ABC hoping to unify 'grounded fighter' language

An agreement has been made that would potentially unify MMA's splintered rule set.

The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) unanimously passed an alteration of its rule on the definition of a grounded fighter Tuesday at the association's annual conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, according to ABC president Mike Mazzulli. The vote was 42-0, Mazzulli said.

The new language states that a grounded fighter is constituted as any fighter who has anything but the soles of his or her feet on the canvas, with the exception of his or her fingers. A fighter can put a single fist or palm on the ground and be considered grounded, but not solely one or two fingers.

The grounded fighter rule is significant because when a fighter is considered grounded, the opponent cannot legally land kicks or knees to the head.

Mazzulli said he is "very confident" that all commissions will pass this new language. The hope, he said, is to have all commissions using the new language by July 1, 2020. Every commission and state government has different processes for passing new regulations. Mazzulli said the ABC board of directors will evaluate which commissions are using which rule in January 2020 with an eye toward the July 2020 deadline.

Mazzulli, who leads the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation, said he can pass the new rule in his commission almost immediately. California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive officer Andy Foster said the new regulation will likely be brought to his commission in December.

New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB) counsel Nick Lembo said his state will pass the new rule, but it would be difficult for it to happen before UFC Newark on Saturday.

In 2016, the ABC passed a package of new rules, including a revamped definition of a grounded fighter, with the hope that by Jan. 1, 2017, all commissions would be using it. That never happened. For more than two years, MMA's rule set -- ABC's Unified Rules -- has been splintered.

The rule passed in 2016 stated that a fighter must have both palms or fists, or any other body part besides the soles of the feet, on the mat to be considered grounded. In the original rule written in 2001, a fighter was grounded if any part of the body other than the soles of his or feet were touching the canvas. Regulators felt at the time that fighters were gaming that rule and dropping just a finger to the floor to be considered grounded.

In 2017, the commissions that did not pass the changed rule argued that making fighters put two palms or fists down to avoid blows to the head was making MMA more dangerous. There are 16 commissions who have not made that change, including Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and Missouri. Commissions like California, New York and Florida passed the two-hands-down rule. This has led to widespread confusion among fighters, referees and fans about which rules are being used in which state.

The language passed Tuesday represents a compromise -- a fighter can place a single hand (palm or fist) down and be grounded. Just not a finger or multiple fingers.

"It's a fighter safety issue," Mazzulli told ESPN. "For fighter safety, the body here has decided to not go back, but change the downed fighter. Being unified is important enough to rewrite the downed fighter rule."

The ABC is the overseeing organization of North American (and Brazilian) athletic commissions, but cannot force individual states or jurisdictions to change regulations. Every commission must pass new rules individually.

Mazzulli said the rule modification is contingent on the commissions that left the ABC over the last few years returning and being part of the organization's process. Mazzulli said he spent a lot of "political energy" in an attempt to bring those commissions back to the table for the sake of the sport.

"Our end goal is to have our sport have a unified rule set in all states and commissions to help the fighters have a single rule set," Mazzulli said.

Representatives for the UFC and Bellator spoke Tuesday at the ABC conference in favor of a single, unified rule set for mixed martial arts.