Remember when the only rule of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was that there were no rules? No, me neither.
Because, while that might have been the tagline that the UFC started with, it was always somewhat wide of the mark. There have always been guidelines for competitors in the division to adhere to.
But what were the initial rules of UFC? And how have they changed over time from what they were then to what they are now? What are the current UFC rules on slams, kicking and head-butting, for instance? Let’s take a look:
UFC 1: The Original UFC Rules
On November 12, 1993, the UFC had liftoff. Its first event, ‘UFC 1: The Beginning’ involved an eight-man tournament with a $50,000 prize for the winner, staged at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. Royce Gracie would be crowned champion after defeating Gerard Gordeau via submission due to a rear naked choke in the final
And despite marketing itself as having no rules, there were indeed boundaries for the fighters: namely no biting, eye-gouging or groin shots (these could be punishable by a $1,500 fine). Other initial UFC regulations included:
- No doping probes
- Bare-knuckle fights only
- No weight classes
- No judges
- No time limits or rounds – fights were won only by knockout, submission or the fighter’s corner throwing in the towel
The initial aim was to make UFC look as brutal as possible on television, so it was decided that the fights were to be held in octagonal cage with chain link fencing. Moves like hair-pulling, fish-hooking, head-butting were also permitted.
Certain more barbaric ideas were rejected, though, such as ‘finishing’ off opponents with moves like ripping their spines out of their bodies as an homage to the video game ‘Mortal Kombat’, or topping the cages with razor wire.
Indeed, the first match of UFC 1 set the tone as far as brutality as concerned, as eventual winner Gordeau kicked opponent Telia Tuli, already on the floor, so hard in the face that one of his teeth went flying past the announcer’s table.
Despite the meteoric rise of UFC since then, its first event was far from the greatest success. A 16-man tournament was the initial aim but many A-list martial artists had no interest in joining. It then filled out less than half the arena with 7,800 attendance, and a pay-per-view buyrate of only 86,000.
When Did UFC Rules Change?
A qualifying match for December 1994’s ‘UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors’ seemed to set the tone for a change of rules.
Fighters Jason Fairn and Guy Mezger, both sporting pony tails tied back for their bout, agreed not to pull each other’s hair, shortly followed by a fight at the same event between Keith Hackeny and Joe Son, in which Hackney aimed for Son’s groin while he was on the ground.
Yet the violence still persisted. So much so, in fact, that that many US authorities soon announced their opposition to UFC. John McCain, a State Senator for Arizona, led a campaign to ban the competition, labelling it ‘human cockfighting’, and sent letters to governors of all 50 US states encouraging them to ban it.
Eventually, 36 states banned ‘no-holds-barred fighting’, and the UFC compromised by rewriting its rulebook. UFC 12 (‘Judgement Day’) in February 1997 brought in weight classes and banned fish-hooking. Gloves became compulsory by UFC 14 (‘Showdown’) in July 1997, which also saw a ban on kicking the head of a downed opponent brought in (see next section for further reforms).
All the while, the UFC continued to work with state athletic commissions in an attempt to educate and change common perceptions about a sport widely considered barbaric in the extreme.
UFC commissioner Jeff Blatnick, referee John McCarthy and matchmaker Joe Silva compiled a manual of policies, procedures, codes of conduct, and rules to help the UFC be sanctioned by these commissions. By early 2000, California became the first state to sign off an a set of codified rules governing MMA.
UFC Rule Changes – Timeline
- UFC 1 (November 1993) – advertised as ‘There Are No Rules’; despite this, there was to be no biting, no eye-gouging or groin attacks. Fights ended only via knockout, submission or the corner throwing in the towel.
- UFC 2 (March 1994) – groin attacks unbanned, time limits dropped. Cage fences became five feet tall.
- UFC 3 (September 1994) – significant change to UFC Rules (kicking): referee allowed to stop a fight if fighter unable to defend himself. Fighters cannot kick if wearing shoes.
- UFC 4 (December 1994) – after tournament alternate Steve Jennum won UFC 3 by winning just one bout, alternates now had to win a pre-tournament bout to qualify for their role.
- UFC 5 (April 1995) – 30-minute time limit introduced. Also introduced ‘Superfight’, a one-off bout between two competitors selected by the organizers; winner crowned ‘Superfight champion’ and could defend his title at the next UFC.
- UFC 6 (July 1995) – referee given authority to restart fight. If fighters stuck in a position with ‘lack of action’, referee could stop fight and restart when competitors back on feet in their own corner. Also adopted a five-minute extension to 30-minute rule.
- UFC: The Ultimate Ultimate (December 1995) – no fish-hooking introduced, judges reinstated. Time limits changed to 15-minute quarter-finals, 18-minute semi-finals and 27-minute finals.
- UFC 8 (February 1996) – time limits became ten minutes in first two rounds, 15 minutes in final and Superfight. Fights could now be decided by three-man judges’ panel if reached end of time limit without winner.
- UFC 9 (May 1996) – Closed-fist head strikes banned for this event only. Also the last UFC event to feature Superfight.
- UFC: The Ultimate Ultimate 2 (December 1996) – first event to introduce ‘no grabbing the fence’ rule.
- UFC 12 (February 1997) – main tournament split into heavyweight (more than 200 lbs) and lightweight (200 lbs at most) and the eight-man tournament ended. Fighters now needed to win just two fights to win competition. Heavyweight Champion title introduced, replacing Superfight title.
- UFC 14 (July 1997) – significant change to UFC Rules (grounded opponent): lightweight division re-branded middleweight. Padded gloves (weighing 110 to 170 grams) becomes compulsory. Hair-pulling, groin strikes and kicking a downed opponent now illegal.
- UFC 15 (October 1997) – significant change to UFC Rules (elbows): limits on striking areas introduced – headbutts, elbow strikes to back of neck and head, and small join manipulation now illegal.
- UFC 21 (July 1999) – five-minute rounds introduced, with preliminary bouts involving two rounds, regular non-title bouts at three rounds, and title bouts at five rounds. ‘Ten-point must system’ introduced for scoring fights.
- UFC 28 (November 2000) – significant change to UFC Rules (knee to head): first UFC event sanctioned by New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, using new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Changes include banning knee strikes to head of downed opponent, elbowing spine and neck, and punching back of neck and head. Also introduced limits on ring clothing, stringent medical requirements and regulatory oversight, as well as new weight class system.
- UFC 31 (May 2001) – weight class re-aligned to current standard. Stools and seconds permitted in the Octagon between rounds.
- UFC 43 (June 2003) – in the event of a stoppage, fights restart in the position where the fight had been stopped.
- UFC 94 (January 2009) – corner men banned from bringing vaseline into Octagon after Georges St-Pierre had been accused of putting it on his back. Petroleum jelly now only applied by UFC-employed cutmen.
- UFC 97 (April 2009) – foot stomps banned (for this event only).
- UFC 133 (August 2011) – speedo-style trunks banned.
- UFC 138 (November 2011) – first five-round non-title main event.
Main UFC Rules
The eight current main rules of UFC are as follows:
- MMA contests must be held in a ring or in a fenced area.
- Bandages shall be placed evenly across the hand, and mouth-guards are mandatory.
- Male fighters must wear a groin protector; female fighters will wear a chest protector.
- All fighters must wear gloves which weigh at least four ounces (though they should generally exceed six ounces).
- Each championship contest is to be for five rounds, each round no more than five-minutes duration, with a rest period of one minute between each round.
- All bouts will be scored by three judges who shall evaluate the contest from different location around the ring/fighting area. The referee may not be one of the three judges.
- Judges shall evaluate techniques, such as effective striking, effective grappling, control of the ring/fighting area, effective aggressiveness and defence. Each round will be scored on a ten-point system.
- There are 31 different types of foul – including spitting, hair pulling, kicking the head of a grounded opponent. The referee can disqualify a fighter if there are a series of fouls.
UFC Rules To Win
A fighter can win (or draw) a bout in UFC by the following methods:
- Submission by physical or verbal tap-out.
- Knockout by: referee stopping contest (TKO), injury due to a legal move which is severe enough to terminate a bout (TKO), or contestant rendered unconscious due to strikes or kicks (KO).
- Decision via scorecards, including unanimous, split or majority decision.
- Draws, including unanimous, majority or split draw.
- Forfeit technical draw.
- Technical decision.
- No decision.