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ABC Conference and changes to MMA Unified Rules, explained

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E. Casey Leydon, MMA Fighting

Mixed martial arts is constantly evolving as a sport and the rules have not necessarily done the same. Until this week.

On Tuesday, the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) general body approved a package of new rules recommended by the ABC's MMA rules and regulations committee and medical committee. Those rules included clearer language for scoring criteria, a revised definition of a grounded fighter and a foul to address eye pokes.

The six amendments are the most changes to MMA's Unified Rules since they were penned in 2001. They will go into effect beginning Jan. 1, 2017. The package was approved by a vote of 42-1 with two abstentions. New Jersey was the only commission to oppose.

Here is everything you need to know about what went down at this year's ABC Conference in Las Vegas:

What changed in MMA's scoring criteria?

Most importantly, the new judging language is just clearer to understand. The original language left much open to interpretation. Scoring is still somewhat subjective, but more clarity is a major improvement.

The revised language underscores the fact that effective striking and grappling is the very first tier when scoring a round. Only if those are 100 percent equal do you then look at aggression and then cage control. Previously, those four things have been presented by promotions as being all lumped together, but they never have been. There has always been a tiered structure and the new language makes that more distinct.

Under the new verbiage, 10-8 rounds should be much more prevalent. Judges will be asked to look at three things: damage, duration and dominance. If two of those characteristics are present in a round, a 10-8 should be considered. If all three of them are present, then the round must be a 10-8.

The word "damage" was removed in the official new language in an amendment made Tuesday after opposition from the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) and others like Bellator director of regulatory affairs Cory Schafer. The word "impact" will replace it, because it is more palatable.

That being said, the word "damage" will still be used in judges training — and it always has been. "Damage" has never been written in the Unified Rules, but it has always been understood that it's exactly what judges are looking for. It's a fight after all. NJSACB commissioner Larry Hazzard has said that if he needs to explain to judges that they are looking for damage, then they shouldn't be judges. It should be obvious.

There was another amendment to the scoring language made Tuesday to reflect that immediate impact (damage) is weighed heavier than cumulative impact. In other words, one or two very damaging blows in a round are worth more than a volume of strikes that don't do as much damage.

Here is the proposed scoring language spelled out before the two amendments were made:

What were the other rules passed?

Here's a quick breakdown:

Grounded fighter

Under the original rules, fighters could place a single finger tip in the ground to establish themselves as grounded, thereby avoiding legal kicks and knees to the head. Officials have long dubbed that "playing the game." It's no longer viable. Now, fighters must have both hands on the ground — either their palms or fists — to be considered grounded. As always, if a fighter's knee or any other part of the body except the hands and feet are touching the mat, then that fighter is also grounded.

Extended fingers

Eye pokes have been a topic of controversy lately. They are fight-ending, career-damaging illegal maneuvers. Under the original rules, referees could do nothing about it until it was too late and the poke was already landed. The new rules empower referees by making it a foul to extend your fingers outward toward an opponent's face, which could lead to an eye poke.

Previously, a referee could tell a fighter to close his or her hand, but the ref had no recourse — a point could not be taken. Now, it can be if a fighter continues to extend fingers in the direction of an opponent's face.

Female apparel

The days of T-shirts, half-shirts and loose-fitting tank tops (sorry, Reebok) are over in women's MMA. Women must wear either a sports bra or a form-fitting rash guard in the cage. For bottoms, the rules are the same as for men: nothing below the knee, which means no more grappling or yoga pants.

Why is this a big deal? Well, loose-fitting shirts are actually dangerous. Fingers and toes can get caught in them. They can slip over a fighter's head if too loose. UFC fighter Valerie Letourneau recently had an issue when her opponent Joanna Calderwood's foot pulled down her tanktop with a front kick and she nearly had a wardrobe malfunction. Letourneau covered up and was struck in the head by Calderwood when she wasn't defending herself. That kind of thing can't happen in MMA.

Grappling pants, which have been used by Marloes Coenen and others, are an inherent advantage. Men have never been able to wear them under the Unified Rules. This is the first time women's apparel has been standardized in the official rules.

Many have asked, Why are a bunch of men deciding what women can wear? That's a good point. But MMA rules and regulations committee chairman Sean Wheelock consulted with Invicta FC matchmaker and women's MMA pioneer Julie Kedzie .before writing these regulations.

Heel kicks to the kidneys

The last time any of us saw this technique was Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock. It's not prevalent and the fact there was a rule against it was kind of odd. All other blows to the kidneys are 100 percent legal, but heel kicks (used by fighters holding opponents in guard) were banned. Not any longer.

Heel kicks to the kidneys aren't much more than an annoyance or cause to change positions, as demonstrated Tuesday by MMA legends and Randy Couture and Jeremy Horn.

"The kidney strike with the heel is not an effective strike," Couture told MMA Fighting. "It doesn't make sense for it to be illegal. We do get hit in the kidneys. I can get in on a shot, if you're trying to take an opponent down, and he's perfectly free to hit me in the back all that he wants. It's not illegal now."

Grabbing the clavicle

Very few people knew this was even illegal before. The foul has now been removed. It was unanimous this week at the ABC Conference that no one had ever seen this attack attempted in an MMA fight.

Is it true the ABC doesn't have any real power?

Yes and no. The ABC, as a group, is essentially a handshake agreement. The organization doesn't have authoritative power, but for the most part commissions go along with the things decided at the annual conference. There are, of course, exceptions.

States and tribal commissions are still bound by their respective governments. If those governments don't want to pass new rules or make alterations, then they won't. It's as simple as that. As long as MMA is regulated on a commission by commission basis, it'll be that way. Every state and tribe is different.

What the ABC does have power over is MMA's Unified Rules. Those are the rules the UFC uses when it regulates itself overseas. Now, individual states and tribes don't have to abide by the Unified Rules. Some don't already in certain cases. And the ABC has no power to make them.

When does these rules go into effect?

After a discussion with the ABC body Wednesday, president Mike Mazzulli said that the most logical choice was to have the amendments to the Unified Rules be effective Jan. 1, 2017. That gives all the individual states and commissions a chance to go back to their respective jurisdictions and get them passed. Some will need to create new state legislation. Others will need their commissioners to vote on the new rules.

If the rules were put in place any quicker, that could lead to logistical issues. Not every commission can get them passed through its jurisdiction in a timely manner. The last thing anyone wants is the UFC going to one state one weekend and another the next weekend and the rules in those states being different. Jan. 1 should be enough time for everyone. Hopefully.

What is the MMA rules and regulations committee?

When Mazzulli, the director of the Mohegan Sun commission, was elected president in 2015, he put in place a number of new committees to look into different aspects of boxing and mixed martial arts. One of those was a rules and regulations committee, which is supposed to operate like the NFL's Competition Committee, which tweaks rules on yearly basis to evolve the game. MMA has progressed a lot since 2001, but the rules have stayed more or less exactly the same.

Sean Wheelock, the former Bellator play-by-play announcer and current Kansas commissioner, was named committee chair. Wheelock assembled a pretty impressive cross-section of the sport to serve on the group: legendary fighters Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Jeremy Horn; referees John McCarthy, Rob Hinds and Kevin MacDonald; commission heads Brian Dunn (Nebraska) and Matt Woodruff (Georgia); and Dr. David Watson, a leading ringside physician from Nevada.

Wheelock also takes suggestions from fans on possible rule alterations at this e-mail address: MMARulesAndRegs@yahoo.com.

Why was New Jersey the only dissenter?

The New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) had issues with three things in the proposed Unified Rules amendments: the revised definition of a grounded fighter, the removal of the foul for heel kicks to the kidneys; and the word "damage" in the clearer scoring criteria. "Damage" was taken out of the scoring criteria in an amendment, but New Jersey still to dissented to the package. It was the only commission to do so.

When it comes to health and safety and the verbiage in MMA's Unified Rules, New Jersey is conservative. NJSACB counsel Nick Lembo wrote a long statement regarding the commission's dissent, which was articulated in front of the ABC body by NJSACB deputy commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring on Tuesday.

Lembo, who was also writing on behalf of NJSACB commissioner Larry Hazzard, wrote that, in regards to a grounded fighter, New Jersey had no interest in seeing more kicks or knees to the head. He proposed that referees just make it clear to fighters in the pre-event rules meeting that they cannot "play the game," or just put a fingertip down on the ground to establish themselves as grounded. The NJSACB didn't think it was worth changing the language of the rule in this instance.

"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," Lembo wrote. "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."

Heel kicks to the kidneys are also a health issue, Lembo wrote, and he proposed that all blows to the kidneys be a foul. Currently, all of them except heel kicks to the kidneys are legal. The NJSACB also took umbrage with the word "damage" in the clearer scoring criteria, but that was removed on amendment.

It's worth noting here that New Jersey's commission has long been a respected one. New Jersey is the first state to hold an MMA event under the Unified Rules, which the NJSACB helped pen.

It is unclear if New Jersey will adopt the new rules approved this week by the ABC. Missouri and Ohio also did not attend the ABC Conference and have been listed as inactive members. Officials from those commissions have started an off-shoot regulatory group called the Association of Combative Sports Commissions (ACSC) and held a conference last month in New Orleans.

When will 12-to-6 elbows be made legal and will other amendments be made in the future?

No, removing the ban on 12-to-6 elbows was not voted on this week at the ABC Conference. Neither were new weight classes. Both things had been discussed and passed by the MMA rules and regulations committee, but struck down in the medical committee, chaired by California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster.

Frankly, it's difficult to get things through that are even perceived as less safe. There was not enough support for 12-to-6 elbows across the board this year.

Sean Wheelock, the rules committee chair, told MMA Fighting on Wednesday that he hopes to start a pilot program with five or six consenting commissions to collect data. Those commissions would allow 12-to-6 elbows for certain cards (depending on promoters giving the OK) and empirical evidence will be jotted down. The rules and regulations committee will the present the findings to the medical committee for review, with the hope that ABC body can vote on the removal of the ban at next year's conference.

Also for the coming months, Wheelock is hoping to discuss instant replay, overtime rounds and other amendments to the Unified Rules with an eye toward next year. The hope is to continue the evolution. More on Wheelock's thoughts here.

Did any other news come out of the ABC Conference?

Yes. The ABC has a new name: the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports. The ABC, which will keep its acronym, and its members have long regulated MMA, kickboxing, Muay Thai and other combat sports.

The word "International" was proposed as part of the title, but amended by the body, even though Canadian commissions have been associate members for more than a decade. ABC president Mike Mazzulli installed a committee to decide on the viability of making Canadian and other international commissions (like Brazil) full-fledged voting members Wednesday.

The issue with commissions outside the United States is that the ABC is supposed to be the body regulating the Ali Act in boxing. Commissions outside the U.S. don't have to worry about the Ali Act. So the committee will be tasked with figuring out those logistics.