The second half of 2016 has been a delicate time for MMA, when the very identity of the sport seems be in a state of constant negotiation. Sources of this flux vary, of course, but one could do worse than to point to the $4 billion sale of the UFC to WME-IMG back in July as the moment our beloved sport grew out of adolescence and into adulthood and the next in a series of battles over its soul began. Just as it did after the huge finale of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005 and then again last summer after the UFC became a partner in drug testing with the United States Anti-Doping Agency, MMA is establishing its newest footing in a brave new world of cultural legitimacy.
But with every growth spurt comes awkwardness, as evidenced by reports released today that several state athletic commissions have rejected changes to the Unified Rules of MMA that were adopted in August by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), setting up the very real possibility that professional mixed martial arts could have different rules in different states (amateur rules vary, most commonly over the use of the elbow). According to data obtained by MMAFighting.com, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, and South Dakota all voted not to adopt the new ABC rules in full.
Those states took issue with two rule changes in particular. The first would change the definition of a “grounded fighter” from one who has one part of his body on the ground in addition to his two feet to one who has at least two parts of his body on the ground in addition to his feet. Under this new rule fighters would no longer be able to “game the system” by putting one finger to the floor while standing and thereby make it illegal for his/her opponent to knee him or kick in the head. The other change would do away with the prohibition against heel kicks to the kidney from the guard position. These changes, in addition to a new rule designed to decrease eye pokes and the removal of the prohibition on clavicle-grabbing and others, were approved by the ABC by a resounding 42-1- vote back in August.
The only state that voted against these changes at the time? New Jersey, whose state athletic control board deputy attorney general, Nick Lembo, told MMAFighting that he found it strange that MMA would be voting to make head strikes more common at a time when the science about head trauma is becoming more common, more conclusive, and more politically significant. “You have every other sport becoming more conservative about strikes to the head,” Lembo said. “Instead, we’re going the other way.”
Lembo has a point, and doubtless one that concerns WME-IMG, which must think the best and quickest way for it to pay off all the debt it accrued in buying the UFC is by making the sport as palatable and “humane” as possible without sacrificing its soul. Considering the trend in MMA over the last decade toward more civilizing rules and principles, it does seem strange that ABC and the various state athletic commissions would see this as the right time to add more violence to the sport. To a new or casual or curious/potential fan, with little or no knowledge of the rules of MMA and therefore the myriad ways fighters can manipulate those rules to avoid pain and suffering, a sudden uptick in the number of knees or kicks to the head, not to mention hand stomps (a technique I admit I had never considered in all my years of MMA viewing and training) might be just the motivation they need to reconsider their newfound interest and re-dedicate themselves to knitting or charity work. Which isn’t to say that in an ideal world athletic commissions and governing bodies would concern themselves one iota with the relative squeamishness of casual viewers when determining how best to regulate a sport, only that one would think a multi-billion-dollar media conglomerate like WME-IMG suddenly blessed and cursed with enormous skin in the game would do whatever they could to make sure changes weren’t being made that could only serve to make new fans more wary of the sport they’d just invested so heavily in.
Kidney kicks and knees to the head may not mean much to those of us long since acclimated to watching inhuman acts of violence on TV, but we’re not the ones WME-IMG and the UFC are concerned about. If we’re debating the subtleties of this rule or that and concerning ourselves with the political deliberations of different state athletic commissions, we’re already devoted. We’re not going anywhere. But one never knows what’s going to cause some new MMA fan to finally say “That’s too much for me,” and head back to the safer, more civilized comforts of football and hockey.
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