Mixed Martial Arts is a fairly new sport in the overall scheme of things, and while competitions have been going on in different places for just over 100 years, most professional organizations, which basically means rules and regulations and a type of homogenization of it all, are less than 30 years old. Apart from the diehard fans, and there are plenty of them out there, many other people are still slightly confused about the whole thing. Is MMA a sport, a discipline, or an organization? What about the UFC? And are there really no rules?
We give you the history and the whole lowdown on the sport and the different organizations right here in our inimitable Dummies’ Guide. Enjoy…
Yes, at the beginning, the tag line and whole marketing campaign revolved around “There Are No Rules!” but this proved far too gruesome an image for sponsors and TV networks, as well as for the majority of ‘civilized’ fight audiences. So, what happened was that the sport underwent a transformation to bring it in line with modern sensibilities. The result was… a bunch of rules. Rules designed to protect the fighters, appease the networks while still being able to draw in the mass audiences and allow the fighting to be an exciting spectator-sport.
One of the first changes made to the original UFC contests was the introduction of weight classes, included in order to ensure fairness and safety, and with the added bonus that it allows for many more champions in the different weight classes. This was a no-brainer since the old boxing adage of “a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un” holds true in MMA too and in order to truly test skill, the two fighters have to be roughly the same size. Obviously the heavyweights are more sluggish but tend to throw devastating punches, while the lighter weights tend to be more agile and fast.
The one thing to note is that in MMA globally there are 14 weight classes for men and 10 classes for women, while in UFC there are only 9 for men and 2 for women. For the sake of a more comprehensive coverage, we will include all the weight classes in this guide.
When a fighter does not make weight, the normal procedure is that they lose 20% of the purse (usually 10% goes to their opponent and 10% goes to the commission), and their opponent has the option to accept the fight, and/or decide at a new weight for the fight. If someone is outlandishly overweight, then the fight is cancelled. In non-title fights, fighters are allowed to be 1lb over the stated weight class. And in the UFC, it will lead to Dana White getting real pissed off.
MMA gloves (grappling gloves) are open-fingered gloves, in order to allow the fighters to grapple, clinch and force submissions, which weigh at least 4 oz but generally not more than 6 oz, although some fighters are allowed gloves which weigh slightly more if they have specific permission. They were actually only introduced when Shooto was founded in the 1980s, mainly to protect the fighters’ hands and to stop them from getting facial lacerations which would force fights to be stopped, but also to encourage more striking to make the fights more captivating.
There’s not a lot to say in this matter since apparel is kept to an absolute minimum; no shoes of any sort, and men wear shorts and groin protectors, while women have to wear shorts and sports bras or some other form of tightly-fitting top. Both have to wear mouthguards. That’s it.
A fight can be held in a ring or a fenced area, which can be round or have at least 6 sides. The rings (or cages as they’re usually known) can have thin metal fencing or a net. The area has to be no smaller than 20 ft sq and no bigger than 32 ft sq (within the ropes /fencing) and the floor has to be padded.
Every round is 5 minutes long with a 1 minute rest period in-between each round. Non-title matches must not exceed three rounds, unless the governing commission grants a special dispensation, while title fights can be sanctioned for 5 rounds.
In the beginning, everything was allowed. That was the whole point. “There Are No Rules” screamed the marketing headlines. Things inevitably changed though, partly due to mainstream audiences being horrified by the thought of raw unchecked fighting, but mostly because sponsors and the TV networks started to distance themselves from the sport. The rules between different organizations will vary slightly but there are some universal no-no’s, stuff which is strictly not allowed. There’s a lot more acute rules which we decided not to list since they are mostly bleedin’ obvious, like the fact that you can’t attack an opponent during the break or when they’re under the care of the referee.
As the name Mixed Martial Arts suggests, this is a fighting discipline which incorporates many different fighting arts. Although at the beginning most fighters came from one discipline and tended to specialize purely in that technique, over the years most fighters realized that they would have to get well versed in the other arts too if they were to have any chance of being successful, especially since, in the beginning, grapplers tended to win most of the competitions. Nowadays, every fighter can compete in any fashion, but every fighter still has one (or maybe two) disciplines which they are far stronger in than others.
Punches account for the majority of significant strikes in the stand-up part of the fights and boxing is the primary striking discipline in MMA. Apart from the actual ‘throwing a punch’ aspect of it, there are several other things which make boxing useful to an MMA fighter, like footwork, head movement, combination usage and defensive skills. For many people, the most exciting discipline, and certainly the one which ends most fights.
This is the other, secondary, striking discipline in the stand-up aspect of MMA, only this discipline is much more wide-ranging. Going back all the way to the 17th Century, it originated in Thailand, where it was known as the “art of 8 limbs”, referring to the fact that the fighter uses legs, knees, elbows and fists, which makes it a devastating discipline once you master it. Its versatility and range, which includes long, middle and short range striking (since it can use all 8 limbs), make it a formidable weapon in any fighter’s arsenal.
This is one of the oldest disciplines, going back to the original Greek Olympics, and is now actually a hybrid of different disciplines, including Catch Wrestling (developed in England in the 1800s), Greco Roman wrestling, and styles from the sub-continent of India. Wrestling is widely practiced by all fighters, due to its effectiveness and the fact that it’s a good way to score points, and also because it emphasizes conditioning and stamina for explosive movement. There are many different types and the differences are subtle, but, although it does include certain submission techniques, in short, wrestling (or grappling) is basically the art of taking an opponent down to the floor.
Once you have your opponent on the floor, Jiu-Jitsu is what you use in order to make then submit. It was first developed by Helio Gracie (among others) in the late 1800s early 1900s in (where else) Brazil, and then brought to prominence when Royce Gracie first competed (and had much success) in the early UFC Championships, taking out all-comers with this on-the-floor grappling technique. Relying on subtle squeezing and re-positioning of holds to allow for chokes and joint locks, forcing fighters to submit and tap out rather than breaking their arm or leg, or passing out from suffocation, it is the one discipline which most caters towards a smaller person taking out someone of bigger size. Very effective, and slightly misunderstood since only connoisseurs can actually identify what’s going on between two fighters as they (seemingly) roll around on the floor; while to many they appear to be grappling each other without rhyme or reason, people in-the-know can spot the subtle differences and who is getting the upper hand.
Judo, first developed in the late 1800s and more specifically in 1882 by Kano Jigoro, is sort of like the offspring of Jiu-Jitsu, and it’s a type of combination of the two aforementioned wrestling techniques, where the idea is to grab and throw your opponent to the floor, before then pinning them down and immobilizing them, and then forcing them to submit by choke or joint lock, but also of Muay Thai, since strikes and defense blocks by hands and feet are all part-and-parcel. Maximum efficiency and minimum effort are the key words here.
The art of kicking. Although it refers to both arms and legs (Tae=to kick or, more precisely, to smash with feet, Kwon=to punch or, more precisely, destroying with the hand, Do=method), it aligns itself more with devastating head height kicks and jump and spin kicks, and it has been around, in Korea and in one form or another, for almost 2,000 years. However, it was not until the liberation of Korea from Japanese forces in the 1950s that it actually became its own recognized martial art form. Stances tend to be narrower than karate in order to facilitate fast, turning kicks, which means more agility but not as stable. The emphasis is on speed and one concentrating all the muscles into the striking point, as well as using other limbs to provide reaction force.
This is a bit of a mongrel, or (officially) a hybrid martial art, being as it is a fusion between Boxing, Karate, Khmer Boxing and Muay Thai; predictably enough it only goes back as far as the 1960s-70s when these disciplines were fully developed, although its real roots lie with a Japanese karateka named Tatsuo Yamada who, in the 1950s, combined Karate and Muay Thai. It is a stand-up striking discipline, with knockout aspirations, and, as the name would suggest, it focusses on kicking (with the two main ones being the sidekick and the round kick) and punching, with the addition of lots of elbows and knees. While it can be used for knockouts, the effects of kickboxing are usually more to do with wearing an opponent down over time, setting them up for the knock out or the submission when they’re tired, especially when repeatedly kicking the leg just above the knee region to take away the opponent’s power and to stop their movement.
This is actually not a discipline but rather one of the two components in Chinese martial arts training, and it basically encompasses all of the above disciplines, combining kickboxing, close range punches, wrestling, takedowns, and even elbow and knee strikes.
Every fighter will employ different strategies to win A fight, and most fighters’ favorite strategies will usually be strongly linked to whatever martial art they are most experienced in; for example, a fighter who is strong on boxing will usually choose to stand and fight rather than go to ground. However, as with the different disciplines, most fighters are well versed in all the different techniques and will always work on their weak points (or rather their next opponent’s strong points) before each fight. Also, as with the different disciplines, some strategies are more spectator-friendly than others.
As the name exclaims, this tactic is all about fighting standing up, trading blows the old fashioned way and going for that big knock out, while avoiding takedowns by defending against them using sprawls, a technique where you fling your legs backwards, getting them out of reach of your opponent (who’s attempting the takedown) while at the same time positioning yourself to land on their back. Fighters try to avoid ‘going to the floor’ and engage in striking their opponent, fists, elbows, kicks (but not head butts), as well as sometimes clinching their opponent, while dancing in and out of the different striking zones – clinching zone, punching zone, kicking zone, and comfort zone (outside kicking range) – all the time going for the big knock out. Exciting and what most people tuning in want to see.
A strategy with a pretty self-explanatory name, this is all about taking your opponent down and just hammering them until they either give up or are too weak to resist a submission attempt. A fighter will get their opponent to the ground using a takedown or a throw, then attempt to maneuver themselves onto a dominant grappling position on top of their opponent and then hit them as often as possible, preferably in the face but the body will also do.
It is possible to win the fight purely using this strategy, either by going for a knock out (which is pretty rare since the fighter does not usually have enough leverage) or pounding the hell out of them until they stop defending themselves and the referee is forced to step in and stop the fight; however, it is more normal for a fighter to use this tactic in order to soften their victim, tire them out and make them an easier target for a submission. Whether the person on top is using back mount, side control or the turtle position, if they continue to strike then their opponent has to expend a lot of energy to fend them off and thus avoid real damage.
An ugly off-shoot to ground-and-pound has recently developed, which is called “lay-and-pray,” whereby a fighter will use these skills as a delay tactic, basically stalling; they pin their opponent down and hold on tight, but without actually striking them or attempting a submission, thus expending little energy. This is usually employed against a fighter who specializes in striking, thus neutralizing their main weapon, and by a fighter who is maybe ahead by a round and is thus looking to take a little rest and stay ahead in the judges’ scorecards. Needless to say, most fans find this very boring.
A very dangerous tactic and an essential part of many martial arts disciplines. A fighter will take their opponent down and then grapple away (or use ground-and-pound), always looking for a submission hold whose aim is to force the opponent to submit, either due to extreme pain and about to suffer a break, or due to them being on the point of losing consciousness. Submissions are pretty much split into two different categories; constrictions, like choke holds (causing unconsciousness), compression locks (causing severe pain and/or damage), or suffocation locks (same as choke holds); or manipulations, like joint locks (causing severe pain and/or bone fracture) or pain compliance holds (causing severe pain). Submissions are something that the referee has to watch very carefully since sometimes a fighter will lose consciousness before being able to ‘tap out’, and sometimes they are too stubborn, which may result in a pointless injury. This is also one of the techniques that many newbies to the sport find difficult to appreciate as they can’t discern the different set-ups and grappling moves that fighters use to allow them to win by submission.
This is ugly, sweaty, awkward and slippery work, whereby a fighter will use a clinch hold while standing up, usually pushing their opponent against the fence, in order to pound them with elbows, short punches, knees, and foot stomps; real close range stuff which doesn’t look too glamorous but tends to wear down opponents, tiring them out and slowly breaking them down. It is a technique which is often used by fighters who are trying to neutralize their rivals’ stand-up striking skills, or by fighters who are trying to soften up their foe before taking them down and going for a submission, and fighters have been known to win fights by just outscoring their opponents using solely this tactic, which is often called “grinding.”
There are literally hundreds of different organizations around the world, most of them pretty small, promoting events very much locally and using local fighters, or ones pretty far down the ladder, but all of these come under the umbrella of the IMMAF (International Mixed Martial Arts Federation), which was actually only established at the beginning of 2012.
Out of all these organizations, there are only a few giants in the sport, and they have the game pretty much sown up.
Obviously the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) rules the roost and towers over all the rest, with more money, more sponsorship, more top ranked fighters, more pizzazz, more razzmatazz, more everything; the UFC is the pinnacle, they holy grail, and most fighters fight their way to the top of their organization in order to get noticed and make the leap into the UFC, where the big fights and the big money is. The first event was held in November 1993 and, since then there have been 202 (at the time of writing) events, each featuring four or five fights and normally two co-main events, usually title fights with 5 x 5 minute rounds.
The UFC also bought (or ‘merged’) with Pride FC, WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) and Strikeforce (one of the originals since it was founded in 1985), and, in 2011 struck a multi-year deal with Fox Sports in the USA, which brought the sport to the mainstream masses and truly established the UFC as the daddy of the lot. For now and forever.
Bellator MMA is an organization founded in 2008, based in California and beamed out around the world via several networks. The organization had its first pay-per-view event in May 2014 and what this organization does differently is that the events are on a knock-out basis, with 8 fighters in each weight division (of which there are only seven as opposed to the UFC’s eight) basically fighting quarter-finals, semi-finals, then finals, normally spread out over a three month period. The final fight is still only a three round fight since it is not an actual title fight.
ONE Championship is the big guy in Asia, founded in 2011 by multi-millionaire entrepreneur Chatri Sityodtong, is based in Singapore and, according to CNBC, is Asia’s biggest sports media property. The rounds are the same as UFC, 3 x 5 minute rounds with 5 rounds for the title fights and the rules are the same also. It is broadcast globally to over 1 billion homes and around 120 countries, and has so far staged almost 50 events (at the time of writing). Very big in Asia.
The URCC (Universal Reality Combat Championship) is the first professional MMA event organization based in the Philippines, having first launched in November 2002. It differs from other organizations in that fights are based on 2 x 10 minute rounds, with a third 5 minute round in case of a draw, and the ring is a five-point squared ring as opposed to an octagon.
PXC (Pacific Xtreme Combat), another Asian organization, was established in 2004 on the US island of Guam and is owned by the Calvo family, to date organizing almost 40 professional events and over 30 amateur events. In 2011 PXC partnered up with Manila’s TV5 ‘AKTV’ channel and started to make inroads in the Philippines, establishing itself as the main organizational body in the country.
World Series of Fighting is an American organization based in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was formed in 2012, it has orga ized around 40 oevents and it broadcasts mainly to the USA, Canada, and Brazil.
Invicta Fighting Championships is another American organization, founded in 2012, but this one has the distinction of being one for female fighters only.