This story is over 5 years old.


Understanding the New Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts

As of January 1st 2017, there will be significant changes made to the rules and scoring criteria for MMA.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, there will be substantial changes to unified rules of mixed martial arts, which will come into effect on January 1, 2017.

Not only will the rule changes make a lot of techniques available where they wouldn't have been before, but also the adaptions to the scoring process should make MMA far more independent and recognizable in comparison to other combat sports.

Yesterday, veteran referee John McCarthy released a video to give further clarity on the rule changes, which we will look to further explain.


Heel Kicks to the Kidneys

Despite Royce Gracie utilizing heel kicks to the kidney's from his guard against Ken Shamrock at UFC 1, the technique was later banned when the unified rules began to come into effect in 2000. Although fighters were deemed to be able to strike the back from the guard, shots to the spine and kidneys were not allowed.

  • Heel kicks from the guard to the kidneys are no longer a foul
  • Referees to pay special attention that heel kicks are not hitting the spine
  • Heel kicks from guard to opponent's legs, buttocks and back and remain legal

Grabbing the Clavicle

Grabbing the clavicle will not longer be a foul when the new unified rules come into place on January 1. McCarthy himself described the rule as "silly" in his breakdown of the new rules. Out of all the rule changes, this seems to be the least likely to have an effect on the discourse of fights, due to it being so rarely, if ever, enforced in an MMA bout.

  • Grabbing the clavicle is no longer deemed a foul by the new unified rules of MMA

Extending Fingers towards Opponents' Eyes

Eye pokes have become the scourge of mixed martial arts in the last few years. With many fighters pawing out their hands with their fingers extended in an effort to gain a sense of distance, their oncoming opponents are often subsequently poked. This can lead to a lot of trouble in the bout they are contesting, or in the case of fighters who suffer detached retinas due to extended fingers, a very serious injury that could threaten the future of your career.


Jon Jones is one of the serial offenders for utilizing extended fingers as a way to gauge distance, so his return to the Octagon should be very interesting with the new rules in place.

  • Fighters extending fingers out and towards opponents' faces will be warned by referees
  • Action can be stopped for referees to warn fouling fighter. Fighters can also be warned without stoppage
  • After being warned several times, if fighter continues to foul referees can stop action and take points
  • Fighters can also be disqualified for repeated fouling with extended fingers towards opponents' faces

Grounded Fighters

For a long time, it was deemed that once a fighter had anything more than their two feet on the ground, they qualified as a "grounded fighter", which would not allow their opponents to knee or kick them in the head.

Over the years, this led to many fighters placing one hand on the ground from a standing position to obstruct their opponents from landing kicks or knees to the head. In some cases, we have seen referees tell the opponents to attack with kicks and knees from this position as the fighter placing one hand on the ground was suggested to be "playing the game".

McCarthy explained the new interpretation of a "grounded fighter" as follows:

"When we talk about a grounded opponent, when it comes to them being on their feet, if they are in stand-up position and they decide to put one hand down like they did in the past, they are not a grounded opponent.


"If they have both feet on the ground, they would have to have both hands touch the ground to put themselves in a position where they are determined to be grounded by the official, where they cannot be kicked or kneed to the face."

He added: "If a fighter has both hands up and puts one knee on the ground, he is a grounded fighter. If you've got a fighter with both hands in the air and his butt is on the ground, he is a grounded fighter. If you've got a situation where a fighter has anything more than his hands and feet on the ground, they are grounded and cannot be legally kicked or kneed to the face under this rule."

  • Fighters are only determined to be grounded when they have both hands, as well as feet on the ground
  • Fighters with a single hand on the ground can now be kicked or kneed in the face
  • A single hand placed on the canvas can be stomped as fighter is not grounded

New Scoring System

McCarthy explained that the new scoring system will be determined with more emphasis on striking and grappling. In the past, fights have been determined by who has been pressing forward the most, with the old criteria stressing the importance of "Octagon control". However, McCarthy stated that he only wants judges to look at the "impact" of what happens in the grappling and striking exchanges to determine who won a round.

"(Striking and grappling) are the two elements that make up a fight. If we don't have two fighters that are either striking or grappling…that's dancing. It's not fighting."


"We want you to judge the effectiveness of who is the better at either one of those two elements. Obviously, if 90% of the round is striking we want you to go with a heavy emphasis on striking. If 90% of the round is grappling, the stronger emphasis will be on grappling.

"Who is doing the most to impact a fight and bring a fight to an end?"

"We're looking for big power that has an impact on the fight. This is not a game of numbers. If you are giving more credit to numbers than quality, you're making a mistake. If you have one fighter that lands six jabs fighting a guy who lands one beautiful right cross that hurts his opponent, that one person with the right cross is winning our fight."

  • Success in grappling and striking exchanges to determine winner of rounds
  • Quality of strikes rather than volume to be given more emphasis
  • Control of grappling exchanges given emphasis in grappling-dominated fights

McCarthy also outlined the different way to score a fight. According to the new rules, at 10-9 round would be a very even contest in terms of the exchanges with the most aggressive fighter of the two being warranted the 10-9 round.

According to the new scheme, 10-8 rounds will be scored a lot more liberally. A 10-8 will be rewarded when a fighter clearly wins a round. McCarthy explained that the fights will be judged on the "Three Ds"—damage, domination, duration. If a fighter has been damaged and dominated in a round, the round should be scored a 10-8. If the domination element does not exist, judges are urged to look at how long the duration of the damage lasted and how much of an impact it had on the fight before determining the round a 10-8. If there is no damage, judges need to look at the duration of the domination that occurred in the round.

  • 10-10 round to be scored for a completely even fight
  • 10-9 to be scored for marginal round win for one fighter
  • 10-8 to be scored when there is a large margin between fighters at the end of a round
  • 10-7 to be scored when there is overwhelming damage and domination in a round