From No Holds Barred to All Rules Adored: The Evolution of MMA Regulations

April 7, 2023
From: Spartacus
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Back in 1993, the first UFC event took place, marking a game-changer for the sport. In those days, MMA was a no-holds-barred spectacle where fighters from different martial arts disciplines faced off against each other in a single-elimination tournament. The fights had no time limits, and the fighters were free to use any technique they wanted, no matter how brutal or dangerous. Although these early UFC events were criticised for their brutality, the sheer athleticism of the competitors and the unfiltered nature of the fights drew in fans, leading to the growth in popularity of the sport.

In this article, we’ll take a trip down memory lane to explore the early days of MMA, where fighters were free to use any technique, no matter how dangerous, and how the sport has transformed into a regulated and safe athletic spectacle.

Lack of Rules and Regulations

One of the most significant issues with the lack of regulations was the potential for fighters to suffer long-term damage. Without weight classes, smaller fighters could be matched against much larger opponents, resulting in a significant disadvantage and a higher risk of injury. Additionally, the absence of time limits meant that fights could go on for hours, leading to exhaustion and even death in extreme cases.

Another issue was the controversy surrounding some of the fights. With no standardised rules or scoring system, the outcome of a fight was often disputed. Some fighters would even resort to using illegal techniques, leading to even more controversy and potential injuries.

Controversial Fights and Injuries

There have been many controversial fights and injuries in the early days of MMA due to the lack of regulations. Here are some notable examples:

UFC 1: In the first-ever UFC event, fighters were allowed to wear whatever clothing they wanted, leading to some fighters wearing shoes, while others fought barefoot. Additionally, there were no weight classes or rounds, and the only way to win was by knockout or submission. The lack of structure led to some brutal and dangerous fights, including a match between Kevin Rosier and Zane Frazier, where Rosier repeatedly punched Frazier in the face while he was on ground.


UFC 2: In the second UFC event, fighter Scott Morris used a technique known as “shootfighting” to submit his opponent, Sean Daugherty. The technique involved striking the opponent with the heel of the foot, which was legal at the time but was later banned due to its potential for serious injury.


UFC 9: In a controversial fight, fighter Mark Schultz was disqualified for throwing his opponent, Gary Goodridge, out of the ring. While the move was legal in previous UFC events, it was banned in UFC 9, leading to Schultz’s disqualification and a heated debate about the importance of standardized rules in MMA.


Thankfully, MMA has come a long way since those early days. The implementation of regulations has helped to make the sport safer and more legitimate, ensuring that fighters can compete at their best without risking their long-term health. With standardised rules, weight classes, and safety equipment, the sport has become more structured, leading to more exciting and fair fights for fighters and fans alike.

Formation of Athletic Commissions

Athletic commissions are the governing bodies that oversee combat sports events, including MMA fights. They ensure that all competitors are held to the same standards, and that the events are organized, safe, and entertaining. The first athletic commission was established in New Jersey in 1927 to regulate boxing, and today, many states have established similar commissions to regulate MMA.

The role of athletic commissions is critical in promoting the safety and legitimacy of MMA. They are responsible for enforcing the rules and regulations set forth by the sport’s governing bodies, such as the UFC, and for overseeing the licensing and training of fighters and referees. They also work closely with promoters to ensure that events are well-organized and provide a fair and entertaining experience for fans.

In addition, athletic commissions play a significant role in promoting the growth and development of MMA. They provide a platform for up-and-coming fighters to showcase their skills and compete at the highest level. They also work to ensure that the sport remains exciting and engaging for fans, while still upholding the highest standards of safety and fairness.

mma key provisions

Key Provisions Made in Rules

One of the most crucial provisions is the prohibition of certain strikes and techniques. In the early days of MMA, anything goes. Fighters could punch, kick, elbow, and knee their opponents anywhere on the body, leading to some pretty gruesome injuries. But now, certain strikes and techniques are off-limits, such as eye gouging, groin strikes, and strikes to the back of the head. This not only protects fighters from serious injury but also ensures that matches are more evenly matched and fought on a level playing field.

Another important provision is the mandatory use of safety equipment, such as gloves and mouthguards. These items may seem like small details, but they can make a significant difference in protecting fighters from injury. Gloves help to cushion blows, reducing the risk of broken bones and concussions, while mouthguards protect the teeth and jaw from impact.

And let’s not forget about weight classes and time limits. Weight classes ensure that fighters are matched against opponents of a similar size and weight, reducing the risk of injury and making matches more competitive. Time limits ensure that matches don’t drag on for hours, keeping fighters from becoming exhausted and reducing the likelihood of serious injury.

Introduction of Unified Rules of MMA

The development of a standardized set of rules and regulations has not only made the sport more competitive but also more transparent. Fighters now have a clear understanding of what is and isn’t allowed in the ring, making it easier for them to train and strategize. This means that matches are more evenly matched and fought on a level playing field.

One of the most significant benefits of a standardized set of rules and regulations is the scoring criteria. In the early days of MMA, fights were often judged based on vague and subjective criteria. But now, judges have clear guidelines to follow when evaluating a fight, reducing the likelihood of controversial decisions and disputes.

Thanks to these standardized rules, the sport of MMA has gained credibility and recognition as a legitimate form of competition. And as the sport continues to evolve, we can expect to see further advancements in the rules and regulations that will continue to make it safer, more exciting, and more respected.

new rules

Global Adoption of the Unified Rules

Before the Unified Rules were established, different organizations and promotions had their own rules and regulations, which made it difficult for fighters to compete across different platforms. The Unified Rules were created in 2000 by a group of industry leaders and experts to create a standardized set of rules and regulations for the sport.

Initially adopted by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, the Unified Rules quickly gained popularity and were eventually adopted by other state athletic commissions in the United States. As the sport continued to grow in popularity and expand internationally, the Unified Rules were also adopted by other countries and organizations.

Today, the Unified Rules serve as the standard for MMA competitions around the world. This means that fighters can compete in different countries and under different organizations with confidence, knowing that the rules and regulations will be consistent and fair.

The Unified Rules cover everything from the size and shape of the fighting area to the use of certain strikes and techniques. They also establish criteria for judging and scoring matches, ensuring that winners are determined objectively and fairly.

Recent Rule Changes

Since their inception in 2000, the Unified Rules have undergone several amendments and updates to better serve the sport and its athletes. One significant amendment was the legalization of certain techniques that were previously banned, such as knee strikes to a grounded opponent, foot stomps, and downward elbow strikes.

Another important change was to the scoring criteria for fights. Originally, fights were scored based on a 10-point must system, where the winner of each round would receive 10 points and the loser would receive 9 or fewer points, depending on how dominant the winner was. However, this system often led to controversial decisions and made it difficult for fighters to win a fight if they lost a round by a small margin.

To address this issue, the scoring criteria was revised to focus on overall performance, taking into account factors such as effective striking, grappling, aggression, and octagon control. This new system has led to more accurate and fair scoring decisions, ensuring that the winner truly deserves the victory.

In addition to these changes, other amendments have been made to the Unified Rules over the years, such as modifications to the weight classes and the addition of new rules to protect the safety of fighters, such as mandatory medical suspensions after knockout losses.

future of mma rules

Future of MMA Rules and Regulations

One of the most exciting potential changes is the use of instant replay. Currently, the use of instant replay is limited to reviewing certain situations, such as determining if a fight-ending strike was legal or if a fighter was hit with an accidental low blow. However, there is growing interest in expanding the use of instant replay to include reviewing other important aspects of a fight, such as whether a fighter was knocked out or submitted.

Another potential change is the addition of more weight classes. Currently, there are eight male weight classes and four female weight classes recognized by the Unified Rules. However, as the sport continues to grow and evolve, there is a growing desire to add more weight classes to provide fighters with more opportunities to compete at their ideal weight and reduce weight-cutting dangers. Some proposed weight classes include 165 pounds and 225 pounds for men, and 105 pounds and 125 pounds for women.

Other potential updates to the Unified Rules could include changes to the judging criteria or modifications to certain techniques that are currently legal or illegal. For example, there is debate among fans and experts about whether the 12-6 elbow strike, a downward elbow strike, should still be banned or if it can be safely legalized.

Ultimately, any changes or updates to the Unified Rules must prioritize the safety and fairness of the athletes while still promoting the growth and excitement of the sport. As MMA continues to gain popularity around the world, the Unified Rules will undoubtedly continue to evolve to meet the needs and demands of the sport and its fans.


Safety and fair play must remain top priorities in MMA. While the sport has come a long way since its early days as a “no holds barred” spectacle, there is always more we can do to protect the athletes who compete.

As we continue to develop and refine the rules and regulations of the sport, let’s not lose sight of what makes MMA so special. Let’s celebrate the heart, dedication, and passion of the fighters who step into the cage, and let’s continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in this thrilling sport.

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