The rules for mixed martial arts competitions have changed dramatically since the sport was established in the late 20th century. This is mainly because, at its inception, early mixed martial arts competitions had very lax regulations, making the sport dangerous and rather unfair for most fighters. Since then, mixed martial arts has come a long way. It is now safer and more fan-friendly with strictly enforced rules set in place by the organizations that host MMA events.
Depending on the country where the event takes place, rules and procedures may vary greatly. In the United States, the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts” have been adopted by state athletic commissions over the last decade or so. These rules, originally drafted by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, are now being enforced at all events taking place in every state where mixed martial arts is sanctioned or approved for competition.
Due to the variances between locations, states, and countries, detailing every rule set by every organization would be extremely complicated. There are, however, many similarities between the types of rules set in place for each event that most promotions and governing bodies have adopted. The most important and common regulations for mixed martial arts competitions will be discussed to give an overview of how MMA competitions are regulated.
Competition Attire & Appearance
The types of clothing and protective equipment that may be worn during competition, as well as a fighter’s physical appearance, have become rather standard among all mixed martial arts organizations around the world. Aside from minor variations, below are the basic rules that each fighter must follow in terms of his competition attire and physical appearance.
Most major mixed martial arts organizations require competitors to wear specifically designed mixed martial arts gloves. These gloves typically weigh 4-6 ounces. They are also fingerless to allow for a better grip for grappling or any other techniques that involves the use of a fighter’s hands and fingers.
Each fighter’s hands must be taped with soft gauze and surgeon’s or athletic tape underneath the gloves. This helps to secure the hands and prevent injury.
The most common article of clothing fighters wear during competition is mixed martial arts shorts. A common style is tight-fitting, seamless shorts designed for grappling, very similar to cycling shorts. Fighters may also elect to wear loose-fitting, kickboxing shorts, very similar to board shorts. In some cases, long tights may also be worn in place of (or underneath) shorts. However, tights may not reach below the top of the ankle.
Male competitors are typically not allowed to wear a top of any kind, not even tight-fitting garments, such as rash guards. Female competitors, however, are allowed to wear a tight-fitting top approved by the organization.
Here are a few other regulations regarding clothing:
- Fighters are typically not allowed to wear shoes of any kind during competition. If shoes are allowed, kicking is likely prohibited.
- No kind of foot or leg padding is to be worn.
- Jewelry and other accessories are strictly prohibited.
All fighters must wear a mouth piece at all times during a fight. Mouth pieces help prevent injuries to the mouth and teeth, and they also help to lessen the severity of blows taken to a fighter’s head.
Groin & Chest Protectors
Male fighters must supply their own groin protector (athletic cup) to be worn during competition. Female competitors are not allowed to wear groin protectors of any kind. However, female competitors must wear a chest protector. Both of these items are subject to approval by the host organization.
All fighters must adhere to the following rules regarding physical appearance and hygiene:
- Fighters are to be closely shaven and may not have stubble on the head or face. However, a well-groomed mustache is allowed.
- Long hair must be tied back so that it does not interfere with the vision of either fighter.
- Any greasy or slippery substance on the body is illegal. A fighter may be checked by the referee at any time if it is assumed that he has “greased” himself.
There are multiple rounds (designated periods of time during which fighters compete) during a mixed martial arts bout. Each round is typically five minutes in duration with no breaks, except for fouls and other stoppages by the referee. Some organizations elect to use shorter round durations; however, five-minute rounds are most common. There is also a one-minute rest period between each round.
Non-championship fights are typically comprised of three rounds. Some organizations hold fights composed of only two rounds, implementing a third and final “overtime” round if a decisive score could not be determined after the first two. However, such procedures are rare. A fight to decide a championship is typically composed of five rounds.
Weight classes are used to separate fighters to ensure absolute fairness. Fighters are typically weighed in the day before or the day of a fight in a formal setting. Fighters must weigh in to be no lower than the weight class below the class he is scheduled to fight in, and no more than the maximum weight designated by his weight class. Open weight classes have no weight limits.
There are currently no governing bodies that oversee mixed martial arts competitions outside of the United States (where each state is governed by its own athletic commission). For this reason, weight categories vary not only by each promotion and organization, but also by event and country.
Within the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts,” specific weight divisions are designated to be used for every fight held under the jurisdiction of state athletic commissions in the United States. Included in all major competitions in the USA, the following weight divisions are the most commonly-used categories for mixed martial arts competitions around the world:
- Flyweight: 125 pounds (about 57 kilograms)
- Bantamweight: 135 pounds (about 61 kilograms)
- Featherweight: 145 pounds (about 66 kilograms)
- Lightweight: 155 pounds (about 70 kilograms)
- Welterweight: 170 pounds (about 77 kilograms)
- Middleweight: 185 pounds (about 84 kilograms)
- Light heavyweight: 205 pounds (about 93 kilograms)
- Heavyweight: 265 pounds (about 120 kilograms)
- Super heavyweight: No upper weight limit
Mixed martial arts contests for women have just recently been introduced, so no formalized weight classes have been established. However, below are the common weight classes used by various major promotions that currently showcase women’s mixed martial arts. The specific names of each weight class may be different, depending on the promotion:
- Flyweight: 100 pounds (about 45 kilograms)
- Bantamweight: 107 pounds (about 48 kilograms)
- Featherweight: 115 pounds (about 52 kilograms)
- Lightweight: 125 pounds (about 57 kilograms)
- Welterweight: 126-135 pounds (about 57-61 kilograms)
- Middleweight: 136–145 pounds (about 62-66 kilograms)
How to Win
There are several different ways in which an MMA fighter may win a bout.
A fighter may achieve an instant victory at any point in the fight by forcing his opponent to submit or simply give up and concede to defeat. Submitting is commonly known as “tapping out” in mixed martial arts because fighters typically use their hands to tap their opponents or the mat in order to signal defeat. Fighters may also submit verbally, which is known as a “verbal tap.”
A knockout occurs when a fighter causes his opponent to lose consciousness, making him unable to move his body or get up from the ground. This typically occurs after a series of strikes, but it commonly occurs as a result of a slam, as well.
Very similar to a technical knockout, a technical submission occurs when a fighter loses consciousness when caught in a submission hold. In this instance, the fighter is not able to submit or tap out on his own; the referee must step in to stop the fight.
Technical Knockout (TKO)
A victory by a technical knockout occurs when the referee must intervene and stop the fight when a fighter is not able to defend himself or if he is receiving a potentially dangerous amount of damage from his opponent. This is commonly known as “referee stoppage.” A referee will not intervene on a whim; there are standard criteria every referee uses to determine whether or not he needs to stop the fight for a technical knockout:
- A fighter appears to be defending himself against his opponent unintelligibly.
- A fighter has sustained a significant injury that may further endanger him. This is most commonly proven by a large cut or laceration to the face or a broken bone. In such cases, a ringside physician’s opinion is used to decide if a fighter is able to continue.
A decision occurs when a fight has lasted all rounds in regulation and neither fighter has been knocked out or submitted. There are four different types of judge’s decisions:
- Unanimous decision: All three judges choose one fighter as the winner.
- Split decision: Two judges choose one fighter as the winner, and the remaining judge chooses the other fighter.
- Majority decision: Two judges choose the same fighter as the winner, and the remaining judge scores the fight as a draw.
- Draw: There are many cases when a fight may be decided to be a draw:
- All three judges determine the fight is a draw.
- Two of the three judges determine the fight is a draw.
- All three judges score the fight differently and the sum of their scores results in a draw.
Other Results of a Fight
There are a few other ways a fight can end. Here are two of the most common:
- Disqualification: A fighter may be disqualified from competition if he fouls his opponent three times. A fight may also end in a disqualification if one fighter intentionally fouls his opponent and causes a severe injury that prevents him from continuing the fight.
- No contest: The fight will end with a no-contest decision if a fight is prematurely stopped due to an accidental injury to one of the competitors and there have not been a sufficient number of rounds completed for the judges to decide a winner from their score cards.
There are several actions or maneuvers that are illegal and result in a penalty. Each violation causes a point to be deducted from the offending fighter’s score for the round in which the foul occurs. Three fouls will cause a fighter to be disqualified. Keep in mind, though, that each promotion has different rules and procedures on issuing fouls. However, below is a list of actions that fighters may be penalized for:
- Spitting at an opponent
- Attacking the groin area
- Downward-pointing elbow strikes
- Small joint manipulation (fingers, etc.)
- Strikes directly to the spine
- Strikes directly to the back of the head
- Strikes to the throat
- Heel kicks to the kidney
- Clawing, pinching, or twisting the flesh
- Kicking the head when an opponent is on the ground
- Kneeing the head when an opponent is on the ground
- Stomping when opponent is on the ground
- Swearing or abusive language
- Attacking an opponent in between rounds
- Intentionally throwing an opponent out of the fighting area
- Flagrant disregard of the referee’s instructions
- Spiking an opponent on his head or neck
Judging & Criteria
There are typically three judges that are designated to evaluate each mixed martial arts fight. The judges evaluate each round individually, based on a specified criterion. This criterion usually includes:
- Effective striking
- Effective grappling
- Control of the fighting area
10-point Must System
The 10-point Must System is the standard procedure that judges use in order to determine the winner of a round based on the previously mentioned judging criterion. This system requires the winner of a round to receive 10 points, and the loser of the round to receive 7-9 points. Below are the descriptions of different scores that could be awarded during a round:
- 10-10 round: Both fighters appear to be evenly matched and no fighter shows dominance in either striking or grappling
- 10-9 round: One fighter lands a greater number of strikes and/or keeps better position when grappling. This is decided by a very close margin.
- 10-8 round: One fighter dominates his opponent decisively in both striking and grappling.
- 10-7 round: One fighter completely dominates his opponent in striking and grappling. This score is typically given when a fighter knocks his opponent down from his feet multiple times, mounts him, and/or puts him in danger of being submitted several times.
Again, since the sport of MMA is relatively new, the rules mentioned may vary greatly, depending on the location of the promotion and type of event. For more in-depth information about rules and regulations that are followed in the United States, as well as some international promotions, check out the Unified Rules of MMA.