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Learn Unified Rules of MMA

UFC 100 is one of the most anticipated and maybe the most watched event in the history of MMA. For all the casual fans and newcomers who will be watching on Saturday, here is an explanation of a few aspects of The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts that people find confusing and how they actually play out in the octagon.

Note: The following explanation is based on the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts as drafted by the New Jersey Athletic Commission in 2001. In 2008, there were several proposed changes to the Unified Rules to include some clarification on fouls and major changes to weight classes. The amendments to weight classes have not yet been adopted by any major American organizations.


It’s hard to watch an event all the way through where no one explains the ten point must system of scoring. But it still often gives fans trouble.

Any fight that goes through all three rounds, or five in the case of title fights, without a knock out, technical knock out, or submission, and both fighters are able to continue, is decided on the judges score cards.

Three judges each judge and score points for each individual round. The judges decide the winner of the round based on the following criteria:
1. The amount of clean and effective strikes scored in the round
2. The fighters’ ability to land takedowns or otherwise stay in dominant position
3. The fighters’ ability to dictate the pace and location of the round, such as a fighter who is getting the better of exchanges on the ground forcibly keeping the majority of the round on the ground.
4. The fighters’ aggression.
5. The fighters’ ability to successfully avoid strikes and escape bad situations.

The winner of the round, based on those criteria, is given ten points for that round. The loser is given nine points if the round was reasonably close. If the loser was on the receiving end of a dominant performance, such as being mounted and struck for the majority of the round or having multiple unanswered knock downs, the loser is awarded eight points.

The loser of a round can also be awarded seven points for being completely dominated. But this is very rare as the lack of defense necessary to only be awarded seven usually ends in the fight being stopped by the referee. If there is no winner of a round then both fighters are given ten points, but that is also rare as every aspect of the round has to be dead even.

In the end, the fighter with the most points wins. If the judges disagree on who has the most points, which usually only occurs in very close contests where subjective things like which fighter wanted to be on the ground longer come into play, then the fighter who had the most points on two out of the three judges’ score cards is the winner.

Weight Classes

While most new fans understand the weight classes in mixed martial arts, in that they understand that people are divided up by size, they don’t always know what the weight classes are or why the divisions are made the way they are.

The first thing to understand is that a fighter is going to want to be the biggest and strongest that he is allowed to be in a given weight class. So, when the rules say that a light heavyweight is between 185–204.9 pounds, in practice it means a light heavyweight fighter will weigh in at as close to 205 pounds as possible without going over. It’s also sometimes referred to as the 205 pound division.

The official weight classes are as follows:

1.Flyweight under 125.9 pounds;
2.Bantamweight 126 lbs. – 134.9 pounds;
3.Featherweight 135 lbs. – 144.9 pounds;
4.Lightweight 145 lbs. – 154.9 pounds;
5.Welterweight 155 lbs. – 169.9 pounds;
6.Middleweight 170 lbs. – 184.9 pounds;
7.Light Heavyweight 185 lbs. – 204.9 pounds;
8.Heavyweight 204 lbs. – 264.9 pounds; and
9.Super Heavyweight over 265 pounds.

The amount of weight between weight classes starts at a new division every ten pounds for lighter weights and then goes up significantly. This is because a difference of 10 pounds means a lot more to a fighter’s comparative strength and speed among smaller athletes. Currently there are very few super heavyweight fights hosted.

The changes to weight classes proposed in 2008 would allow for 14 weight classes instead of the existing nine. It is unlikely that the UFC or any orginization with an existing championship and ranking system will change to the new 14 weight class system in the near future.

Another common point of confusion is when someone is referred to as being “big” or “small” for his weight class. Since, on the professional level, everyone is coming in within one or two pounds of each other, they seem to be the same size on paper.

When someone is referred to as big for his weight class, it means he has a large frame and probably cut a lot of water weight for the day of the weigh-in. After some rehydration and food, the fighter might be significantly heavier by the time he actually fights.

Someone small for his weight class is naturally smaller and probably spent a portion of his training camp bulking up for the fight. He will have a size disadvantage on fight night, as he is probably no bigger then than he was on the scale.


Some fouls, or illegal hits, frequently confuse fans. This section provides an explanation for some fouls that are not obvious in practice. For a complete list of fouls, see The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

Kicking or kneeing the head of a grounded opponent- There is no kicking or kneeing to the head of a grounded opponent. This rule seems self explanatory. But many fans don’t understand how this rule applies to the upkick from an open guard.

When lying on his back, a fighter is allowed to kick his legs up into a standing opponent’s face. As soon as one of the opponent’s knees touches the floor, he counts as a grounded opponent and the same kick is considered a foul. This is why an upkick from an open guard is sometimes allowed and sometimes illegal.

The standing eye poke- Any gouging or attack against the eyes is expressly against the rules and counts as a foul. And in the rules a fight stopped due to an accidental foul will either go to the score cards early or, if there has not been enough time to determine a winner via the score card, be declared a no contest.

Fans who know this often don’t understand why in cases like Anthony Johnson versus Kevin Burns or Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovich versus Mustapha Al-Turk, where one fighter clearly poked the other in the eye, why the fights were ruled a victory for the fighter causing the injury.

This is because the referee is the only person allowed to stop the fight or rule that there has been a foul. In cases of eye gouging on the ground the referee can usually tell if it is happening. But, in the case of a standing eye poke, where many strikes are being thrown back and forth, the referee may only see a fighter clasp his face and drop to the floor.

The referee will immediately stop the fight as soon as one fighter can’t defend himself. However, if the referee did not explicitly see fingers going into the other fighter’s eye, he has to rule the fight a technical knock out in favor of the man who’s still capable of fighting.

Replays may allow the commentators to see if the strike was a foul, but a referee’s call can not be overturned during a fight. Some fighters will appeal the decision afterwards if the foul is obvious from the replay. Some state commissions have tried to institute rules involving instant replays, but none have yet been adopted across the country.

Blows to the back of the head- Strikes to the back of the head are illegal. In the recent proposed amendments to the Unified Rules, the “back of the head” is defined as from the base of the neck to the top of the head along the path of the spine, the space a mohawk would occupy. The mohawk guideline was one frequently used by referees even before the proposed changes.

That covers some frequently asked questions from new fans about the rules of MMA. MMA 101 is an ongoing series, so feel free to post comments or send e-mail in regards to any further questions you may have.

By: Peter Lampasona

  • Confused1 says:

    When does a fight officially end? When the referee thinks the fight is over, or when the referee steps in and stops the fight?

    Does a referee actually “call” a foul, or does a referee “call” timeout?

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