective Striking/Grappling:

“Effective Striking is judged by determining the impact or damage of legal strikes landed by a contestant solely based on the results of such legal strikes. Effective Grappling is assessed by the successful executions and an impactful/damaging result coming from: takedown(s), submission attempt(s), achieving an advantageous position(s) and reversal(s).”

Top and bottom position fighters are assessed more on the impactful/damaging result of their actions, more so than their position.

This criterion will be the deciding factor in a high majority of decisions when scoring a round. The next two criteria must be treated as a backup plan and used ONLY when Effective Striking/Grappling is 100% equal for the round.

The scoring criteria which passed today’s vote had the word “damage” removed. Towards the end of his presentation, McCarthy put up a slide defining Effective Striking as “Legal blows that have immediate or cumulative impact with the potential to contribute towards the end of the match with the immediate weighing in more heavily than the cumulative impact.”

In addressing the current state of affairs in the sport with former UFC fighters Randy Couture and Jeremy Horn at his side, McCarthy alluded to the fact that right now people think Randy can “put Jeremy on his butt” and score points.

“We need to be clear about what we’re giving our judges to help them and help the fans,” said McCarthy. “For the most part our judges are doing a really fine job, but we need to give them the tools that will make them that much better. And that’s what this is all about.”

Bloody Elbow will have more in the future on the author’s experience over the weekend in McCarthy’s COMMAND judge certification course.


A second rule change is to make extending fingers towards the face of an opponent a foulable offense. Wheelock described it as a “huge, huge safety issue.”

A fighter is still allowed to extend his/her fingers towards the opponent’s body, point their fingers up (in a “talk to the hand” manner), or have a closed fist pointed at the opponent. The only thing that has been made illegal is to extend fingers and point them right at an opponent’s face.

Hinds clarified that this foul is both offensive and defensive, meaning that a fighter is not allowed to extend his/her fingers towards the opponents face while moving forward into an exchange or while moving backwards retreating from an exchange. The direction of movement does not matter.

McCarthy told the crowd that CAMO (California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization) instituted this rule about a year and a half ago and “They haven’t had an eye poke since.”

When a question was raised regarding the number of fouls given out during live event testing in Victory Fighting Championship, it was noted that no fouls were issued. There were three verbal warnings in one event and two in another. The fighters immediately adjusted to the rule in testing.


A third rule change is to the definition of a grounded fighter. A fighter used to be grounded when anything other than the soles of their feet touched the canvas; a knee, a hand, a finger. Since a fighter can’t be legally kicked in the head when grounded, this resulted in many “playing the game,” putting a finger or two on the canvas to keep a knee from flying at their face.

The new definition is a slight tweak. Essentially the old definition still applies with an exception that for a hand to make a fighter grounded, both palms, both fists, or a palm and a fist must be touching the canvas.

As McCarthy described it, fighters are going to get kicked and hit. They’re doing it now. It’s dangerous for fighters to think they can play the game. “We want them to stop playing that game,” McCarthy said.

Hinds said the MMA rules committee took feedback from fighters. In trial runs, when fighters got into positions where they might be grounded, “It was unbelievable.”

The argument was that fighters quickly realized that having both palms on the canvas isn’t good for their face and adjusted. MMA official Dan Miragliotta described the new rule as making his job “a lot easier and the fighters safer.”


In addressing the foulable offense of heel kicks to a fighter’s kidney, McCarthy explained that under the current rules fighters are allowed to hit, kick, knee, and elbow the kidney. They just can’t heel kick it.

As McCarthy put it, the heel kick originated as a way to annoy an opponent when in guard to get them to move but it’s never going to damage or hurt a fighter. It’s not protecting the fighter in any fashion and removing the foul will help the sport in terms of preventing confusion.

“We want to make our sport safer, but we also want to make it clearer,” said McCarthy. “Our sport is a 360 degree sport. It is not a 180 degree sport like boxing.” He also said that the medical committee evaluated the rule and agreed that “it’s a stupid foul.”


When the discussion moved to the clavicle grab foul, Wheelock explained that it’s a foul that pretty much doesn’t exist. “I’ve never seen a clavicle grabbed,” he said.

McCarthy had Randy Couture grab Jeremy Horn’s clavicle and asked Horn what his counter would be. Horn just laughed. McCarthy described the clavicle grab as a move that would only hurt a kindergartener. “So if you’ve got a five year old at home, use it on them,” he said in jest.

Towards the end of the discussion, Dr. Larry Lovelace, board member of the Association of Ringside Physicians, came to the stage. “It’s really hard to get a bunch of ringside doctors to agree on anything. We are all alpha personalities,” he said. “We voted unanimously that we don’t oppose these changes.”

Randy Couture then dropped a little knowledge on the crowd, “Contrary to popular belief, fighters are smart, and we’re going to figure shit out.”

But the day wasn’t all candy and rainbows. The state of New Jersey, who on Monday through Deputy Commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring made its objections known to certain proposed changes, re-iterated and read verbatim the contents of an e-mail which was sent out earlier in the day. New Jersey objected to the inclusion of the word “damage” in the judging criteria (which was subsequently removed), the new definition of a grounded fighter, and the removal of heel kicks to the kidney as a foul.

As Uttley-Herring read the e-mail, she stated that New Jersey’s position on heel kicks to the kidney was based on “expert medical advice” and that “no medical institution ever contacted was in favor of the proposal at hand here.” But Dr. Lovelace had already noted that the American Medical Association “is against boxing and combat sports all together.”

During her speaking time, Uttley-Herring seemed to dismiss the contributions of fighters on the Rules and Regulations Committee. “Thank god for commissions,” she said as she described things such as suspensions that some fighters don’t like.

“I’m a little offended that you would assume that fighters don’t want to be regulated,” said Couture once Uttley-Herring was finished. “Your presentation was misinformed.”

The audience erupted into applause.

When asked about the incident, Wheelock told Bloody Elbow, “I found it rude, I found it offensive, I found it condescending, but beyond that I found it pointless. We worked hand-in-hand with the medical committee chaired by Andy Foster. Everything we did was vetted by the Association of Ringside Physicians [ARP]. So I thought it was pretty odd that she was getting up citing medical evidence when Larry Lovelace who’s the president of the ARP came out in support of us.”


In addition to all the other rule changes, female fighters will now be required to wear a sports bra or a form-fitting rash guard (short sleeved or sleeveless). The origin of the rule change, as Wheelock explained it, came from two things. One was a question on his podcast back with McCarthy about why female fighter apparel wasn’t standardized. The other “was an actual fight that we saw at a roller-skating rink in Topeka, Kansas, it was an amateur card. It was an amateur girl, she had a sports bra, and she wore a t-shirt and it got pulled over her head. It was like a hockey fight and I thought, ‘This isn’t really safe.’ She didn’t know any better and it worked out very poorly for her.”

When a vote was called, the outcome wasn’t even close. The package of rule changes passed 42 to 1 per Marc Raimondi, with Tennessee and Mississippi abstaining.

The changes that passed are for the ABC’s version of the Unified Rules of MMA. Andy Foster told Bloody Elbow they will go into effect in 30 days. Marc Raimondi is reporting that they can go into effect immediately. Regardless, individual states can adopt the new rules, keep their old rules, or institute a mixture. It certainly seems like many states and tribal commissions will institute the new rules; the only question is the timing.

Summing up the day, Wheelock told Bloody Elbow, “I’m absolutely thrilled that in some small way I was able to contribute to what I believe is the betterment of the sport… But beyond my personal feelings, I feel like the sport has taken a huge step forward.”

The rules committee will remain active going forward and Wheelock encourages anyone with ideas for the betterment of the sport to contact him. He can be reached on Twitter @SeanWheelock.

Paul is Bloody Elbow’s business and analytics writer. Follow him at @MMAanalytics.

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About the author
Paul Gift
Paul Gift

Dr. Paul Gift is a sports economist with a research focus on mixed martial arts. A licensed MMA referee and judge himself, Dr. Gift’s interests pertain to many facets of the MMA industry including behavioral biases and judging, the role of financial and environmental factors on fighter performance, determination of fighter marginal products, and predictive analytics.

A regular MMA business contributor for Forbes, Dr. Gift also writes about MMA analytics and officiating in popular press for SB Nation and co-hosts the MMA business podcast Show Money. His sports research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN’s Grantland, and popular media including Around the Horn, Olbermann, and various MMA and boxing podcasts.

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