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Click Debate: With ABC infighting, will fighters get unified rules they need?

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UFC 211 photos
The UFC 211 fight between Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier ended in controversy after illegal knees.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There is a noticeable division in the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC).

Some regulators are on the side of moving forward with the changes to the Unified Rules of MMA passed last year; others want to go back to the old way or at least come up with something more palatable for everyone.

Mike Mazzulli, the ABC president, told MMA Fighting on Saturday that he won’t turn away anyone who has ideas to bring to the body during its annual conference at the end of July at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun. He just wants any regulator to first go through the MMA rules and regulations committee, chaired by Sean Wheelock.

“I’m just asking everyone to go through the proper channels,” Mazzulli said. “We have a process and that’s the way things are supposed to be done.”

That committee is the group that recommended the package of changes to the Unified Rules that ended up being passed by the ABC body last summer. The most divisive of those rules — the one that has regulators all over North American at odds — is the change in the definition of a grounded fighter.

A pair of controversial, high-profile finishes in UFC fights over the last two months spurred the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) to pen two letters urging the ABC to rethink its changes to the rule.

New Jersey is among a group of states, including Ohio, Maryland and Missouri, that will not pass the new rules. Other states, like Nevada and Texas, are scheduled to vote on the changes in the future, while states like California, New York and Kansas are already moving forward with the new rules.

The presence of different rule sets in different jurisdictions has led to confusion from fighters. All regulators agree that fighters should not be put in a position where they have to think about what state they are in before delivering a blow in a fight. Referees also should not have to worry about what jurisdiction they are in before making a real-time judgment call (with the health and safety of fighters on the line).

“The primary reason for writing is to urge all athletic commissions involved to agree on one rule set for the sport,” the letter, which is attributed to Hazzard, deputy commissioner Rhonda Uttley-Herring and counsel Nick Lembo, states. “Such is clearly in the best interest of the further growth of the sport, the health and safety of the contestants, and more equitable outcomes for promoters and fans.”

The previous Unified Rules definition stated that anything other than the soles of the feet touching the mat made for a grounded fighter. The current definition states, in addition to anything but the soles of the feet, that a fighter can no longer just put a finger or one hand on the canvas to be grounded — it must be both full fists or palms. It was written to stop fighters from “playing the game,” or dropping a finger on the floor to be grounded, thereby making knees or kicks to the head illegal in that position.

At UFC 210, Chris Weidman attempted to put both hands on the mat against Gegard Mousasi in the night’s main event. The fight was in Buffalo, N.Y., so the new Unified Rules were in place. Mousasi kneed Weidman in the head multiple times as he was attempting to touch the canvas and referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the action, thinking a foul had been committed.

Upon further review, it was apparent that Weidman did not get both palms or fists on the canvas and Mousasi’s knees were perfectly legal. Miragliotta reversed his initial call and ruled the fight a TKO for Mousasi when doctors felt Weidman could not continue.

At UFC 211, Eddie Alvarez nailed Dustin Poirier with illegal knees to the head up against the cage. The fight took place in Dallas and Texas has yet to pass the new rules. Poirier had one hand on the ground for at least two of the knees, making them illegal under the ruleset in place. Referee Herb Dean stopped the action and, with Poirier unable to continue, ruled the bout a no-contest.

Weidman is appealing the result with the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC), while Poirier will do the same with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR). Poirier believes it should have been Alvarez should have been disqualified for intentional fouls. Both finishes left a bad taste in the mouth of fans and fighters alike.

While it’s unclear if the Texas incident was due to the convoluted nature of multiple rulesets, the New York sequence of events was clearly a result of the not-so-unified-Unified Rules.

“We have not had such continuous and serious rule interpretation confusion at high profile bouts,” the NJSAC letter stated. “Why was there such a rush to change? It is truly difficult to name three UFC main card bouts in the past seventeen years where "playing the game" led to controversial stoppages and follow up appeals.”

There were multiple e-mail replies to the NJSACB’s letter from commission officials this week, obtained by MMA Fighting. While they were respectful, it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to a resolution to this major problem.

As New Jersey’s letter noted, the next ABC conference is coming up in two months and that is an important few days for the future of MMA. There needs to be a dialogue about the grounded fighter rule and all those in dissent need to be present at Mohegan Sun to state their case.

Last year, the rules package passed 42-1 with two abstentions. States like Ohio, Missouri and Maryland had not representatives at the conference in Las Vegas. New Jersey, which sent Uttley-Herring and was the only present dissenter, was left on an island to argue against the grounded fighter rule (and removal of the foul for heel strikes to the kidneys) with no allies in the room.

The dissenters to the grounded fighter rule will say that it’s not in the best interest of the health and safety of the fighters, that the regulation was not properly vetted by doctors, and not tested in live fights. The regulators and officials in favor of the rule say it actually is safer for fighters if executed properly, was passed by the ABC medical committee and given a stamp of approval by the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP), and tested during at least two Victory FC cards last year in Iowa.

The only thing to do now is compromise and that means everyone must come together from both sides for the good of the sport. Everyone in the ABC agrees that having different rulesets in different states is ruinous to MMA, not to mention unfair and dangerous for fighters. Make that agreeability a good starting point. Then regulators can go from there.

Right now, neither side seems to want to budge. And the ABC has no power to dictate rules to individual state and provincial legislatures. It never has. With that not changing any time soon, finding some common ground is necessary.

Of course, the regulators in favor of the changes will say the rule changes were passed in a landslide — and that’s true. But the idea of instituting new rules is so they would be implemented across the board, not in some commissions and not others. Right or wrong, political or apolitical, this is a giant mess.

It’s also a good time for active fighters to get involved. The ABC is made up of a group of committees and its time fighters get one of those, too. They should have a seat at the table. Fighters should show up at the July ABC conference, between July 22 and July 26 at Mohegan Sun, and make their voices heard. Tell regulators how it feels to have different rulesets in different states. They will listen.

“In order to progress along with the sport, the ABC has a [rules] committee made up of many of the foremost experts in the sport,” Mazzulli wrote in an e-mail to the ABC body this week. “The downed opponent rule is a work in progress. A problem was noted by the industry leaders of the sport and they are working to remedy that issue. The rule may not be perfect, but what is clear is that the old downed opponent rule is not sufficient.”

Perhaps not. What’s less sufficient, though, is different rules for different commissions, different rules for different fights. It’s 2017 and athletes in MMA are better than they have ever been. It’s time to come to the table — and that means all the stakeholders — for the greater good. Sport over politics is the only way it can be.

“It doesn’t frustrate me that some haven’t adopted it,” Dean said on a recent episode of The MMA Hour. “It frustrates me that it’s separate, that we have two sets of rules. However it came up, however we got there. New rules, old rules — I just want the rules to be consistent. That’s the biggest thing we can do for the sport.”