A Global Sport Needs A Global Rulebook

Shorts over tights - a fashion faux pas in any rulebook.
(Shorts over tights - a fashion faux pas in any rulebook.)

Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White has said several times that in ten years, mixed martial arts will rank with soccer (or football, depending on where you’re reading this) as one of the world’s most popular sports worldwide. I happen to agree…in principle.

White’s reasoning is sound: while some rules take some explaining, the basic principles of MMA transcend language and culture; all sports are proxies for the most basic form of competition, fighting; nearly every culture boasts an indigenous fighting art; like soccer, there are few barriers to entry for someone wanting to take up MMA. There is but one stumbling block in MMA’s path and that is the lack of consistency worldwide.

Put a whistle around your neck and drop a white-and-black-checkered ball in the middle of a pack of kids anywhere in the world and it’s likely that a soccer game will break out. It’s also likely that all the players will understand the basic rules of the game, from ball handling to scores to fouls. It’s true of all of the world’s popular sports.

No matter where you play, the rules of basketball, hockey, cricket, and rugby are consistent. Of course there are idiosyncrasies like international basketball’s polygonal lane, but that will be changed to a National Basketball Association-style rectangle in 2012. The international ice hockey rink is 13 feet wider than the National Hockey League’s sheet but the game itself is the same.

MMA? Not so much. Fighting in the UFC? No shoes, no shirt, no service. Fighting in Saitama, Japan? You can wear wrestling shoes and/or a gi if you’d like. Hell, you can wear snazzy spandex pants or a luchador’s mask if the mood strikes you. Of course, in both places it’s illegal to grab the fence…oh wait, most Japanese fights take place in a five-rope ring, not a cage. The most famous difference between American and Japanese MMA, though, is kicks and stomps to a downed opponent. Or at least it used to be. Once a favored technique of the Chute Boxe stable during PRIDE FC’s run, an accidental soccer kick from Jason “Mayhem” Miller recently soured Miller’s DREAM middleweight championship bout with Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, which was ruled a no contest.

The adoption of globally unified rules would seem like less of a pipe dream if American states and promoters could get on the same page. The UFC hems closely to the Mixed Martial Arts Unified Rules of Conduct, a regulatory manual developed by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board in 2000, but each state is free to adopt whatever rules or make whatever allowances it wishes to. And promoters are free to add prohibitions to the Unified Rules if they see fit, like when the International Fight League prohibited elbow strikes on the ground. Long-running Indiana promotion Hook ‘n’ Shoot prohibits elbows as well, the reasoning being that elbows create a lot of blood but don’t end fights, creating a needlessly gory spectacle. Some commissions/promotions will allow guys to wear wrestling shoes as long as they don’t throw kicks. And Affliction, like the IFL before it, stages its fights in a large five-rope ring.

It’s going to be hard to develop a broad global base for the sport when the casual fan doesn’t know what rules matches are being held under and frankly, without a credible international governing body like FIFA in place to address these issues, it’s unlikely they will be resolved.

MMA can be one of the most popular sports in the world. It should be. It will be. Just as soon as we get one set of rules and regulations enforced consistently around the globe.

Do you think that there should be a universally accepted rulebook for MMA or do you like the differences between promotions?

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