The integrity of the Unified Rules of MMA will be compromised at the start of the new year.
A number of state athletic commissions will not adopt changes to the rules voted on over the summer by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), MMA Fighting has learned. Some other commissions will vote on the new rules, but not until after the scheduled enactment date of Jan. 1, and there is no guarantee they will be passed.
The result is a first in the short history of mixed martial arts: the potential for different jurisdictions having different in-cage rules.
New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland and South Dakota are among the states that will not adopt the new rules in full, per data collected by the ABC obtained by MMA Fighting. Texas will not vote on the rules until March. Nevada will “possibly” vote on the rules changes in January, according to executive director Bob Bennett.
The ABC does not have a federal mandate and cannot enforce commissions to change any rules. Each state has its own legislature and commissioners and act autonomously.
The concern among some regulators lies, for the most part, with two particular rules changes: the alteration of the definition of a grounded fighter and the removal of a foul for heel kicks to the kidneys.
Currently, a grounded fighter is considered a competitor who has a part of the body on the ground other than the soles of his or her feet. The change will make it so a fighter can no longer just put a finger or a hand down to be considered grounded. Instead, the athlete must put both palms or both fists on the floor for that distinction.
Heel kicks to the kidney have been a foul since the advent of the sport’s regulation, but every other kind of strike to the kidney is legal in MMA.
Other rules included in the package that were passed at the ABC Conference included a change to hopefully decrease eye pokes, the removal of a foul for grabbing the clavicle, a clarification of the MMA judging criteria, and codifying requirements for female in-cage apparel. The package was passed at the conference in August by a 42-1 vote with two abstentions.
The lone dissenter at the conference was New Jersey. New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) deputy attorney general Nick Lembo wrote a letter vehemently disagreeing with those two particular rules changes that was read at the conference by NJSACB deputy commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring. Ohio, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia and some other commissions did not attend the annual conference.
Lembo told MMA Fighting that he does not feel like there are legitimate medical reasons to potentially add more strikes to the head and kidneys. Lembo said he has yet to get anything in writing from anyone from the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) or ABC medical committee supporting the changes and New Jersey doctors are not in favor of them.
“You have every other sport becoming more conservative about strikes to the head,” Lembo said. “Instead, we’re going the other way.”
Lembo said New Jersey will adopt the other changes, but not the two that concern them from a safety standpoint.
Ohio Athletic Commission executive director Bernie Profato told MMA Fighting he has never received a complaint about the grounded fighter rule or heel strikes to the kidney being a foul. He does not understand what the rush was to get these regulations changed without what some regulators feel is not adequate medical support.
“Why would you want to open the door for even more potential head strikes?” Profato said. “And there’s no medical reason for it.”
Maryland State Athletic Commission (MSAC) executive director Patrick Pannella said in a statement that the rules package was opposed by his commission, 5-0.
“We maintain that such rule changes should not be considered until, and unless, credible and accepted medical studies have been conducted which would confirm that these respective rule changes would not adversely affect the health and safety of competing MMA contestants,” the statement read.
The Brazilian MMA Athletic Commission (CABMMA) is still reviewing the new rules, particularly the scrutinized grounded fighter and heel kicks to the kidney provisions, director of operations Cristiano Sampaio told MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz. CABMMA is not a voting member of the ABC, but uses the Unified Rules of MMA for its bouts. Sampaio was present at the ABC Conference in August.
“We agree with every suggestion, but ‘grounded fighter’ and ‘heel kick’ are items under this package that are still being evaluated by our technical committee (doctor and referee) and by the CABMMA executive committee,” Sampaio said in a statement. “Both items demand an observation since it directly involves the mechanisms of offense and defense in the fight, and with that impacts the safety of fighters.”
Mary Broz Vaughan, the spokesperson for Virginia’s Department of Professional & Occupational Regulation, said confirmed that Virginia will also not be adopting the new rules. Virginia does not have a true commission. Instead, new rules have to essentially become state laws, which is a long process, Broz Vaughan said.
“Virginia’s current MMA fouls and judging criteria are substantially similar to the ABC unified rules, so we are not initiating regulatory action at this point,” Broz Vaughan said.
Requests for comment sent to representatives from Missouri and Colorado were not returned. The rules changes, which were proposed after being voted on by the ABC rules and regulations committee, did pass through the ABC’s medical committee before coming up for a vote at the conference.
Dr. Larry Lovelace, the president of the ARP and a member of the ABC medical committee, told MMA Fighting that he gave his stamp of approval for the rules changes, including the controversial ones.
Lovelace said the change to the grounded-fighter rule is more of a clarification. Fighters too often put themselves in a position to do what officials call “playing the game,” or putting one finger or a few fingers down in a bent-over position to establish themselves as grounded, he said. That, Lovelace explained, is a vulnerable spot, one where a fighter can get kicked or kneed by an opponent unaware that the fighter has his or her hand down.
With the rule alteration, Lovelace said, a fighter won’t get into the “playing-the-game” position in the first place.
“They're not gonna be doing that anymore,” Lovelace said. “Either they’re gonna be up or they’re down. They’re not going to be caught in that limbo zone, that gray area zone. That’s a dangerous zone to be in and the rule makes it clear a fighter should not be in it.”
Regarding the removal of the heel strike to the kidney foul, Lovelace said there is a misconception. The heel strike can only come from a fighter in guard and nowhere else. It doesn’t mean a fighter can stomp the kidney of a downed opponent or anything like that, he said.
“As an emergency medical physician, I don’t see much damage coming from a heel kick to the kidney from the guard position,” Lovelace said. “You don’t just generate that much force, especially when you’re laying on your back.”
ABC medical committee chair Andy Foster, the executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), said the initial proposals from the MMA rules and regulations committee were revised considerably by medical committee doctors and the rules voted on at the ABC Conference were a product of those revisions.
Proposals to remove the foul for 12-to-6 elbows and change the definition of “back of the head” with regards to strikes were tossed out by the medical committee, Foster said.
The ABC’s rules and regulations committee is chaired by Kansas commissioner and former Bellator play-by-play man Sean Wheelock. Committee members John McCarthy and Randy Couture demonstrated the rules changes at the ABC Conference in August. Nevada ringside physician Dr. David Watson also sits on the 10-person rules and regulations committee.
The grounded fighter rule was addressed by the committee, Wheelock said, to prevent fighters from “playing the game,” which was not the intent of the rule when it was written.
The committee felt like the heel strike to the kidney, which would only be thrown when a fighter has an opponent in guard, is not truly a damaging blow and would only cause the opponent on top to change position.
“It’s a ridiculous rule,” Wheelock said of the strike being a foul. “In MMA, from a standing position you can punch, kick, knee and elbow the kidney of your opponent.”
Foster said the kidney is so close to the spine — an illegal area for strikes — that referees would probably call a kidney strike a foul anyway.
Another issue the regulators concerned with the new rules have is that the changes were presented to the ABC body at the conference as a package, rather than separately. Lembo said he felt like it “blindsided” people and it would have been fairer to vote on each rule one by one.
Mazzulli told MMA Fighting that if anyone at the conference asked for the rules voting to be done separately, he would have done so.
“If somebody came up and asked us to separate the package, we absolutely 100 percent would have,” Mazzulli said. “Not one person did. We did it because it was a time issue.”
Neither Lembo, Profato nor anyone from Missouri or Maryland attended the ABC Conference. There is a division in the group currently, with Missouri executive director Tim Lueckenhoff launching a separate ABC-like body called the Association of Combative Sports Commission (ACSC) this year.
NJSACB commissioner Larry Hazzard and Profato attended the ACSC conference in July and not the ABC. Profato said there was only room in the Ohio commission budget to go to one conference.
There is sentiment in the ABC that the decision not to adopt the new rules is based on politics and not policy. Profato ran against Mazzulli for ABC president in 2015 and lost. Lueckenhoff was the former ABC president.
Profato said that implication is just not true. He said he’s a “proud, dues-paying member of the ABC.”
“There’s no animosity or anything,” Profato said. “We don’t believe that this was a big enough problem [to warrant rules changes]. … I have the greatest respect for the ABC and its members.”
The ABC split and different rules in different states are bad news for fighters and fans. That is something both sides agree on. Since the Unified Rules of MMA were codified and adopted in 2001, there have not really been separate in-cage rules in separate jurisdictions until now.
In a statement sent to media after the rules changes were voted on by the ABC in August, the UFC granted its support of the Unified Rules.
“UFC has consistently embraced more thorough regulation of MMA, and adopted the Unified Rules of MMA in September 2001,” the statement read. “These rules help ensure athlete safety and fair competition by providing a consistent set of rules for the sport – something that was missing in the early days of mixed martial arts. All UFC bouts are now governed with full adherence to the provisions set forth in the Unified Rules of MMA. UFC continues to support athletic commissions as they work to update and improve upon the Unified Rules of MMA.”
Bellator sent a letter of endorsement for the changes to the Unified Rules to CSAC, which was presented to the commissioners at its meeting in December.
“Please accept this letter as an endorsement of the modifications approved by the ABC to the unified rules for MMA,” Bellator regulatory affairs head Cory Schafer wrote. “These changes reflect the results of a disciplined process of study and consideration by a committee imminently qualified for the task. The ABC's near unanimous approval not only establishes the industries belief in the value of these changes but also demonstrates support for a continued commitment for improvement.”
The UFC’s first four events of 2017 are in Arizona, Colorado, Texas and New York. Arizona has yet to vote on the new rules, Colorado will not be passing them legislatively, Texas is scheduled to vote on them March 24, and New York will adopt them as of Jan. 1.
Bellator will be in California for Jan. 21 and that event will be under the new rules. But Bellator goes to Missouri frequently and the rules changes will not be used there.
“It’s a shame,” Lembo said. “I think we all need to get together and do what’s best for the fighters and the sport. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Personalities and personal opinions need to go by the way side.”
Mazzulli said the MMA rules and regulations committee is in place to help the sport evolve and that’s what he feels like it is doing.
“Every year in every other major sport — football, basketball, baseball, hockey — they have a rules committee that reviews every single rule in their particular sport,” Mazzulli said. “And they recommend to the owners the changes to better the sport. That’s what we’re doing. We’re mainstream now. The sport is mainstream now. It’s the fastest growing sport in any professional sports industry. We need to be at the forefront of it and I think we are.”
Foster is not worried. He believes the commissions not currently adopting the new rules will eventually conform and the Unified Rules of MMA will be unified once more.
“All states didn’t adopt the first Unified Rules in 2001 or 2002 or 2003 or 2004 or 2005,” Foster said. “But eventually all states adopted them. It’ll be the same thing with this. This is a fairly major revision.”