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Click Debate: Why are there now different MMA rules in different states?

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UFC 207 photos
If Neil Magny puts one hand down here, he’d be considered grounded in some states. In other states, his opponent would be able to knee him in the head.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s the Super Bowl. Tom Brady takes the snap, sees all his receivers covered and rolls out of the pocket to his right. With nothing available downfield and his check-down options smothered, Brady throws the ball away into the stands.

Immediately, the referee nearby throws a flag. Brady doesn’t understand what just happened. An intentional grounding penalty can only be called when the quarterback is still in the pocket, he thought, not when he’s near the sidelines.

Not so, the referee tells him. Not in the state — Texas — where the Super Bowl is taking place. The rule, the referee says, is different here.

That seems like a ridiculous scenario, doesn’t it? In the NFL, the rules and regulations, though sometimes interpreted oddly by officials, are uniform. Everywhere. Every game. From the preseason to the Super Bowl. Regardless of state.

MMA can no longer say the same thing. And the confusion could be the difference between a fighter taking an undefended knee or shin to the head or remaining safe.

Beginning Jan. 1, the so-called Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have not been unified at all. The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), the group of commissions across North America that oversee the Unified Rules, approved a package of changes in a landslide vote.

The new rules were supposed to go into effect on the first of the year. Some states have adopted them. Other commissions are pending a vote. And a few states have no intention of passing the new rules at all.

On Saturday night, the UFC held a show in Houston. The new rules have not yet been adopted in Texas. They will be voted on next month. Last weekend, there were two major MMA shows: UFC in Denver and Bellator in Kansas. The latter had the new rules. Kansas adopted them Jan. 1. The former did not. Colorado has yet to adopt the changes.

MMA is complicated. Unlike the NFL or NBA or MLB, it is regulated and sanctioned by respective state or province government entities known as commissions. Every event, if it is held in a different area, will have a different body governing it. Not all states and provinces — and commissions, for that matter — are alike. Colorado, for instance, can’t just change its rules of MMA whenever it wants.

“The Colorado Boxing Commission remains in the process of analyzing and discussing the ABC unified rules,” Lee Rasizer, the spokesperson for the Colorado Division of Professions and Occupations, told MMA Fighting in a statement. “Any rule-making conducted by this Commission requires adherence to strict legal requirements set in Colorado law that includes early stakeholder engagement and a public rule-making hearing before any changes to the current rules are adopted.”

Other states have objected to some of the new rules based on health and safety concerns and, therefore, will not pass the full rules package. New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Maryland and Virginia are on that list. Even Nevada, where the UFC holds most of its big events, has yet to pass the rules package, though a vote should be forthcoming in the next two months. The Brazilian MMA Athletic Commissions (CABMMA) is also still in the process of reviewing them.

Of concern to the dissenting regulators is the new definition of a grounded fighter and the removal of a foul for heel strikes to the kidneys. The new grounded fighter definition is a modification of the previous, which says that anything but the soles of a fighter’s feet touching the floor makes the fighter grounded. The new provision adds that a fighter cannot just have one finger or one hand down on the floor to be grounded, but both fists or both palms. If a fighter is grounded, his or her opponent cannot legally kick or knee him or her in the head.

Regulators opposed to the new grounded fighter rule fear that there will be more kicks or shins to the head. Those in favor of the change say that fighters won’t even get into that one-finger-on-the-ground position anymore since it no longer makes the fighter grounded. The change was necessary, those in favor say, because of stalling tactics — or “playing the game” — of fighters dropping a hand or finger down in a clinch position repeatedly to make themselves grounded.

This is an important debate, but unfortunately it never really played out when it should have — at the ABC Conference in August when the rules package was voted on. States like Ohio and Missouri opposed to some of these new rules did not send representatives to the conference, so their voices were not heard. New Jersey did send a rep and was the lone dissenting vote to the package.

No one can force states to conform to the Unified Rules, but this is bad news for fans and it’s even worse for fighters. Imagine being a fighter in a clinch and wondering if this is a state in which you can put one hand on the floor and become grounded. Or being a fighter mid-bout thinking about whether this particular commission allows a knee to the head in this position.

These are just not things fighters should have to worry about in the course of a bout, when a stray thought could be the difference between seeing a knockout blow coming or not.

Over the next three months, the UFC will be in New York (twice), Nova Scotia, Nevada, Brazil, England and Missouri. New York, Nova Scotia and England will have the new rules. (When the UFC promotes internationally and regulates itself, like in England, it uses the Unified Rules of MMA.) Nevada and Brazil? We don’t know yet. And the rules will not be adopted in Missouri.

It’s wholly possible for a fighter to compete under one set of rules in January and another in April. That’s just not how it should be. The Unified Rules were written — and so named — because it was important to have the same rules across the board. That should not change now, when MMA is bigger than it has ever been and only growing.

The next ABC Conference will be this summer in Connecticut. That will be the next best time to get as many regulators and stakeholders in the same room as possible. State governments have to be looped in, too, if they are the ones standing in the way of changes.

Both sides must talk it out and come to some form of compromise. It doesn’t matter which side wins, because the ones losing right now are the fighters, the very people commissions are staked with protecting.

Can you imagine that sequence of events happening in the Super Bowl, as I mentioned above? Of course not. But a similar — and perhaps more dangerous — situation could crop up during a UFC title fight. That doesn’t help anyone.

The UFC sold last year for $4 billion. This is not a small-time, club sport anymore. This is the big leagues and millions of eyes are on it. It’s time to start acting that way.