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Nevada passing new Unified Rules of MMA — but not same grounded fighter definition

Bob Bennett
Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett

Nevada is moving forward with approval of the updated Unified Rules of MMA, but it’s leaving behind the most debated of those new regulations.

At a meeting last month, the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) voted to approve a host of new provisions, including the adoption of the new Unified Rules of MMA. However, the commission — which regulates some of the biggest fights in the sport — will not adopt the updated definition of a grounded fighter.

Nevada’s new regulations still have to be finalized with the Legislative Control Bureau and come back to the commission one more time, NAC executive director Bob Bennett told MMA Fighting. But they are likely to pass and become part of state law.

The new definition of a grounded opponent has been a hot-button item since the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) voted to approve a package of new Unified Rules in 2016. The rules were supposed to go into effect in January 2017, but many commissions did not adopt them, with states like New Jersey, Missouri and Ohio coming out against the grounded opponent definition primarily.

The new definition states that a fighter must have both hands — palms or fists — down on the ground in order to be grounded, unless a knee or anything other than the soles of the feet are also down. If a fighter is considered grounded, then a knee or kick to the head of that fighter is illegal.

The original Unified Rules going back to 2001 stated that anything but the soles of the feet being on the mat constituted a grounded fighter. In other words, a fighter could put a single hand or finger down and be considered grounded. In 2016, the ABC rules and regulations committee and later the entire ABC body passed the new rule via overwhelming vote, with the thought that fighters were gaming that provision too often and slowing down the flow of fights.

After consulting with other commission directors around the country, as well as referees and doctors, Bennett said he and the Nevada commission decided in favor of the old rule, with some slightly different language.

“We certainly didn’t agree with the both soles and both hands being down for a grounded opponent,” Bennett said. “We have one hand — weight-bearing — with two soles of the feet as the definition. We think that fighters are putting themselves in harms way when they have to put both hands down with both feet.”

So the Nevada rule will remain the original one — anything other than the soles of the feet touching the ground constitutes a grounded fighter.

Bennett and the commission were hesitant to change a rule that could potentially make MMA more dangerous for fighters. The same sentiment has been echoed by Larry Hazzard and Nick Lembo in New Jersey and Bernie Profato in Ohio.

The argument from the other side — commissions in places like California, New York, Mohegan Sun, Kansas and others — is that the new definition doesn’t make it more dangerous, because a fighter can just drop to a knee to become grounded while still protecting their head, rather than put both palms or fists down. The ABC medical committee approved the change. Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) president Larry Lovelace has publicly given his approval of the new rules, but the ARP body does not endorse them.

Nevada did vote to adopt the other changes to the Unified Rules, including the elimination of fouls for heel strikes to the kidneys (from guard, mainly) and grabbing the clavicle. The heel strikes to the kidneys foul has been a hangup for places like New Jersey, Ohio and Missouri, but Bennett said NAC doctors don’t believe those blows generate enough power to do any real damage.

The new rule allowing referees to take points for fighters points their fingers out toward the opponent’s eyes and the altered language for judging will also be adopted in Nevada once the process is over.

The grounded fighter definition, though, has been the most polarizing and Nevada choosing not to adopt that part of the Unified Rules makes the word “unified” even more unfit. Now there will be at least three different sets of rules being used across North America — the old rules, the new rules and a mixed bag of the two, like Nevada will have.

Bennett said he dislikes the fact that the rules for MMA are so disjointed, but he and the NAC did not want to potentially compromise the health of fighters by just pushing through what other commissions have passed, he said.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of fighters for the rules to be different in different commissions,” Bennett said. “I think it would be a good thing for us to vote on or agree on what’s in the best interest of the fighter. It’s a tough enough sport as it is, let alone having different rule sets in different states.”

ABC president Mike Mazzulli recently released an updated version of the full Unified Rules of MMA, which can be found below:

(Correction: The story has been clarified to reflect that the Association of Ringside Physicians did not endorse the new set of Unified Rules, though the president of the organization, Dr. Larry Lovelace, did so individually.)

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