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FightNoob Vol. 3: Understanding MMA Rules

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FightNoob is a recurring series on Single Blog Takedown where we help new fans and neophytes understand the sport of mixed martial arts. This is the third edition. Previous editions can be found right here.

Having already talked a little about some of the major misconceptions in MMA, it’s time to start discussing the action inside the ring. While it’s pretty easy to tell who wins the match — he’s the guy with his arm raised at the end — in order to enjoy MMA it would help to know why he won. And to determine a winner you need to know the rules.

A summary of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, including a short history, ways to victory, and other regulations, can be found over at Wikipedia and has the added bonus of staying pretty current. Rather than rotely go over them here, why don’t you go read those over and take a little time to absorb the basics? Then come back and we’ll talk about them.

Studied up? Good. Let’s explore some of the finer points.

How does the length of rounds affect fighters?

While the standard length of fights is three five-minute rounds, a few promotions or circumstances can mean a difference to established fight structure.

Championship fights, for example, are five five-minute rounds. Obviously, this favors those with better conditioning that can go the distance, although a fighter with one-shot knockout power can frequently negate that advantage by going for an early kill shot. Meanwhile, a long-defending champion has an advantage because they’re familiar with what it takes to get to the final bell. For example, any fighter looking to take Georges St-Pierre’s title is facing an uphill battle as GSP’s gone to the championship rounds — and won — in each of his last three fights. A fighter who trains regularly to go three rounds has an adjustment to make the first time he gets a title shot.

One of the reasons female fighters were so irked about having to fight three-minute rounds (before Carano vs. Cyborg) is the thought that a three-minute round strongly favors effective strikers and devalues grapplers. While a good striker can keep the fight on their feet and win via KO there, a grappler first has to take their opponent down successfully and then establish an advantageous position (against an opponent that’s gotten to rest more recently than a fighter at the 4:30 mark of a round). Developing one quality submission can take the full three minutes, and by the time it’s cinched in, the victim is saved by the bell.

By contrast, look at DREAM in Japan, which held over the round structure from PRIDE Fighting Championships: a 10-minute first round followed by a 5 minute second round. This sort of round structure puts an emphasis on conditioning; the fighters have to fight two consecutive UFC rounds without a break. That’s more openings for strikers to get past a wearying defense and a long time to be fighting off submission attempts or having to maintain guard. (DREAM judges fights on their entirety, so neither round is weighted.)

How do officials determine when to stop a fight?

This is, by far, the toughest job officials have and the one they’re most criticized for. A fight stopped too early ires the fans and incenses the losing fighter. But a fight stopped too late is even worse, a hazard to the competitor’s health.

A doctor can stop a fight if a fighter appears too injured to continue. A corner can stop the fight by throwing in the towel for any reason. Tapouts and unconsciousness are relatively easy to spot. The tough calls come outside those lines; the standard is when the opponent is “unable to intelligently defend themselves”.

Obviously, that’s quite a judgment call. Usually, the fighter in trouble will be attempting to protect themselves from strikes, so pay close attention: how many strikes are landing clean? If the fighter is lying there, taking shots through their shell, they had better escape quickly or the fight will be stopped. But simply turtling, even if effective, will likely draw a stoppage anyway. The fighter in trouble wants to be trying to improve their position: escaping from under a mount, reversing position in the ring, or getting back to their feet.

Eventually, though, the decision is in the hands of the official and some have a quicker trigger than others. Watch enough fights and you’ll start to know, instinctively, if the stoppage was on time.

What should I look for when I’m trying to score a round at home?

Round scoring at home is a valuable exercise. Not only will it help you anticipate the decision, it’ll help you understand the fighter’s mindset round-by-round. A fighter down two rounds in a three round fight knows he has to finish it then to have a chance at winning.

Don’t worry too much about the 10-point must system; most rounds will be scored 10-9 for a fighter so counting rounds won is usually okay. 10-8 rounds are tremendously rare, so don’t expect them to be a factor on the scorecard unless one fighter utterly and completely dominated the round. Rami Genauer of the indispensable had a thoughtful take on what does and doesn’t make a 10-8 round.

While each promotion has slightly different judging criteria, for simplicity we’ll just look at the UFC’s.

Clean strikes: Look for shots that are landing consistently. The judges look at clean strikes and heavy strikes, but a fighter who’s tagging time and time again with leg kicks and jabs will have an advantage over a guy who lands one or two big swings but is mostly getting dodged and blocked.

Effective grappling: The base of effective grappling includes clean takedowns and active guard position. Clean takedowns are pretty easy to spot, active guard is a little trickier. When the fighters are on the ground, notice what the fighter with guard is doing; are they stopping their opponent from landing effective strikes? Trying to reverse or improve positions? Attempting submissions? Look at both fighters and their ability to transition; the fighter on top trying to go from full guard to half guard to mount or side control, and the fighter on bottom trying to reverse that sequence.

Octagon control: Part of it is what it sounds like: is the fighter cutting off angles, moving the other fighter backwards? Are they using the cage to their advantage? Where the fight takes place also factors in. A fighter who wants to keep the fight on their feet earns credit for doing so, through effective takedown defense.

Effective aggressiveness: Blind aggression is a good way to get yourself kicked in the head or trapped in a strangle, but judges will favor a fighter who is pushing the tempo of the match as opposed to one who is simply being passive. Keep in mind that the referee can force the action if both fighters are being passive. PRIDE, when it was active, had a rule that stated that a fighter who drew a yellow card through passivity would also forfeit 10% of their purse. Timidity, however, is a still a foul and point deduction under the Unified Rules.

What mistakes do officials and judges most frequently make?

Mistimed stoppages are the biggest mistake officials make, for the reasons stated above. Sometimes, however, refs have a tough vantage point of the action. Elbow strikes are a tough call for officials; the difference between the front and back of the head is sometimes difficult to discern. Refs also have difficult calls to make for inaction. Sometimes a fighter will get stood up when they were working and had a significant advantage on the ground; nothing makes a good grappler more frustrated than fighting for a position and being stood up prematurely.

For judges, aside from close calls, it’s usually difficult to credit a fighter who’s working well from guard. Judges frequently give too much emphasis to the fighter on top when a master of jiu jitsu can utterly control the fight from their guard at bottom position. Bloody cuts also unduly influence judges; a guy who gets busted open tends to look worse when striking is considered even if they’re striking better than their opponent overall. Finally, always look out for hometown influence; no judge likes to be the guy who pisses off the hometown crowd.

Hopefully this answered some of your questions about the rules; the more fights you watch, the more you’ll start to understand. Next week, we’ll go over some of the differences between the major promotions; after that, we’ll start breaking down the fight action itself.

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About Matt DeTura

  • MMA Gym

    What a pic is it! The fighter seems to be passed away.