LAS VEGAS — Randy Couture took part of New Jersey's dissent to proposed rule changes personally.
The UFC Hall of Famer spoke out at the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) Conference on Tuesday after New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) deputy commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring presented the state's case against two proposed MMA Unified Rules amendments.
Couture, a member of the ABC's MMA rules and regulations committee that recommended the new rules, took particular umbrage with Uttley-Herring's comments about some fighters not wanting regulation.
"Obviously, I fought in New Jersey, I fought in your great state," Couture said at the podium after Uttley-Herring's presentation. "As an athlete that's been involved in this sport for over 15 years, I'm a little offended that you would assume that all us athletes and fighters don't want to be regulated, that we have not done everything we can, in fact go to every single state meeting in the 50 states that have it improved and try to be regulated.
"You include us all in the same pool and I'm spending my time and energy over the last 17 years and frankly found the presentation to be a bit condescending. Just my opinion."
The NJSACB was against two rule changes voted on Tuesday due to medical reasons: one that redefined the definition of a grounded fighter and another that would remove the heel kicks to the kidney foul. Uttley-Herring read the official dissent written by NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo on Tuesday in front of the body.
The entire new rules package recommended by the committee was approved by the ABC body, 42-1 with two abstentions. New Jersey was the only nay vote. Tennessee and Mississippi abstained.
"I'm very happy to see that fighters are addressing this group and asking to amend rules," Uttley-Herring said to begin her presentation. "And one thing I can say about that is thank God for commissions. Because many fighters would rather they didn't have a commission, would rather we didn't have rules and regulations, would rather that we didn't put them on suspension. Some fighters would rather be able to fight with bullets in their brains, with early CTE symptoms. And again, thank God for commissions. As regulators, I am asking all of you to dig way down deep inside and ask yourselves, are you doing the right thing when you vote for these amendments? As regulators. Because what I saw here today and what I saw yesterday was not regulators."
The remarks about fighters not wanting regulation upset Couture, a former two-division UFC champion and longtime fighter advocate.
"I think first of all starting out by saying that we as fighters would fight with bullets in our head or are people opposed to regulation of our sport is absolutely ludicrous," Couture told MMA Fighting. "We've done nothing but run to be regulated, because we want to be considered a real sport. And that really bothered me."
The new grounded fighter definition seeks to eliminate fighters from "playing the game," or putting a finger tip down to establish themselves as grounded and thereby making any leg attacks to the head a foul. The rule will stay the same — anything other than the soles of the feet on the mat is considered grounded — but if it's a hand that's down, it has to be both palms or fists.
Couture and Jeremy Horn, also on the rules and regulations committee, demonstrated physically how that is actually safer for a fighter, in the committee's opinion, because an athlete "playing the game" presumes he or she is safe from a knee to the head, but an opponent might not realize a hand is down. Changing the definition of grounded opponent will make fighters more willing to change positions in those defensive situations, the committee hopes.
"Your presentation was misinformed," Couture told Uttley-Herring from the podium "If you were paying attention to the demonstration, we are not advocating creating positions or situations where fighters get kicked or kneed or punched in the head any more than they are. We're, in fact, trying to clarify those rules and make it so that they don't get punched in the head and they can't play the gray line. As a fighter, I understand how they operate. They're playing the gray line and they're getting hit more now with the interpretation and the way the rules stand now."
Lembo wrote in the NJSACB's official dissent to the new grounded fighter definition that the elimination of "playing the game" can simply be addressed in the rules meeting prior to an event, rather than creating a new rule.
"To be in favor would be in opposition of past commentary provided by neurologists and ringside physicians affiliated with such institutions such as UCLA, Mount Sinai, the Cleveland Clinic, Rutgers and other notable medical institutions," Lembo said. "In fact, no medical institution ever contacted was in favor of the proposal at hand here. 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. 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 also opposed the removal of a foul for heel strikes to the kidneys. The NJSACB can choose not to adopt any new rules voted in Tuesday. The ABC has no authoritative power over state governments.
Other blows to the kidneys are perfectly legal in MMA, which is the argument the committee made in its presentation Tuesday. Lembo proposed in his letter that all blows to the kidneys be illegal in the sport.
"Major trauma and repeated multiple minor injuries to the kidneys have been associated not only with short term medical problems (blood in the urine, kidney rupture, sub capsular bleeding), but also long term issues such as hypertension," Lembo wrote. "It is our duty to protect our athletes, not only during the bout, but to try to ensure that they will be able to live comfortably after they decide to retire from combative sports. This means minimizing long term risks to the best of our current knowledge when we consider rule changes."
The ABC's MMA rules and regulations committee was put in place last year by ABC president Mike Mazzulli. It is chaired by former Bellator play-by-play man Sean Wheelock and includes Couture, Horn, Matt Hughes, John McCarthy, referee/judge Rob Hinds, ringside physician Dr. David Watson, referee Kevin MacDonald, George Athletic and Entertainment Commission director Matt Woodruff and Nebraska Athletic Commission director Brian Dunn.
Couture stands by the rules recommended this year by the committee and now approved by the ABC. He plans on continuing with the group moving forward.
"The fact that we haven't had any addressing of the unified rules since 2001, that's crazy to me," Couture said. "I think we have a great committee. It's a knowledgeable cross-section of our sport. We're gonna make wholehearted, good decisions to bring real things forward to [the ABC] and try and affect the rules going forward every year in a positive way."