Mixed martial arts rules

Most rule sets for mixed martial arts competitions have evolved since the creation of life 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 a different ruleset, as the basics of fighting remain largely the same.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[3]


Every round is 5 minutes in duration with a one-minute rest period in-between rounds. Non-title matches must not exceed three rounds (The governing commission can grant dispensation for non-title five round bouts[4][5]). Title matches can be sanctioned for five rounds.[2]


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.[2] Furthermore, approved leg and chest (in the case of women) protectors must be provided by the contestant.[6]

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.[2] 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:[7]


As set out by the Association of Boxing Commissions:[8]

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.[10] However, it was announced on November 29, 2006, that Bushido events would be discontinued.[11] 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.

Legal techniques

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.[11][12] 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.[13]

ONE Championship

ONE Championship utilizes the Global MMA Rule Set[14] that combines the PRIDE Rules with the Nevada Rules; allowing for soccer kicks and permitting the use of elbows, stomp kicks to the body and legs but not to the head of a ground opponent. Knees are allowed at any time during the fight, whether the opponent is standing or on the ground.

Full Contact Championship

FCC's current rules are based upon the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts that were originally established by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and modified by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

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 and 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 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:

Organization Cage or Ring Primary Event Location
BAMMA 8-sided cage United Kingdom UK
Bellator FC Circular cage United States USA
Cage Rage 9-sided cage United Kingdom UK
(8-sided cage for Cage Impact series)
Japan Japan
Extreme Fighting Championship 6-sided cage South Africa South Africa
Jungle Fight 8-sided cage

(Has used ring)

Brazil Brazil
King of the Cage 8-sided cage United States USA
KSW Cage Poland Poland
Invicta Fighting Championships 8-sided cage United States USA
M-1 Global Ring Russia Russia
MFC Ring
(Has used circular cage)
Canada Canada
ONE Circular cage Singapore Singapore
Pancrase 10-sided cage
(Has used ring)
Japan Japan
Pacific Xtreme Combat Circular cage Philippines the Philippines
RESPECT.FC Ring Germany Germany
Road FC 8-sided cage South Korea South Korea
Full Contact Championship 6-sided cage  India India
GMC 8-sided cage Germany Germany
RINGS Ring Japan Japan
Super Fighting League 8-sided cage
(Has used 6-sided cage)
India India
UFC 8-sided cage United States USA
URCC Ring Philippines the Philippines
XFC 8-sided cage United States USA
World Series of Fighting 10-sided cage United States USA
ZST Ring Japan Japan
Superior Challenge 8-sided cage Sweden Sweden
One Pride MMA 8-sided cage Indonesia Indonesia

Defunct organizations:

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

Amateur MMA rules

FILA promotes amateur MMA with its own set of rules.[15]

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


  1. Gross, Josh (2005-02-22). "MMA Vote Takes Place Today in California". Sherdog.com. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 "Mixed Martial arts Unified Rules of Conduct". New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. 2002-09-05. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  3. "SUMMARY REPORT Discussion and Review of UNIFIED RULES OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS". ABCBoxing.com. Retrieved 2011-05-17.
  4. Chiappetta, Mike (2011-04-29). "Dana White: Non-Title, Five-Round Fights in UFC's Immediate Future". MMAFighting.com. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  5. Botter, Jeremy (2009-08-19). "Five-round non title fights approved by NSAC". InsideFights.com. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  6. "MMA Rules". MMASHOP.dk. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
  7. "What is MMA". smartbeard.com. Retrieved 2015-07-08.
  8. "UNIFIED RULES OF MMA". ABCBoxing.com. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  9. 1 2 "MIXED MARTIAL ARTS - UNIFIED RULES". MMAReferee.com. Retrieved 2011-05-19.
  10. PRIDE rules, Official PRIDE site. Last retrieved December 5, 2006
  11. 1 2 PRIDE MAKING BIG CHANGES IN 2007, MMAWeekly.com. Last retrieved December 5, 2006
  12. ""Shockwave" to Feature PRIDE- and Bushido-Rules Bouts". Sherdog.com. 2006-12-29. Retrieved 2006-12-31.
  13. Al Yu (2007-01-08). "PRIDE 2007: "The Year of Change and Challenge"". MMAWeekly.
  14. "ONE Championship: Rules". Official ONE website. Retrieved 2014-06-29.
  15. "International Regulations Governing Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Competitions" (PDF).
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