Mixed martial arts rules

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Most rule sets for mixed martial arts competitions have evolved since the early days of vale tudo. As the knowledge about fighting techniques spread among fighters and spectators, it became clear that the original minimalist rule systems needed to be amended. As rules evolved and regulations added, different branches of mixed martial arts have emerged, with differences between the different rulesets dictating different strategies. Similarly, shoot wrestling organizations, such as Shooto, expanded their rulesets to integrate elements of vale tudo into their sport. However, for the most part, fighters accustomed to one rule set can easily acclimate to the others.

Mixed martial arts full contact combat sport

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from various combat sports and martial arts. The first documented use of the term mixed martial arts was in a review of UFC 1 by television critic Howard Rosenberg in 1993. The term gained popularity when newfullcontact.com, then one of the largest websites covering the sport, hosted and republished the article. The question of who actually coined the term is subject to debate.

Vale tudo An unarmed, full-contact combat sport

Vale Tudo is an unarmed, full-contact combat sport with relatively few rules. It became popular in Brazil during the 20th century. It uses techniques from many martial arts. Vale Tudo is the precursor of mixed martial arts.

Shoot wrestling is a combat sport that has its origins in Japan's professional wrestling circuit of the 1970s. Professional wrestlers of that era attempted to use more realistic or even "full contact" moves in their matches to increase their excitement. The name "shoot wrestling" comes from the professional wrestling term "shoot", which refers to any unscripted occurrence within a scripted wrestling event. Prior to the emergence of the current sport of shoot wrestling, the term was commonly used in the professional wrestling business, particularly in the United Kingdom, as a synonym for the sport of catch wrestling. Shoot wrestling can be used to describe a range of hybrid fighting systems such as shootfighting, shoot boxing and the styles of mixed martial arts done in the Shooto, Pancrase and RINGS promotions.


The most prevalent rule set in the world being used currently is the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, adopted by all state athletic commissions in the United States that regulate mixed martial arts and is used most notably in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Unified Rules are the de facto rules for mixed martial arts in the United States, and have been adopted by other promotions and jurisdictions worldwide. Other notable sets include Shooto's, which were the first to mandate padded gloves, and Pride rules, after PRIDE Fighting Championships, which were also adopted by UFC

Ultimate Fighting Championship Mixed martial arts promoter based in Las Vegas

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is an American mixed martial arts promotion company based in Las Vegas, Nevada, that is owned and operated by parent company William Morris Endeavor. It is the largest MMA promotion company in the world and features the highest-level fighters on the roster. The UFC produces events worldwide that showcase twelve weight divisions and abide by the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. As of 2018, the UFC has held over 400 events. Dana White serves as the president of the UFC. White has held that position since 2001; while under his stewardship, the UFC has grown into a globally popular multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.


Some main motivations for these rule changes included:

Weight classes emerged when knowledge about submission holds spread. When more fighters became well-versed in submission techniques and avoiding submissions, differences in weight became a substantial factor.

Mixed martial arts weight classes are weight classes that pertain to the sport of mixed martial arts.

Headbutts were prohibited because it was a technique that required little effort and could quickly turn the match into a bloody mess. Headbutting was common among wrestlers because their skill in takedowns allowed them to quickly transfer bouts to the ground where they could assault opponents with headbutts while not being required to alter their position. There has been some criticism that techniques banned from Mixed martial arts, including headbutts, are actually very effective fighting techniques. [1]

Headbutt strike with the head

A headbutt is a targeted strike with the head, typically involving the use of robust parts of the headbutter's cranium as the area of impact. The most effective headbutts strike the most sensitive areas of an opponent, such as the nose, using the stronger bones in the forehead or the back of the skull. It can be considered a quick, very effective but risky maneuver, as a misplaced strike can cause greater injury to the person delivering the headbutt than to the person receiving it. A headbutt does not have to be against another person's head, although this is usually the nearest and easiest target.

Small, open-finger gloves were introduced to protect fists in punches while still allowing for effective grappling. Gloves were first mandatory in Japan's Shooto league, but are now mandatory in matches for nearly every promotion. Although some fighters may have well conditioned fists, others may not. The small bones in an unprotected and unconditioned fist are prone to break when it hits a torso or forehead with power. Gloves also reduce the occurrence of cuts (and stoppages due to cuts) and encourage fighters to use their hands for striking, both of which enable more captivating matches.

MMA gloves Open-fingered gloves used in mixed martial arts bouts

MMA gloves or grappling gloves are small, open-fingered gloves used in mixed martial arts bouts. They usually have around 4–6 oz of padding and are designed to provide some protection to the person wearing the glove, but leave the fingers available for grappling maneuvers such as clinch fighting and submissions.

Time limits were established to avoid long fights on the ground with little perceivable action. No time limit matches also complicated the airing of live events. Similar motivations produced the "stand up" rule, where the referee can stand fighters up if it is perceived both are resting on the ground or are not advancing toward a dominant position.

Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts

In April 2000, the California State Athletic Commission voted unanimously in favor of regulations that later became the foundation for the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. However, when the legislation was sent to California's capital for review, it was determined that the sport fell outside the jurisdiction of the CSAC, rendering the vote superfluous. [2]

California State Athletic Commission

The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) regulates amateur and professional boxing, amateur and professional kickboxing and professional mixed martial arts (MMA) throughout the State by licensing all participants and supervising the events.

In September 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board began to allow mixed martial arts promoters to conduct events in New Jersey. The intent was to allow the NJSACB to observe actual events and gather information to establish a comprehensive set of rules to effectively regulate the sport. [3]

On April 3, 2001, the NJSACB held a meeting to discuss the regulation of mixed martial arts events. This meeting attempted to unify the myriad of rules and regulations which have been utilized by the different mixed martial arts organizations. At this meeting, the proposed uniform rules were agreed upon by the NJSACB, several other regulatory bodies, numerous promoters of mixed martial arts events and other interested parties in attendance. At the conclusion of the meeting, all parties in attendance were able to agree upon a uniform set of rules to govern the sport of mixed martial arts. [3]

The rules adopted by the NJSACB have become the de facto standard set of rules for professional mixed martial arts across North America. All state, provincial, & municipal athletic commissions that regulate mixed martial arts have assimilated these rules into their existing unarmed combat competition rules and statutes. For a promotion to hold mixed martial arts events in a sanctioned venue, the promotion must abide by the commission's body of rules.

On July 30, 2009, a motion was made at the annual meeting of the Association of Boxing Commissions to adopt these rules as the "Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts". The motion passed unanimously. [4]


Every round is five minutes in duration with a one-minute rest period in-between rounds. Non-title matches must not normally exceed three rounds, but the governing commission can grant dispensation for non-title five round bouts [5] [6] . Title matches can be sanctioned for five rounds. [3]


All competitors must fight in approved shorts, without shoes or any other sort of foot padding. Shirts, gis or long pants (including gi pants) are not allowed. Fighters must use approved light gloves (4–6 ounces) that allow fingers to grab. A mouthguard and protective cup (in the case of men) are also required and are checked by a State Athletic Committee official before being allowed to enter the cage/ring. [3] Furthermore, approved leg and chest (in the case of women) protectors must be provided by the contestant. [7]

Judging criteria

The ten-point must system is used for all fights. Three judges score each round with ten points to the winner and nine points or fewer to the other fighter. In New Jersey, the fewest points a fighter can receive is 7. [3] If the round is even, both fighters receive ten points. Penalty points (usually one point for each offence, occasionally two points) decided by the referee are deducted from each judge's score for that round for the offending fighter.

At the end of the fight, each judge submits their total score for all rounds for each fighter, to determine the result by the following criteria.

Weight Categories

There are 11 classes of weight for fighters: [8]


As set out by the Association of Boxing Commissions: [9]

When a foul is charged, the referee in their discretion may deduct one or more points as a penalty. If a foul incapacitates a fighter, then the match may end in a disqualification if the foul was intentional, or a "no contest" if unintentional. If a foul causes a fighter to be unable to continue later in the bout, it ends with a technical decision win to the injured fighter if the injured fighter is ahead on points, otherwise it is a technical draw.

Medical requirements

Prohibited substances

PRIDE Fighting Championships (defunct)

Historically, PRIDE's rules differed between main PRIDE events and Bushido events. [11] However, it was announced on November 29, 2006, that Bushido events would be discontinued. [12] When holding events in the US, PRIDE abided by the Unified Rules, but added the prohibition against elbows to the head.


The first round is ten minutes in duration and the second and third rounds are five minutes in duration. There is a two-minute rest period between each round. Grand Prix matches are two rounds in length if more than one round is scheduled on one night.


PRIDE allowed fighters some latitude in their choice of attire, most notably the allowance of a gi or amateur wrestling shoes, but open finger gloves, a mouthguard, and a protective cup were mandatory.

Judging criteria

If the match reaches its time limit then the outcome of the bout is determined by the three judges. The fight is scored in its entirety and not round-by-round. After the conclusion of the bout, each judge must decide a winner. Matches cannot end in a draw. A decision is made according to the following criteria in this order of priority:

  1. the effort made to finish the fight via KO or submission,
  2. damage given to the opponent,
  3. standing combinations and ground control,
  4. takedowns and takedown defense,
  5. aggressiveness, and
  6. weight (in the case that the weight difference is 10 kg (22 lb) or more).

If a fight is stopped on advice of the ring doctor after an accidental but illegal action, e.g., a clash of heads, and the contest is in its second or third round, the match will be decided by the judges using the same criteria.

PRIDE allowed the following techniques:


In addition to the common fouls, PRIDE Fighting Championships considers elbow strikes to the head and face to be fouls.

In the event that a fighter is injured by illegal actions, then at the discretion of the referee and ring doctor, the round is resumed after enough time has been given for the fighter to recover. If the match cannot be continued due to the severity of the injury then the fighter who perpetrated the action will be disqualified.

General conduct

Bushido rules

PRIDE Bushido events instituted distinct variations to the full PRIDE rules:

PRIDE discontinued Bushido events in late-2006 and their rules were last used for lightweight and welterweight fights at PRIDE Shockwave 2006. [12] [13] As the lightweight and welterweight divisions will now be on the main PRIDE shows, the rules for the lighter classes are also changing to reflect standard PRIDE rules. [14]

ONE Championship

ONE Championship uses the Global MMA Rule Set [15] which blends a combination of Best Practices from Asian and Non-Asian Rules.

Other mixed martial arts promotions



K-1 Hero's


Cage or ring

MMA is often referred to as "cage fighting" in the US as it is associated with the UFC's octagonal caged fighting area. Most major MMA promotions in the US, Canada and Britain use the "cage" as a result of directly evolving from the first UFC events. There are variations on the cage such as replacing the metal fencing with a net, or using a different shape for the area other than an octagon, as the term "The Octagon" is trademarked by the UFC (though the 8-sided shape itself is not trademarked). In Japan, Brazil and some European countries such as the Netherlands an area similar to a standard boxing ring is used, but with tighter ropes and sometimes a barrier underneath the lowest rope to keep grappling athletes from rolling out of the ring. The usage of the ring in these countries is derived from the history of Vale Tudo, Japanese pro-wrestling and other MMA related sports such as kickboxing.

The choice of cage or ring is more than aesthetic, however, as it impacts the type of strategies that a fighter can implement. For example, a popular and effective strategy in a cage is to pin an opponent into the area where the fence meets the mat, and then pummel him with strikes. Randy Couture is well known for this tactic. Defensively, the cage is often used as support to fend off take-down attempts, or as a support to get from underneath an opponent (known as "walking up the cage"). These positions are not possible in a roped ring. On the other hand, the roped ring can result in entangled limbs and fighters falling through the ropes, requiring the referee to sometimes stop the fight and reposition the fighters in the center, as well as carrying the possibility for either fighter to sustain an injury. In either a cage or ring, a fighter is not allowed to grab the fence or ropes. Some critics[ who? ] feel that the appearance of fighting in a cage contributes to a negative image of MMA in popular media.

The following table shows what each MMA organization uses:

OrganizationCage or RingPrimary Event Location
BAMMA 8-sided cage Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
Bellator FC Circular cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
Cage Rage 9-sided cage Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
(8-sided cage for Cage Impact series)
Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Extreme Fighting Championship6-sided cage Flag of South Africa.svg South Africa
Jungle Fight 8-sided cage

(Has used ring)

Flag of Brazil.svg Brazil
Cage Warriors 6-sided cage Flag of the United Kingdom.svg UK
King of the Cage 8-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
KSW Cage Flag of Poland.svg Poland
Invicta Fighting Championships 8-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
M-1 Global Ring Flag of Russia.svg Russia
MFC Ring
(Has used circular cage)
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Canada
ONE Circular cage
(also uses a ring when there are kickboxing and/or Muay Thai bouts in the card)
Flag of Singapore.svg Singapore
Pancrase 10-sided cage
(Has used ring)
Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Pacific Xtreme CombatCircular cage Flag of the Philippines.svg Philippines
RESPECT.FC Ring Flag of Germany.svg Germany
Rizin Fighting Federation Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Road FC 8-sided cage Flag of South Korea.svg South Korea
Full Contact Championship6-sided cageFlag of India.svg  India India
GMC8-sided cage Flag of Germany.svg Germany
RINGS Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Super Fighting League8-sided cage
(Has used 6-sided cage)
Flag of India.svg India
UFC 8-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
URCC Ring Flag of the Philippines.svg Philippines
XFC 8-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
World Series of Fighting 10-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
ZST Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Superior Challenge8-sided cage Flag of Sweden.svg Sweden
One Pride MMA8-sided cage Flag of Indonesia.svg Indonesia

Defunct organizations:

OrganizationCage or RingPrimary Event Location
Affliction Entertainment Ring Flag of the United States.svg USA
Art of War FC Ring Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg China
Dream Ring
(Had used 6-sided cage)
Flag of Japan.svg Japan
EliteXC 8-sided cage
(Had used circular cage)
Flag of the United States.svg USA
K-1 Hero's Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan
IFL Ring
(Had intended to use 6-sided ring)
Flag of the United States.svg USA
Legend FC (Hong Kong) Ring Flag of Hong Kong.svg Hong Kong
Pride FC Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan
Strikeforce 6-sided cage Flag of the United States.svg USA
WEC 8-sided cage
(Had used 5-sided cage)
Flag of the United States.svg USA
World Victory Road Ring Flag of Japan.svg Japan

Amateur MMA rules

FILA promotes amateur MMA with its own set of rules. [16]

Protection gear

Competitors shall wear FILA approved head guards, gloves, knee pads and shin-instep guards of their assigned red or blue colour. They shall also wear personal groin and mouth guards. Female competitors may wear a chest protector. Protection gear may not contain any metal part whatsoever. The protection gear shall be in a generally clean and serviceable condition and the padding shall not be displaced, broken or imperfect in any way.

Illegal actions

Government regulation

In the U.S., state athletic and boxing commissions have played a crucial role in the introduction of safety rules because they oversee MMA in similar ways as they do for boxing. Small shows usually use more restrictive rules because they have less experienced fighters who are looking to acquire experience and exposure that could ultimately lead them to getting recruited into one of the larger, better paying promotions. In Japan and Europe, there is no regulating authority over MMA competitions, so these organizations have greater freedom in rules development and event structure. In general, a balanced set of rules with some organization-specific variances has been established and is widely used, and major rule changes are unlikely, allowing for fighters in one organization to transition to others easily.

See also

Related Research Articles

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A soccer kick, also known as a soccer ball kick or PK in puroresu and shoot fighting, and as tiro de meta in vale tudo, is a reference to a kick that is similar to kicks used in association football. It is the colloquial term for a kick performed against a prone, kneeling, rising or supine opponent by a fighter who is in a standing or semi-standing position, to any part of a downed opponent. The technique is banned under the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts however other rulesets, including the ones used by Pride Fighting Championships do permit them. Soccer kicks have been regularly discussed as to potential damage. There has been a regular debate on the usage of them within MMA. Some MMA fans and fighters support them while a fight doctor and politicians have opposed them.

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