Big John McCarthy explains the unified grounded fighter rule

At the 2016 annual Association of Boxing Commissions convention, members voted overwhelmingly to adopt the changes to the Unified Rules of MMA put forward by the MMA Rules and Regulations committee. The dream team rules committee, chaired by Kansas Athletic Commission member Sean Wheelock, included John McCarthy, Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn, and Dr. David Watson. The committee set out to make revisions to the Unified Rules for the first time since their inception in 2001.

The committee put forward five changes to the Unified Rules of MMA:
•Changes to the approved apparel for female fighters;
•Removing grabbing the clavicle as a foul;
•Removing heel kicks to the kidney as a foul;
•Added advancing towards your opponents’ eyes with outstretched fingers as a foul; and,
•Changing the definition of a downed fighter.

Voting on the changes as one package (without objection), the membership of the ABC voted 42-1 in favor of the changes, with one abstention (Tennessee) and one absence (Mississippi). The sole dissenting vote was cast by a representative of the New Jersey State Athletic Commission.

However, adoption was spotty, with the larger bloc adopting the new rules, but a significant group adopting none or only some. The result was that the Unified Rules of MMA were not unified, most notably around the definition of a grounded fighter. The result was absurd, with fighters having to compete under significantly different rules sets, depending on the state or province.

At the 2019 convention, with Pennsylvania AC head Greg Sirb serving as an intermediary, a compromise was reached, with the intention of again unifying the Unified Rules. Under this plan, dissenting commissions agreed to the new female apparel rule, removing clavicle grabs, allowing heel kicks from bottom guard, and prohibiting fingers pointed towards the eyes. And most importantly, there is a new compromise definition of a downed fighter.

Effective January 1, 2020 the following compromise rule will be in effect: “The illegal action of kicking or kneeing the head of a grounded opponent: A grounded fighter is defined as: Any part of the body, other than the soles of the feet (excluding fingers) touching the fighting area floor. A fighter will be considered grounded if the palm or closed fist of one hand, and/or any other body part, is touching the fighting area floor.”

During a recent interview with MMA Junkie, John McCarthy, the Dean of MMA Referees, offered a detailed explanation of the new rule.

“Back in 2001, when we were doing the unified rules, we started talking about grounded fighter because at the time, in the UFC, if you had someone that was on the ground, I could only punch at them,” explained McCarthy, as transcribed by Farah Hannoun and Mike Bohn. “I could not kick. I couldn’t kick him to the body, couldn’t kick him to the head obviously, no body, nothing – couldn’t kick their arm, couldn’t kick. So when we did the unified rules, they said, ‘Well, the standing fighter should be able to kick to the body,’ so we changed that, but then the question was, ‘What are we going to say is a grounded fighter,’ and then we went right back to boxing is what they wanted to do.”

In boxing a fighter is down when any part his body but the feet is in contact with the ground. However, fighters played the rules, and reached a finger down, to avoid being kneed in the head. But that hand should have been up protecting the head.

“So we came up with the thing of, ‘All right, we’re going to do that,’ but we were afraid of young fighters,” said McCarthy. “It doesn’t usually happen with really mature and good fighters, getting hit with a leg kick, their legs going out, catching themselves on their hands and feet, trying to pop themselves back up, and punting them in the face while they’re down, so we said ‘All right, both hands palm- or fist-down, and both feet makes you down.’ The whole point was for a fighter to never bend over at the waist.”

But spotty adoption led to the unified Unified Rules, so the compromise definition was crafted, with all on board.

“Now the rule is, as of 2018, going back to one hand, palm-down, fist-down,” said McCarthy. “So they can’t do anything with fingers. It’s not about bearing weight. They come down here [puts palm on the ground] that puts you down, [puts fingers only on the ground] that does not. So that’s where it is, in all states. Flat down, or you’re not down.”