As a spectator on the outside looking in, MMA looks a lot like a street fight, with no rules or limitations. And yet, this is far from the truth. Since the beginning, the UFC has always had rules, despite how unregulated the sport may seem.
In this post, I’m going to cover the basic and most important rules that all MMA fighters must follow. What are the basic rules of the UFC?
Here’s a list of the most important rules/fouls according to the Unified Rules of MMA. Committing one of these will result in a warning, point deduction, or disqualification:
- Groin strikes
- Holding the opponent’s shorts or gloves
- Spiking of an opponent onto their head/neck
- Outstretched fingers
- Downward elbows (12 to 6 elbows)
- Grabbing the fence
- Kicking, stomping, or kneeing a grounded opponent
- Grabbing the fence
- Small joint manipulation
- Attacking an opponent after the end of the round, on the break, or under the care of the referee
- Disobeying the referee
These are the most important and common fouls seen in the UFC. In the rest of this post, I’ll cover other rules for UFC fights, regarding rounds, scoring, and the referees.
All the rules in this post are taken from either the UFC’s website, or the Association of Boxing Commissions’ site.
The size of the Octagon can vary in size by the event.
All MMA events must be held in a ring or fenced area. You often see this at ONE Championship, where MMA fights are held in a boxing-style ring. However, the UFC always uses a fenced Octagon, and has done so since the beginning.
The size of the cage varies, and must be at least 18 feet by 18 feet, but no larger than 32 feet by 32 feet. The canvas can be above the floor of the stadium, but not more than four feet high. Posts for the cage must have a height of at least 58 inches above the canvas.
The posts must be made of metal, must be smaller than six inches in diameter, and must be properly padded.
Rounds and Round Length
Non-title/non-main event fights are to be three rounds long. Title fights and main event fights are to be five rounds long, with certain exceptions for main event fights.
Most main event UFC fights last five rounds, although there are exceptions, such as the main event of UFC Moscow.
Every round is to be exactly three minutes long, with a one-minute break in between each round.
UFC fighters are required to wear official UFC Reebok gear since the introduction of the Reebok deal in 2015.
The fighters are provided a fight kit, which includes their fight attire, as well as other Reebok branded clothing, usually sweatpants, hat, shoes, and shirt. All fighters are required to wear a mouthguard, and men are required to wear a groin protector.
Prior to walking into the Octagon, the fighter removes all clothing except for their fight attire (shorts for men, shorts and sports bra/shirt for women).
Fighters are prohibited from wearing any clothing that is not Reebok attire and UFC approved to the fight or the weigh-ins. For example, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was issued a fine simply for sewing a small patch of his old fight shorts onto his Reebok fight shorts.
Female UFC fighters are allowed to choose between a shirt or a sports bra for their fight.
Men are required to fight in shorts, and cannot wear a shirt. Women must also wear shorts, but must also wear a top, of which they have the option of a shirt of a sports bra.
Fighters can select from several different types of shorts provided, including board shorts, biker/vale tudo shorts, and high slit shorts, with varying sizes and lengths available.
Wraps and Gloves
According to the Unified Rules of MMA, all contestants are required to tape and gauze their hands before competition. This is likely not well enforced, as Gunnar Nelson has stated he fights with no wraps under his gloves, which I cover more in detail in another post.
The fighters can use up to 15 yards of soft gauze cloth (with a maximum width of two inches), as well as 10 feet (3.4 yards) of surgeon’s tape, for each hand. Hands must be wrapped in the dressing room under the presence of a UFC inspector, as well as a member of the opposing corner if they wish to be present.
UFC Welterweight Santiago Ponzinibbio gets his hands wrapped prior to a fight.
Once the wraps are complete and the inspector has approved them, the gloves are put on and then taped and marked with the inspector’s approval. Gloves are of a size chosen by the fighter beforehand during fight week, from S up to 4XL.
Scoring, Decisions, Possible Endings
The UFC referee holds the power to wave off the fight at any time he/she deems fit. Here are the possible endings of a UFC fight:
Submission, Knockout, Decision, Disqualification, No Contest, or Doctor Stoppage.
The referee is responsible for determining when to rule a fight a TKO, such as in the position shown here.
Some of these fall under the same category (for example, a doctor calling off a fight is usually ruled a TKO win). The referee is responsible for making the decision to end the fight if a fighter seems unable to intelligently defend themselves.
They are also responsible for interfering once a fighter is knocked-out, has tapped out, or is rendered unconscious.
Judging and Scoring
Every MMA competition requires three judges be present to score the fight. These judges are trained and selected by the corresponding athletic commission.
At the end of each round, each judge selects which fighter won the round, in an under 10 system. In short, the fighter that won the round is awarded 10 points, and the losing fighter usually gets 9. On rare occasions, judges may score a round 10-10 or 10-8.
If you want to learn more about how exactly the scoring works, I have a post covering all the details on exactly that.
The first fight between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson ended in a Majority Draw, which meant Woodley keep his belt.
At the end of the fight, the judges add up their round scores individually, and each pick a winner based on their scores. If the three judges agree on one winner, it is a Unanimous Decision. If two agree but one calls it a draw, it is a Majority Decision. If two agree but one picks the other fighter, it is a Split Decision.
A fight may also end in a draw if at least two judges score the fight a draw, or if two judges disagree and the last one calls it a draw.
A referee holds the power to remove a point from a fighter who blatantly commits a foul during the fight. However, a ref usually issues a warning on the first occurrence of a foul. The ref can also rule the bout a No Contest if a fighter is not able to continue after a foul.
If a fighter is struck by a foul, such as a low blow or an eye-poke, the referee halts the bout and allows the fighter up to five minutes to recover. If needed, the referee may bring in the ringside physician. If the fighter can continue after five minutes, the bout is restarted. If the fighter is unable to continue, the fight is called off as a No Contest.
At UFC Mexico City, Jeremy Stephens was unable to recover from an eye poke, turning the fight to a No Contest.
A full, comprehensive list of fouls can be found here.
Fighters are to have fights scheduled in one of the following weight classes in the UFC:
Strawweight (115 pounds)
Flyweight (125 pounds)
Bantamweight (135 pounds)
Featherweight (145 pounds)
Lightweight (155 pounds)
Welterweight (170 pounds)
Middleweight (185 pounds)
Light Heavyweight (205 pounds)
Heavyweight (265 pounds)
Note: Women’s weight classes are currently limited to weights between Strawweight and Featherweight, while Men’s weight classes are any from Flyweight and up.
While contestants are required to fight in a certain weight division, on occasion fighters may be allowed to fight at a catchweight (a previously agreed weight limit that is not in the ones listed above).
Contestants may weigh no more than the agreed-upon weight for title fights. Fighters in on-title fights have a one-pound weight allowance (a Featherweight fighter can weigh 146 for example).
Yoel Romero has missed weight in two title fights, which have resulted in his ineligibility to be a champion, as well as costing him his post-fight bonuses.
Fighters who fail to meet the weight limit will receive a fine or punishment at the discretion of the UFC and the athletic commission. This can include a 20% – 30% deduction of their purse, ineligibility for title contention, and cancellation of the bout.
If you want to read more, I have a post specifically covering what happens when a UFC fighter misses weight.
Can UFC Fighters Knee A Grounded Opponent?
No, it is illegal for a UFC fighter to kick or knee the head of a grounded opponent. In order to be considered grounded, the fighter must have any body part other than his feet touching the ground. However, some states do not consider a fighter with one hand down as a grounded fighter, requiring two hands or another body part.
Fighters can kick and knee to the body of a grounded fighter, just not to the head. There is an in-depth explanation of how the rule differs from state to state on ESPN.
That’s the end of this post. If you enjoyed, consider checking out the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!