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Momentum is gaining to change confusing, difficult grounded-fighter rule

It happened again in the UFC, for the second time in as many events. That troublesome grounded-fighter rule caused another problem, though maybe not for much longer.

This time it was in the main event of Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night event in Las Vegas. While stalled in a potentially vulnerable body lock position, UFC middleweight Roman Dolidze reached down and put the fingertips of one hand on the mat.

That’s all. Just the fingers, tented there on the canvas, clearly touching the mat but not doing much beyond that. Then his opponent, Nassourdine Imavov, went ahead and kicked him directly in the face. That’s when the trouble started.

“Oh no,” groaned UFC commentator John Gooden.

“Hopefully, in the near future, this downed opponent rule will shift,” added color commentator Laura Sanko.

To the unschooled observer, this turn of events must have seemed baffling. Kicking each other in the head is clearly allowed in mixed martial arts. The only time it’s banned is when an opponent is down on the mat. And Dolidze appeared to be standing up with just a few fingers touching the mat when he got kicked. So why did the referee pause the action and deduct a point from Imavov (after he’d gotten into a shouting match with his opponent’s cornermen over the foul)?

The answer lies within the murky grounded-fighter rule. It’s a part of the unified rules of MMA that’s been tweaked and re-tweaked repeatedly over the last decade, with some commissions maintaining a different definition than others, thereby compounding the confusion. That’s why some commissioners are now pushing to change the rule again, and in a way that would make Saturday night’s foul totally fair and legal.

The current version of the unified rules, as found on the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) website, defines a grounded fighter as having “any part of the body, other (than) sole of the feet, touching the floor.”

Seems simple enough. But the very next sentence of the rule seems to contradict this definition.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 03: Nassourdine Imavov of Russia argues with the corner of Roman Dolidze after an illegal kick in a middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on February 03, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Nassourdine Imavov of Russia argues with the corner of Roman Dolidze after an illegal kick in a middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on Feb. 3, 2024, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) (Chris Unger via Getty Images)

“To be grounded, the palm of one hand (a flat palm) must be down, and/or any other body part must be touching the fighting area floor. A single knee, arm, (not fingers) makes the fighter grounded without having to have any other body part in touch with the fighting area floor. At this time, kicks or knees to the head will not be allowed.”

This is where it gets tricky. In the past, some regulators have tried to clarify the rule to make it plain that grazing the fingertips of one hand on the mat does not make a fighter safe from kicks or knees to the head. There was a push to change the wording so that two hands must be down, or the palm and the fist of one or both hands must be touching. But not every governing commission could agree on these amendments.

“Basically what happened is, in 2016, I think it was, we wanted to change the downed fighter to two hands and two feet,” ABC president Mike Mazzulli said. “You're considered down with two hands. We wanted to do it. It was a smart thing to do. But we got a lot of pushback.”

According to Mazzulli, some regulators were concerned that adopting a change to the rules would mean a battle with their own state legislatures. Other commissions simply didn’t like the rule, or felt it was still too dangerous to allow kicks and knees to the head in this situation.

At some point in the evolution of the rule, some referees began interpreting it to mean that in order for the fingers on the mat to qualify a fighter as grounded, those fingers must be “weight-bearing” and not simply touching.

“That's Nevada's interpretation,” Mazzulli said. “Our interpretation for the ABC has always been, and please write this, fist or palm on the ground. One hand, you're considered down. Discretion was always with the referees as to what is considered palm down.”

But it’s not hard to see how, with any wiggle room at all in the interpretation of the rule, trouble inevitably arises. It’s a lot to ask of a fighter in the heat of battle to discern whether an opponent has the proper parts of a hand touching the mat.

This is why California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster has been leading a push to overhaul the rule entirely. Instead of arguing about the various parts of the human hand, Foster has said, the rules should require some other body part — a knee, a shin, etc. — to be down on the mat in order for a fighter to qualify as grounded. Simply putting the hand down in any fashion will no longer make you a grounded fighter — if Foster’s proposed rule change takes effect.

“It's an untenable situation that the regulators, that we, have put (fighters) in,” Foster said. “They can’t really ascertain in real time whether this fighter's hand was up, whether it was down, and even more complicated, whether they were bearing weight, which is not written down anywhere, though it’s something we teach (referees),” Foster said. “If we’re asking them to determine whether it’s the palm of the hand, whether it’s flat or not, I mean, come on.”

As the chair of the ABC’s rules committee, Foster was further motivated to push for a rule change after seeing the issue come up at last month’s UFC 297 in Toronto. In an undercard bout, featherweight Arnold Allen was called for a knee to the head of Movsar Evloev during an exchange in which Evloev’s fingers appeared to be no more than lightly brushing the mat.

Evloev might have used that same hand to defend his head from knees, but was motivated instead to put it on the mat because he believed it would make those knees illegal. While a rule that expands the circumstances in which a fighter can be legally kneed or kicked in the head might initially seem more dangerous, Foster argued, the lack of clarity in the current rules is even riskier.

“The argument could be that it’s less prohibitive, but it’s safer,” Foster said. “Knowing is safer. Creating a false sense of security, where one fighter thinks his fingers keep him from being kneed and the other fighter doesn’t, that’s not safe.”

The proposed change seems to have broad support within the ABC, but getting all commissions on board hasn’t always been easy. As Mazzulli pointed out, some state athletic commissions have to get rule changes approved through their state legislatures. Other states have it enshrined in the law that any change to the ABC rules will automatically take effect without the need of legislator approval.

The lack of consistency across all commissions could be a barrier to making the unified rules of MMA truly unified, according to Erik Magraken, a lawyer who specializes in combat sports regulatory issues.

“If the unified rules are updated, the usual challenge remains of individual jurisdictions updating their rules accordingly,” Magraken said. “This does not always happen quickly. So long as the major jurisdictions adopt the changes quickly, you will see meaningful movement in the right direction.”

As long as the ABC rules committee is looking at changing rules, Foster said, it might as well as get rid of the problematic downward elbow rule. That regulation, barring the use of only one type of elbow strike – the kind that goes straight down from 12 o’clock to six on the imaginary clock, has also resulted in its share of confusion and without making the sport any safer, according to Foster.

That change ought to be easier, he said, because it’s a “simple deletion” rather than an alteration of the wording. Still, any rule changes in a sport governed by so many different regulatory bodies inevitably encounter an array of lumbering bureaucracies to wade through. Foster has meetings lined up this week with tribal commissions, as well as Canadian commissions, with the hope of getting everyone on the same page. The headaches involved with the process might help explain why the grounded-fighter rule languished in this hazy and often misunderstood territory for so long.

“But we’ve just got to do it,” Foster said. “If we don’t, it’ll never get done. And we need this change.”