As longtime UFC fans would remember well, one of the taglines for the initial run of UFC shows was “there are no rules!” Of course, 25 years have passed since that 1993 beginning and the sport of MMA is no longer the spectacle it used to be.
There are now plenty of rules and regulations for the fighters stepping into the Octagon – some of them are pretty obvious, such as low blows and eye pokes being banned, but other rules commonly used in the UFC – which is sanctioned by various Athletic Commissions – are far lesser known to the fans.
Here are 5 UFC rules that you might not have heard of.
#1 No small joint manipulation
Small joint manipulation – basically attempting to break the fingers or toes of an opponent – is en vogue in the world of pro-wrestling these days thanks to the likes of Pete Dunne and Marty Scurll, villainous characters who pride themselves on using a tactic that wouldn’t exactly be considered the cleanest even in a bar fight.
In the UFC though, these techniques are completely illegal and would probably result in a fighter being disqualified. It’s a rule that many fans probably aren’t aware of – most likely because unlike eye pokes and low blows, which often happen by mistake during fights, it’s a little harder to accidentally grab and twist an opponent’s finger.
The reason for small joint manipulation being outlawed is a pretty simple one; despite being a trained technique in martial arts such as Krav Maga and hapkido – largely as a pain compliance move – in MMA, unlike standard joint locks like an armbar or kimura, there’s far less time for the victim to submit before bones begin to break.
And as we saw when Jon Jones almost lost his big toe – albeit accidentally – in his fight with Chael Sonnen, broken fingers or toes aren’t something to sneeze at, even for the tough fighters of the UFC.
#2 You can’t use abusive language
Even as far back as the early days of the UFC – in the mid-1990’s – fighters quickly realised that trash talk was an important part of the game. In today’s climate in particular, the more fans that are watching a UFC show, the more money is made for both the promoter and the fighter – and most of the time, the best way to entice the fans in is to build some kind of grudge or bad blood through a bit of trash talking.
Interestingly though, most of the time the bad blood is finished by the time the fighters actually step into the Octagon. Usually, behind the trash talk, there’s plenty of mutual respect between combatants, and it’s rare to see the pre-fight trash talk continue into the cage. Surprisingly though, that could well be down to the fact that according to the UFC rules, using abusive language during a fight is actually illegal.
This rule isn’t the most commonly enforced one, however; fighters have gotten away with talking trash inside the cage plenty of times, with the likes of Jason Knight and the Diaz brothers continually taunting their opponents, both verbally and with hand signals, during their fights.
Perhaps the only notable example of a referee attempting to admonish a fighter for this, in fact, came at UFC 47 back in 2004, when much-maligned referee Steve Mazzagatti warned Nick Diaz for continually hurling verbal abuse at Robbie Lawler. It was a rare example of this rule being enforced – but it didn’t help Lawler, who was knocked out in the second round.
#3 You can’t throw in the towel
Okay, so I’ve been watching the UFC for around 15 years now and even I’m not sure why this rule exists. According to the official UFC rules – established by various Athletic Commissions, remember – a fighter’s corner cannot throw in the towel, and if they do so, it would result in an instant disqualification for their fighter.
Well, surely that’s the idea of throwing in the towel anyway? The only time a corner would want to throw the towel in would be in order to prevent their fighter from taking any further punishment, which would naturally force the referee to call a halt to the fight anyway. So quite why it was decided that this act would be illegal is anyone’s guess.
Strangely enough though, it appears that the coaches and training partners acting as UFC cornermen have taken this rule to heart, as throwing in the towel is one of the rarest sights in the whole sport. Cornermen stopping fights between rounds is rare enough, although it does happen – top coaches like Jason Parillo and Duke Roufus have both done it – but the only recent example of a corner throwing in the towel came in Nate Diaz’s 2013 bout with Josh Thomson.
In that fight, Diaz had essentially been knocked out by a head kick and a follow-up combination from Thomson – and by the time his brother Nick threw the towel in, the referee was already stepping in to call the fight off via TKO anyway. Essentially, this remains a strange rule that’s also quite underused.
#4 Timidity is illegal
As well as being a sport, MMA is also a form of entertainment, and while those two words being so closely linked instantly makes people think of pro-wrestling, it’s also true of basically all sports that attempt to bring in fans and spectators. After all, who would want to watch a sport that could be considered dull?
Over the years, MMA’s rules have evolved to ensure that not only is fighter safety paramount, but entertainment levels are, too. That’s why we have referees calling for clean breaks from the clinch, or standing a fight back up if the action slows down too much on the ground.
One rule that fans might not be aware of however is a rule that outright bans timidity inside the Octagon – including avoiding contact with the opponent or intentionally dropping the mouthpiece. Thankfully, timidity inside the cage is relatively rare, meaning most fights, even if they stall out on the ground or in the clinch, remain mostly entertaining.
Referees do have to enforce this rule, though. Referee Herb Dean had to threaten to take a point from Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis this summer when their fight turned into a staring contest, and going a little further back, Nick Serra – brother of former Welterweight champion Matt – was disqualified in a fight in Elite XC for refusing to stand up from his back – thus displaying serious timidity.
#5 You can’t throw an opponent out of the Octagon
MMA and pro-wrestling have plenty of things in common – the world of pro-wrestling outright stole the idea of “tapping out” from the UFC, for instance, while some of the UFC’s trash-talking feuds can easily be compared to WWE – but one notable part of pro-wrestling is thoroughly outlawed inside the Octagon.
Or should that read, outside the Octagon? It is of course highly common in pro-wrestling to see one combatant dump their opponent over the ropes and out of the ring – the entire concept of the Royal Rumble show is based on this! – but in the UFC, we’ll never see that technique used. That’s because it’s written into the UFC’s rules that throwing an opponent over the Octagon fence – or even attempting to – is illegal.
If we’re totally honest, it’s unlikely that such a thing would ever happen anyway – when it happens in the WWE ring, it takes a great deal of co-operation between the two wrestlers to happen – co-operation that obviously wouldn’t take place inside the Octagon.
So why is it a rule? It’s likely that the UFC and the various Athletic Commissions implemented this rule after seeing footage of ‘Ultimate Ultimate 1996’, namely Tank Abbott’s fight with Cal Worsham. Never one to respect the usual restraints of the UFC, this fight saw Abbott attempt to throw Worsham out of the cage, although he avoided it.
On the smaller circuit, however, fighters have been knocked out by accidentally crashing out of the cage – usually through the door rather than going over the fence – meaning that this rule is definitely there for a reason, however unlikely such an event is.