One of the worst organized MMA shows I ever saw was a small local show, back in 1996. Before I talk about that particular show though, I have to set the stage: UFC 9 had just happened. That UFC was ‘special’ because at the last minute the rules had been changed to ban punches with the closed fist to the face (more on the event and the backstory here).
Some of the fighters in that UFC ignored the no closed fist rule and merrily punched their opponents in the face (incurring minor financial fines along the road to victory). Other fighters apparently took that rule seriously and only slapped their opponents. Almost of the fans, myself include, were confused by what was going on.
So now let’s get back to that particularly putrid local MMA show.
A friend of mine was coaching one of the fighters, so I was privy to the pre-fight rules meeting. I was interested to see what they would allow at these fights. This was before the athletic commissions got involved in regulating MMA so every event had a different set of rules governing the legality of headbutts, elbow strikes, knees on the ground, wearing of gloves, closed fist punching, etc.
Are you ready for the rules meeting? It was one sentence long: “OK, like it’s total UFC rules“.
After that, the fights themselves were a gong show. Some guys were doing Pancrase-style open hand slapping. Other people were throwing repeat headbutts into their opponent’s faces and trying to punch them in the balls. The referee, the same guy who had delivered the oh-so-concise rules meeting, seemed completely out of his depth as he tried to manage the mayhem.
The climax of the show occurred when one fighter knocked down his opponent near the ring ropes. He then grabbed the bottom rope, stood up and stepped on the neck of his opponent. With the full weight of his body and the tension of the bottom rope pressing down on his opponent’s neck and pinning him there he started stomping his victim on the head.
And the ref did – nothing. He was useless anyhow, but this tactic so stunned him that he stood there and watched.
Finally the victim’s corner stormed into the ring and bull rushed the aggressor off of their fighter. A near riot broke out, and eventually, after much yelling in about 3 different languages, the stomper was disqualified and the stompee, somewhat worse for wear, was declared the winner.
Of course this entire schmozzle was almost entirely the referee’s fault (who was also the organizer and promoter, by the way). If I had been a politician, and this had been my introduction to MMA, I would have knelt down and made a vow that my life’s mission would be the eradication of this brutal bloodsport. Not amateur MMA’s proudest moment…
So what does that have to do with us today? MMA is much more regulated and standardized now, but jiu-jitsu and submission grappling tournaments still use widely varying rules. Some allow suplexing throws, others do not. Some allow certain leglocks, others do not. Some award points when you use the turtle position to reverse an opponent, others do not. Some allow neck cranks, others do not.
Even if you never compete, it’s still worth clarifying the rules when you’re about to spar with someone you’ve never rolled with before. If you’re operating under the assumption that heel hooks are forbidden, but it’s the bread and butter move at that other guy’s home club, then things could go badly in a hurry. No matter whether you compete or not, make bloody clear that you know what the ground rules are; your ACLs will thank you for it.