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Chael Sonnen: New grounded fighter definition makes MMA ‘extremely more dangerous’

Chael Sonnen speaks at a Bellator 170 media day.
Chael Sonnen has an issue with the new grounded fighter definition in the Unified Rules of MMA.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES — Chael Sonnen has reservations about the new definition of a grounded fighter in MMA.

Sonnen, a 20-year veteran of the sport, feels like the tweaking of the definition — a fighter can no longer just have one hand down and be considered grounded — invites further damaging blows to competitors.

“I don’t know them all yet,” Sonnen said of the new rules Wednesday at a Bellator 170 media function. “I know what a grounded fighter is, which makes the sport extremely more dangerous. One thing this sport did not need was more danger. It’s a pretty wide-open combat sport. I was very surprised that rule got passed, I was very surprised that anybody suggested it.”

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) approved a new rules package at its annual meeting in August. One of the new provisions was an alteration of the definition of a grounded fighter.

The initial rule said fighters were considered grounded when anything other than just the soles of their feet were touching the ground. This change makes it so fighters cannot just put one finger or one hand down to be considered grounded. They’ll need to have a knee, both hands or another part of the body other than the soles of their feet to be downed, thereby making kicks or knees to the head illegal.

The official rule, per the ABC’s website, is below:

Any part of the body, other than a single hand and soles of the feet touching the fighting area floor. To be grounded, both hands palm/fist down, and/or any other body part must be touching the fighting area floor. A single knee, arm, makes the fighter grounded without having to have any other body part in touch with the fighting area floor. At this time, kicks or knees to the head will not be allowed

Sonnen, 39, is not alone in his criticism of this change. Multiple states, including New Jersey, Missouri and Ohio, are not adopting the new Unified Rules, partly because of this definition and the fear it’ll open up more kicks and knees to the head.`

“You have every other sport becoming more conservative about strikes to the head,” New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) deputy attorney general Nick Lembo told MMA Fighting last month. “Instead, we’re going the other way.”

The ABC rules and regulations committee, chaired by Sean Wheelock with members like John McCarthy and Randy Couture, argued in front of the ABC body that fighters have been gaming the system — going up and down with a finger on the canvas — and the initial intent of the rule was not for a single finger or hand on the mat to make a competitor grounded.

Regulators in favor of the rule change believe that athletes won’t get into a position any longer where they’ll only have a finger or hand on the canvas.

“They're not gonna be doing that anymore,” Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) president Dr. Larry 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.”

Sonnen has a further, practical interpretation of the new rule: it forces fighters to make a decision they shouldn’t have to in certain situations.

“You have a choice when you’re bent over and caught in a front head lock: you can defend the choke or you can defend the strike,” Sonnen said. “They’ve taken that away. They said that the rule was being gamed. They said that if somebody was setting their finger down and raising back up — well, that was a downed fighter. That’s not gaming the system. That’s what the rule is.

“I’ve never seen that rule gamed. I have no idea where that came from. That was the argument, that people were gaming that rule. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never even heard of it. I’ve never seen it in practice. I’ve never heard it coached. I’ve never heard a guy talk about it.”

Sonnen (29-14-1) said he feels like the rule change is “reckless,” but he plans on respecting it as he goes into his main event fight with Tito Ortiz at Bellator 170 on Saturday night here in Los Angeles. The fact that the grounded fighter definition had to be changed, though, doesn’t quite make sense to “The American Gangster.”

“You went and made a sport that is the most combat impact-based sport on the face of the Earth — on the face of the history of the Earth — and you just made it more dangerous,” Sonnen said. “On purpose. I think that that needs an explanation.”

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