UFC rules explained
Everything you need to know about the UFC rules.
When the UFC first premiered in the United States on Nov. 12, 1993, it brought many new eyes onto a sport that would go on to become known today as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). And while many were glued and thrilled to what transpired on that night, there were others who felt outraged.
At UFC 1, the only things forbidden were eye gouging, biting and low blows — and even the banning of low blows didn’t stick around for some of the next early UFC events. Their case against critics and politicians wasn’t helped by the promotion’s decision to openly market their cads as no holds barred cage fighting.
The sport of MMA has undergone an evolution since that time, and that includes its rulesets. This has allowed the sport to be sanctioned by more athletic commissions and gain credibility in the eyes of the mainstream. In fact, it was the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board that helped to birth what we know today as the Unified Rules of MMA — the most commonly known set of rules for the sport, seen in every UFC event today.
Here is a basic outline of some of these rules:
Most MMA bouts are set for three rounds of five minutes each, with a one-minute rest period in between each round.
All UFC main events and championship fights are contested with five five-minute rounds. There have been rare occasions where non-title fights that aren’t main event bouts are scheduled for five rounds (ex: Leon Edwards vs. Nate Diaz at UFC 263).
There are just as rare occasions these days where a UFC main event will be three rounds — usually this has to deal with super short-notice bouts (ex: Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva at UFC 234, Andre Muniz vs. Brendan Allen at UFC Vegas 70).
UFC weight classes
While weight classes weren’t introduced into the UFC until UFC 12 in 1997, today the promotion plays host to eight men’s weight classes (ranging from 125 to 265 pounds) and four women’s weight classes (ranging from 115 to 145 pounds).
The weight classes for men are divided as follows:
- Flyweight: 125 pounds
- Bantamweight: 135 pounds
- Featherweight: 145 pounds
- Lightweight: 155 pounds
- Welterweight: 170 pounds
- Middleweight: 185 pounds
- Light Heavyweight: 205 pounds
- Heavyweight: 265 pounds
The weight classes for women are divided as follows:
- Strawweight: 115 pounds
- Flyweight: 125 pounds
- Bantamweight: 135 pounds
- Featherweight: 145 pounds
Fighters competing in non-title fights are given a one-pound allowance to make weight. Title fights, however, must see both fighters weigh in at no more than the listed weight.
All fighters must compete in shorts that are approved by an athletic commission. Speedo-style shorts, as well as gis, long pants and any footwear, are forbidden. Women are permitted to wear shirts.
All fighters must wear four-ounce, open-finger gloves, as well as a mouthpiece and a protective cup (plus chest protectors for the women).
As implied earlier, with the developments of official rulesets and regulations, UFC bouts cannot be the no-rules slobber knockers as first presented in 1993.
The following are all considered fouls under the Unified Rules of MMA, which the UFC follows:
- Groin strikes
- Eye gouging
- Hair pulling
- Biting or spitting at the opponent
- Grabbing the fence
- Grabbing the opponent’s shorts
- Small joint manipulation
- 12-to-6 elbows
- Striking the back of the opponent’s head or spine
- Kicking or kneeing a grounded opponent or stomping an opponent (though this is maybe allowed by some promotions)
- Anything that falls under unsportsmanlike conduct or insulting to the integrity of the sport
Usually, a referee will give a soft or hard warning for a first foul, but continued foulage by a fighter will result in point deductions. Too many fouls in one contest can lead to a fighter’s disqualification.
UFC methods of victory
Knockout (KO): A fighter is rendered unable to defend himself or herself and unable to continue the match — or knocked unconscious — as the result of a punch, kick, elbow, knee or slam.
Technical knockout (TKO): A fighter is overwhelmed by his/her opponent’s attack and is deemed to be unintelligently defending himself/herself, forcing a third party to step in and wave off the contest.
TKOs can be divided into different categories:
Referee stoppage: The referee deems a fighter is not defending himself/herself and is forced to stop the bout to protect him/her.
Doctor’s stoppage: A doctor observes a cut or injury on a fighter and determines it is unsafe for the fighter to continue.
Corner stoppage: Also called “throwing in the towel.” A fighter’s cornermen pull their fighter from the match to protect him/her. This is usually seen when the fighter quits or their corner stops the fight between rounds.
Submission: A fighter is caught in a hold such as an armbar, chokehold or leg lock and gives up. A submission is signaled by tapping the mat with his/her hand (or foot on rare occasions).
A fighter may also tap out if overwhelmed by his/her opponent’s striking attack (Note that while tapping to strikes is usually deemed a submission in other MMA promotions, it is ruled a TKO in the UFC).
There are some specific forms of submission in MMA:
Technical submission: A fighter refuses to tap out and suffers an injury in the submission hold, or if a fighter loses consciousness in a chokehold.
Verbal submission: A fighter is unable to physically tap the mat to give up, he/she may elect to verbally submit the contest (ex: yelling “Tap!”). A fighter letting out an involuntary cry or scream as the result of pain may also be counted by the referee as a verbal submission.
Decision: Should the fight go the full distance, the judges at ringside are responsible for determining the winner. The types of decisions are:
Unanimous decision: All three judges give the bout to one fighter
Majority decision: Two judges give the bout to one fighter, while the third deems it a draw
Split decision: Two judges give the bout to one fighter, while the third gives it to the other
Unanimous draw: All three judges determine the bout to be a draw
Majority draw: Two judges score the bout a draw, while the third gives the bout to one of the fighters
Split draw: One judge gives one fighter the win, another gives it to the other fighter and the third judge scores it a draw
Technical decision: If a fighter is rendered unable to continue as the result of an illegal move or technique, and enough time has passed, the judges are ordered to determine the result based on the finished and one unfinished round. A fighter who wins in such a manner is determined to be the winner via technical decision
Technical draw: Similar to a technical decision but with the judges’ scorecards ultimately resulting in a draw
There are also a few other end results of a fight:
Disqualification (DQ): A fighter intentionally performs an illegal action that leaves his/her opponent unable to continue the bout — or a fighter performs too many fouls in one matchup.
No Contest (NC): A No Contest can happen if a fighter unintentionally performs an illegal action that leaves his/her opponent unable to continue and there is not enough rounds to give a technical decision, or if both fighters are rendered unable to continue. A bout may be overturned to a No Contest for a variety of reasons, most usually if the winning fighter fails a post-fight drug test.
Forfeit: While very, very rare, a forfeit can be called if a fighter refuses to compete or exits the match for any reason outside of injury
UFC Judging Criteria
Under the Unified Rules of MMA, fights are scored under the same 10-point must system for each round like boxing.
The winner of a round earns 10 points on a judge’s scorecard for that round, with his or her opponent earning nine — or sometimes just eight or seven depending on the one-sidedness of the round. A judge can award a 10-10 round if the round is determined to be too close to judge in favor of one fighter, but this is rare and highly discouraged.
Any points deducted by the referee from fouls are then taken into effect.
The criteria judges look for to score a round is, in order: Effective striking, effective grappling, aggression, cage control (referred to in the UFC as Octagon control).