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ABC body approves changes to MMA scoring criteria, new rules in landslide vote

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — It's a new day in mixed martial arts.

The Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) approved a package of rules changes Tuesday that amount to the greatest alterations to MMA's Unified Rules since their inception. The new rules include clearer language for judging and a redefinition of what makes a fighter grounded.

The rules, recommended by the ABC's rules and regulations committee and medical committee, were voted in at the group's annual conference by a vote of 42 to 1 with two abstentions. New Jersey was the only state to dissent. Tennessee and Mississippi abstained.

Commissions can implement the new rules right away, but some states have to go through their legislatures to make changes and that can take longer.

(Update: ABC president Mike Mazzulli said the rule changes will go into effect Jan. 1, 2017, after a discussion with the ABC body.)

The most significant change is more clarity in the scoring criteria, long a bugaboo for fans and fighters alike. The new scoring language underscores that effective striking and grappling are the top tier for judging rounds — and only if those things are equal do you judge aggression and then cage control.

The definition of a 10-8 round is also more liberal with the changes, asking judges to look at dominance, duration and impact (or damage). If a round has two of those characteristics, a 10-8 should be considered. If a round has all three of those characteristics, it must be a 10-8 round.

The scoring language was amended in discussion Tuesday to address the presence of the word "damage." New Jersey took issue with that word on a political and legal level as did others, including Bellator MMA head of regulatory affairs Cory Schafer. The word damage will still be used in training judges, but it will not be part of public rules due to the implication.

There was also an amendment of the language to reflect that the immediate impact of strikes is weighed heavier than cumulative impact (or damage).

Before the change from the word "damage" to "impact," here is what the new scoring language looked like:

The other rules changes, with the official language, are as follows:

Grounded fighter

A grounded fighter is defined as: Any part of the body, other than a single hand and feet touching the fighting area floor. To be grounded, both hands and feet, palm/fist down, and/or any other body part must be touching the fighting area floor. At this time, kicks or knees to the head will not be allowed.

Extended fingers

In the standing position, a fighter that moves their arm(s) toward their opponent with an open hand, fingers pointing at the opponent's face/eyes, will be a foul. Referees are to prevent this dangerous behavior by communicating clearly to fighters. Fighters are directed to close their fists or point their fingers straight in the air when reaching toward their opponent.

Female clothing

Female competitors must wear a short-sleeved (above the elbow) or sleeveless form-fitting rash guard and/or sports bra. No loose-fitting tops are allowed. Female competitors will follow the same requirements for bottom coverings as the male competitors, minus the requirement for groin protection.

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The changes also remove two fouls from the MMA Unified Rules: heel strikes to the kidneys and the grabbing of the clavicle.

New Jersey did not approve of the new definition of a grounded fighter due to the potential for further strikes to the head when fighters are in a defensive position. The state also wanted to keep heel strikes to the kidneys as a foul because no other combat sport allows blows to the kidneys. MMA does allow for other strikes to the kidneys, however.

"Absent overwhelming medical evidence, we are not in favor of any type of expansion of striking to the head, let alone a change that would allow powerful, potent knees to the head of a downed fighter," New Jersey State Athletic Control Board counsel Nick Lembo wrote in a press release Tuesday morning. "We should be wary of the NFL litigation, NHL and WWE head injury issues, and we should not be hasty with regard to matters involving the human brain and it's well being."

New Jersey's official dissent was read Tuesday at the ABC Conference by NJSACB deputy commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring. MMA legend Randy Couture, a member of the rules and regulations committee, rebutted the dissent afterward.

There is a likelihood that New Jersey will not adopt the new grounded fighter definition and removal of the heel kicks to the kidney foul in its state, as is its right. The ABC does not have authoritative power over state governments.

It's unclear if commissions who did not attend this conference and are considered inactive members, like Missouri and Ohio, will implement the rules changes.