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Welcome to the disunified rules of MMA

On January 1st 2017 the unified rules era of MMA will be no more. Iain Kidd looks at how this happened, and what it means for the sport.

MMA: UFC 206-Holloway vs Pettis Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

On January first a number of state athletic commissions will formally start to enforce the rule changes agreed at the 2016 Association of Boxing Commissions. A significant number won’t, and we’re going to have disunified rules of MMA.

Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and, apparently, several other states won’t be adopting some or all of the rule changes on January 1st. A few states seem likely to adopt the rule changes at some point, but are held up by the legislative hoops a rule change requires in their state. Several are refusing to adopt the rules because of two specific provisions they or their medical advisors disagree with.

The biggest points of contention appear to be a rule change which allows heel kicks to the kidneys, and a rule change making it more difficult for a fighter to count as a “grounded” opponent for the purposes of ruling out kicks and knees to the head.

I have written about the evidence and decision making process behind the kidney strike rule here, but the short version is that there’s a lot of disagreement about some of the new rules. The ABC medical committee supports them, while the competing ASCS medical committee--including urologists and nephrologists (who deal with kidney issues)—thinks they are unsafe.

In an age when most sports are looking to reduce the potential for long term injury, especially brain injury, it’s an odd choice for the ABC to pass rule changes that open fighters to more damage.

The kidney strike rule doesn’t seem likely to make any significant difference to how a fight actually plays out - John McCarthy apparently gave a lecture while receiving heel strikes to the kidney without moving, so it’s unclear how they’ll affect a fight, other than potentially causing injury to fighters with impaired renal function. With that in mind, why make the change? Increasing the potential for long-term injury in return for no real improvement to the sport doesn’t seem worth it.

The downed fighter rule seems likely to increase the opportunity for strikes to the head especially knees and kicks. There is an issue in MMA with fighters “playing the game” and trying to draw a foul by touching the ground, and this rule is an attempt to resolve that issue. That being said, potentially increasing the amount of head trauma a fighter faces at a time when other sports are actively trying to reduce it perhaps isn’t the best look, or the best idea.

As I reported at the time, several commissions were unhappy that the ABC had chosen to vote on every rule change as a package vote, rather than person by person, though ABC president Mike Mazzulli stated that no one requested individual votes, and that he would have put the measures up for individual vote if they had. The package vote ultimately passed with just one vote against, but several states who voted in favor have since decided not to implement some or all of the proposed changes.

It seems that discontent has resulted in a situation in which different states are going to have markedly different rules during fights. This isn’t a good situation. We’ve had small differences in the rules between states and organizations before, especially as relates to things like elbows, but never a schism quite like this. Losing the unified part of the unified rules is going to have a real impact on our sport in several ways.

As it stands there is no required training for MMA referees - every state has its own rules, and several different training courses with different content and standards exist. It’s basically unheard of for states to require referees to undergo re-training.

Big John McCarthy tells a story of Herb Dean and himself having different interpretations of the 12-6 elbow rule at one point, and they are two of the best referees in the game. Different referees have interpreted the back of the head differently for years - remember the Mohawk vs headphones debate?

Now we have a situation where referees have to make split second decisions to protect fighters, and not only do referees have to be on the same page about the rules, but they have to be on a different page depending on what state they are in. When they’re deciding whether a kick to a guy getting up was illegal, that decision now depends on which arena they’re in. That split-second decision just got harder.

Fighters will have to be aware of the rules of the jurisdiction they compete in as well. Most fighters will practice utilizing heel kicks to the kidney to understand how it could affect the fight, but they’ll have to be consciously aware of not throwing them in jurisdictions where they are still banned.

The inconsistent downed opponent rule will be even more of a headache - literally and figuratively. We already see fighters catch themselves from kicking downed opponents in the head at the last second. If that’s allowed in some places and not others, that hesitation might lead to fighters landing illegal blows that end the fight. We’re almost certainly going to see some fighters disqualified for forgetting the rules are different in Ohio and Indiana, and other fighters will take huge kicks to the head because they forgot they’re not safe in a position they used to be.

Here is what NJSACB counsel and former ABC MMA Chairman Nick Lembo had to say about the situation:

Based on all of the medical evidence I have received, both of these rules [the grounded opponent rule change and the heel kicks to the kidneys] are going to make the sport less safe. I think it adds a danger to the fighter any time they have to think about what jurisdiction they’re in. Before they would know the rules - it’s the unified rules. Now there are no unified rules.

I’ve seen people talking about the “new unified rules.” No, there are no new unified rules. The unified rules are gone. You either follow the ABC rules or you don’t follow the ABC rules, but “unified rules” is a misnomer.

Here is the take from current ABC president Mike Mazzulli:

The ABC is there for the best interests of the fighters. If commissions need assistance in passing the rule changes, that is what the ABC is here for. I stress that this rule change was changed with the association of ringside physicians present, Dr Lovelace, the president of the ARP, was present and spoke at the conference. These commissions that are not changing the rules were not present--other than New Jersey--to ask questions.

Our rules committee has over 100 years of experience in the industry, from referees to fighters to judges to commissioners. If we do need to readdress these rules, we will. The ABC is going to address every rule every year, just like the MLB. Every year the committee will review every single rule to see what is in the best interests of the sport. MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, and the ABC is part of it. We want to make sure that the industry moves forward.

Whether you think the rules should have been changed or not, the fact is “unified” rules come with advantages to both the sport and fighter safety. Come January 1st, those advantages won’t exist anymore.

The split between the commissions runs deeper than disagreement over specific rules, and political machinations lurk in the shadows, having a larger role in this play than it seems. Hopefully, the leaders of the various state athletic commissions will be able to set those differences aside and find common ground at the next ABC conference, and start a new era of truly unified rules.