Commentary

Making sense of MMA's revised rules

Five UFC champions -- easy enough to remember, right? But how about 10? Amendments to MMA's unified rules mean more weight divisions to the sport -- and more headaches for the fans following it.

Originally Published: July 8, 2008
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Thiago AlvesMartin McNeil for ESPN.comWould a fighter like Thiago Alves, who has dealt with weight issues in the past, benefit from added classes?
There are certain traditions that are expected to be followed during a telecast of any mixed martial arts contest: ring girls putting their surgeon's work on display, labored prefight insults and -- most crucial of all -- commentators audibly musing about how they don't quite understand the rules.

Murky comprehension of regulation is, in most cases, due to murky exposition and not any sort of learning or language disability on the part of the broadcaster. (Though the mind-numbing patter of some professional voices would sometimes have you believe otherwise.) Most recently, there was divisive talk on what constitutes the back of the head when addressing illegal strikes: Is it a "Mohawk" stripe of no-contact, as industry ambassador "Big" John McCarthy believes, or a site ranging from ear to ear?

This confusion often spreads to the in-ring officials themselves, who are obviously a priority audience when it comes to understanding the rules.

To ease perplexed minds, McCarthy and athletic commission members recently sketched amendments to the Unified Rules that look to spread some proverbial turf builder on the MMA landscape.

Strikes to the back of the head are now clearly delineated; the Mohawk definition prevailed. Elbow strikes are no longer limited to "arcing" movements, a limitation that was preposterous since its inception. You can now drive the point of your elbow into your opponent's soft tissue with abandon. Amazingly, bureaucracy works.

Sometimes.

Stifling the good news to come out of last week's National Association of Boxing Commissions gathering was the piggybacking of new weight divisions onto the rule addendums. Athletes can now fit themselves into the narrowest of factions ranging from 105 pounds (the "Screech" class) to over 265 pounds (the "Orson Welles" division).

Most significantly, new classes allow for athletes to weigh in at 195 pounds and 225 pounds, stop-gaps in between the middleweight and heavyweight divisions; a "super lightweight class" at 165 pounds is intended to provide a bridge between athletes too small for welterweight and too big for lightweight; and welterweights can weigh up to 175 pounds.

I'm no Web-code genius, but this would be an excellent spot for an Excedrin banner.

Creating weight classes that measure combatants down to the ounce is one of the more efficient ways to create audience apathy. The UFC's five champions are a manageable lot, with casual fans likely able to recite the majority of them if asked. Expecting viewers to keep tabs on 10 title belts is a neurally suffocating request.

It's not unlike the theory behind seven-digit phone numbers -- that's as much as a person can reasonably be expected to remember. Any more and they're lost.

There's simply no precedent for fracturing the divisional lines that warrants such a dramatic alteration. Athletes failing to make weight -- most recently, Thiago Alves and Nick Diaz -- are a condition of the sport's nature that will continue regardless of whether athletes are trying to make 195 pounds or 175. There will be no cessation of fighters looking for every advantage possible. If anything, an increased number of classes just means an increased number of dehydrated opportunists.

There's some mild intrigue in the idea of bridging the light heavyweight and heavyweight classes. With the system currently in place, a 210-pound heavyweight could conceivably meet a 265-pound heavyweight. While some would argue that the heavier fighter's assumed cardio issues level the playing field, it's a hard sell to the lighter athlete -- who is being pinned to the mat and brutalized via mass, not technique.

UFC's Randy Couture was a recurring victim of that discrepancy, dropping consecutive fights to both Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez after he had grown tired of throwing around their 20 additional pounds. If other weight divisions don't have to concern themselves with combating that much of a size differential, why should the heavyweights?

Amendments also struck smothering (the act of covering a fighter's mouth) from the allowable offenses, a tactic most recently seen when Dan Henderson shushed Anderson Silva. Although purists might argue that every possible weapon should be left in, covering an opponent's mouth to restrict air flow is a move deprived of any skill and looks uncomfortably like something you'd see in a prison cell. It won't be missed.

The most glaring omission to the meeting's notes was the lack of discussion over judging criteria, easily the most controversial and attention-deprived segment of the sport. Few events pass where viewers or commentators don't express surprise or confusion at the way scoring was tabulated, or why judges placed the emphasis they did on certain techniques.

Leaving the importance of striking over grappling or position over control as a subjective perception is unfair to athletes, who are subject to the whims of scorers. Is a takedown worth more than a submission attempt, or vice versa? If a fighter spends 90 percent of a round on top and landing flaccid strikes, is that more valuable than two armbar attempts from the guard? Could judges pass a written test on common fighting techniques and definitions?

Critics should grant that the sport as we know it has only been around for seven years, and it takes time to develop and sculpt something resembling an infrastructure.

But if ring officials can't decipher the codes of conduct, what chance do the fans have?

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.