ABC seeks to clarify, unify grounded fighter rule

The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have been anything but unified over the past two years. Regulators are now at work attempting to remedy this ongoing issue.

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) rules and regulations committee decided Tuesday to open up the controversial grounded fighter rule in MMA to discussion, committee chair Sean Wheelock told ESPN. The goal is to eventually have a uniform rule across all jurisdictions.

Currently, the definition of a grounded fighter and when it's illegal to kick or knee one in the head varies by state. In commissions such as Nevada, New Jersey and Texas, the rule states that anything but the soles of a fighter's feet touching the mat means that the fighter is grounded and he cannot be kicked or kneed in the head.

In states such as California, New York and Florida, there is a caveat: A fighter cannot just put a single hand or finger down to become grounded; he or she must put both palms or both fists on the ground to become grounded, or have another part of his or her body on the mat, such as a knee.

Wheelock told ESPN the plan is to have a new grounded fighter rule approved in time for the annual ABC conference in July. At that time, the alteration of the rule would be brought to the ABC body for a vote. If passed, it would become part of the official Unified Rules of MMA, which is overseen by the ABC.

The ABC is the body that looks over athletic commissions that regulate combat sports in North America and beyond, including Brazil. Since Jan. 1, 2017, there has been a splintering of the ABC and the Unified Rules. A recent ABC survey showed that there are at least 10 MMA rule sets being used in North America, to the chagrin of the UFC, fighters and referees.

After a vote in 2016, the ABC approved a package of changes to the Unified Rules of MMA, including a new definition of a grounded fighter. The grounded fighter definition is significant, especially when it comes to health and safety, because it determines the legality of kicks and knees to the head in certain situations.

The new Unified Rules were supposed to go into effect across the board Jan. 1, 2017, but some state athletic commissions declined to pass them, and others were unable to get the changes cleared through their state legislature. The commissions against the new grounded fighter definition have cited health concerns.

Now, there are different rules in different jurisdictions. For example, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was nearly disqualified for a foul at UFC 235 last month in Nevada for a knee strike to the head of Anthony Smith that would have been perfectly legal in California or New York.

Wheelock told ESPN the aim of the new rule -- whatever it will be -- is to make things uniform and as clear as possible, to avoid ongoing confusion.

"I know there are some high-level fighters that are confused by the current rule," Wheelock said. "I know there are some referees that are confused by it."

The UFC uses the Unified Rules of MMA when it regulates itself overseas, but is bound by athletic commission rules in whatever jurisdiction it holds an event in. That has led to UFC cards being held under different rule sets on a nearly weekly basis, which is a quandary almost unthinkable in other major sports.

"The MMA Rules and Regulations Committee is currently looking at restructuring the terminology and mechanics associated with the current Grounded Fighter rule under the Unified Rules of MMA," ABC president Mike Mazzulli wrote to ESPN in a statement. "They are putting their attention and efforts towards this goal to better clarify the rule, making it easier to understand not only for Fighters and Officials, but also for the fans of MMA."

Wheelock told ESPN the plan is to the make the rule "more understandable," but going back to the old rule is not on the table. He said the committee believes that the new rule is not unsafe and is working the way it should for the most part, because it is stopping fighters from placing just a single finger or hand down on the mat to become "grounded," slowing down the action in a bout.

Even if an alteration to the grounded fighter definition is approved by the ABC this summer and made a part of the Unified Rules, it still must be adopted by every jurisdiction individually, which is no guarantee.