In the recent Ultimate Finale 10, young fighter Jon Jones was disqualified from a bout that he obviously dominated, stopping formidable wrestler Matt Hammil in the first round with elbow strikes, some of which were deemed to be the illegal “12 to 6 o’clock” variety that land with the point of the elbow. Joe Rogan commented on the arbitrary genesis of this rule, claiming that one of the fight commissioners witnessed some brick breaking demonstrations that convinced him that this downward elbow was a potentially lethal move that was far too dangerous for MMA. While this rule does seem quite arbitrary given that it outlaws these strikes even for fighters who are on the ground and obviously cannot generate the kind of power that regulators and UFC lawyers worry about, the utility of such rules remains debatable. Some such rules, for example those outlawing eye gouging, are obviously fair and quite necessary for the sports very existence. However, these rules do impose an artificial environment on the fighters. Roger Huerta famously used the big screen above the octagon to land good elbow strikes to an opponent who had his back. Other fighters have even found ways to use the rules unfairly to their advantage. The following are just a few examples of such opportunism.
Weight classes seem to ensure that the competitions have more to do with skill than mere size, making the fights much more entertaining, competitive, and safe. However, the fact remains that fighters weigh in with enough time before the fight to allow them to cut significant amounts of weight and enter the cage on fight day sometimes 25 pounds over the limit. At this level of competition, 25 pounds makes a huge difference. Moreover, the heavy weight division is open-ended, allowing enormous weight differences to exist between heavy weight fighters. To some this spoils the competition as the fighter’s skill may take a back seat to his size in determining the outcome of the fight.
The 4-ounce MMA gloves that protect the knuckles of each fighter also change the dynamics of the game, encouraging a ground-and-pound style that otherwise would be quite hazardous. Though hardened by years of conditioning, an MMA fighters hands are not built to withstand the force of countless strikes thrown directly into an opponent’s elbows and forearms as he frantically defends his face. This rule makes it all the more possible to stop an opponent with a technical knockout due to strikes even when that opponent is absorbing much of the force of these blows with his arms and hands. Many a fighter loses because he appears to not be defending himself intelligently, but in fact, this defense of “turtleing up” is an intelligent defense; just not against someone with padded knuckles. Fighters would likely be much more reluctant to rain down heavy leather into an opponent’s defensive shell without his trusty gloves on. Additionally, the gloves make wrist control much easier which affects how difficult it is to sink in a rear-naked-choke, for example.
Though many would argue, perhaps with good reason, that the outlawing of knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent makes the sport much safer, none would deny the fact that this radically alters the game of mixed martial arts. Suddenly precarious positions become entirely tenable. A wrestler who is stopped by an opponent’s sprawl can drop to his knees and just hang on to one or both legs for dear life without fearing for anything but a few chokes. A fighter who has managed to retain sidemount is totally safe from the knees that Frank Shamrock, for example, stopped Renzo Grace with from the bottom (albeit illegally). The opponent on the bottom when in North/South position is only worried about being submitted with a choke or far-side armbar and can rest easy unless one of these is being applied. A fighter who decides to stand up after scaring an opponent away from his open guard has to worry only about the upper cut as he gets to his feet; the furthest of the weapons available to his opponent.
Head butts used to be legal in the UFC but were likely banned due to their barbaric appearance. Though this rule is somewhat arbitrary, some fighters have learned a way of getting around it. Tito Ortiz, for example, won some of his first fights in the octagon by placing his head right on an opponent’s chin while taking him down, effectively spearing the man’s head with his own. This is a perfectly legal maneuver, though it is much more dangerous than a head butt from within the guard. Ortiz can always simply argue that his opponent should be aware of this inherent danger and adjust accordingly. This same attitude is displayed in a few more maneuvers that cleverly dance around the rules.
An inside leg kick is a legal strike that lands quite near the groin. However, if the opponent either closes six inches of distance or fades away in line with the kicks trajectory he will likely be struck in the groin with this blow. If thrown often it can effectively be used as a stop-hit that will discourage an opponent from diving in not because of the pain inflicted on the intended target, the inside of the thigh, but instead because of the near certainty that it will land squarely on the cup. The same thing can be said for the chasse-style side-kick to the thigh muscles right above the knee. This same kick is illegal if targeting the tendon right below the patella, which accounts for the “knee-jerk” reflex and can easily hyper-extend the knee. However, if an opponent is shifting his weight forward or rushing in, the chasse-style kick that targets right above the knee can just as easily blow the knee out. Is it any wonder that Thales Leitus gave up trying to take Anderson Silva down after the second round? Rogan commented that he didn’t have the spring left in his legs, but the shot is initially powered by the rear leg, not the front one which was taking all of the punishment from Silva. Leitus, who even shook out his damaged knee after being stopped in his tracks while attempting to close distance, simply knew that his front knee would be blown out if he were to keep rushing in. Again, it would be judged as his fault if he were to be injured this way by a legal strike. Look at the following “during” and “after” shots of such a blow delivered by Cayce Uscola to Chris McCray:
The same goes for the ubiquitous “unintentional” eye jab. Many fighters paw out with their lead hand, fingers outstretched, in order to gage distance and determine an opponent’s whereabouts, but this also works as a stop-hit and a disincentive for someone to close the distance.
The Spartan’s famously refused to attend the Olympic games because of the establishment of rules governing the fighting competitions, which outlawed eye gouging and small joint manipulation. They claimed that this adulterated the competition and they actually had a valid point. However, nobody wants to see MMA fighters losing eyes or getting their fingers routinely snapped while trying to apply a submission hold, but the educated MMA fan should be aware that the hierarchy of “dominant” positions and a host of other features of the game are radically altered by the sports rules. There are no obvious solutions to some of the problems pointed out above and the sport remains a very real test of many aspects of the martial arts, despite falling far short of Spartan standards. However, there seems to be some room for improvement in these rules as well as how they are adjudicated. Perhaps we will see an end to the division of each fight into rounds and fighters will never again be “saved by the bell.” Until then, it will be interesting to see how fighters maneuver around these restrictions.