UFC's request to change the Unified Rules comes not a moment too soon


alan-belcher-eye-injury.jpgFrom the rubble of weirdness that we saw in New Jersey this past weekend, the UFC is looking to build something useful.

Maybe build isn’t the right word. More like reshape, refine, refocus. It’s about time, too. Because no matter how official and infallible it sounds when we talk about the most holy Unified Rules (peace be upon them), we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that they can’t or shouldn’t be changed, neither of which is at all true.

We didn’t find these rules on a stone tablet atop a mountain, after all. These are just rules that people made up, and not always for the best of reasons. Even the U.S. Constitution has been amended and then re-amended to un-amend some of the earlier amendments. If an entire nation can decide to stop drinking and then take it up again, the MMA world can figure out what to do about eye pokes and grounded fighters.

Fortunately, the UFC now seems committed to pressing the issue with the Association of Boxing Commissions, and not a moment too soon. In fact, it might even be several moments past due, especially for fighters such as Gian Villante, who went home from UFC 159 with a pain in his eyeball and a loss on his record.

But changing rules in a sport like MMA is no small thing. For years UFC President Dana White has publicly complained about commissions and refs and rules and judges, but the UFC has mostly declined to try to do anything about it. That’s because it’s a strange situation to begin with.

Here we have one organization that dominates the landscape of the sport, and yet is not in charge of determining its own rules and regulations. Most other major sports don’t have that problem. If the NFL decides it wants to crack down on late hits or even change the definition of a forward pass, it doesn’t have to petition members of various government bureaucracies who have no real stake in the matter. It decides those matters internally, puts them to a vote, and that’s that. The UFC, as White likes to remind us, is regulated by “the government.” Kind of. In some places. And while the UFC doesn’t always like what those government agencies do (looking at you, Swedish MMA Federation), it’s generally pretty good about abiding by their decisions, even if it grumbles and complains every step of the way.

But by now it ought to be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that MMA has some issues with the existing rules. Some make no sense (Joe Rogan would be happy to explain why the 12-to-6 elbow ban is ridiculous), others are poorly understood/enforced (get poked in the eye in an MMA fight, and it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next), and others have proven to be less satisfying in practice than in theory (let your fingertips graze the mat, and you are magically transformed into a grounded opponent).

The UFC is where the majority of fight fans see these issues played out, and it’s the UFC that usually ends up dealing with the headaches when it’s all over. And yet the UFC has no explicit power to fix the problems that it encounters on an almost weekly basis, which is crazy.

What the UFC does have is influence. It has the largest megaphone in the sport, which means it can (subtly or otherwise) up the pressure on the commissions to fix what’s broken. According to UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, that’s exactly what the UFC is going to do via a formal request to the ABC, which means that maybe the UFC has come around to the idea that, like it or not, it is the closest thing this sport has to a full-time guardian.

I can understand why the UFC might have been reluctant to embrace that role. Especially when you don’t get to make or change the rules, it seems unfair that you should be held accountable, whether implicitly or explicitly, when those same rules lead to frustrating and avoidable screw-ups. But if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that the UFC has the most to lose by doing nothing.

It might fight for rules changes and get nowhere. As referee John McCarthy once predicted, it’s easier to convince athletic commissions to add new rules than strip rules away. That’s because creating more restrictions on the violence two people can inflict on one another just feels safer. Sometimes that safety is illusory – an elbow to the head hurts no matter where on the clock it comes from – but it allows the commission members to go home feeling like they did their jobs. Asking those people to do away with the rules that aren’t helping the sport may be a tough sell, but it’s worth it to try.

And, just as with the slow, reluctant march toward increased drug testing, the UFC deserves credit for taking the lead. We can criticize the organization for being overbearing or nowhere near transparent in other areas, but you don’t see any other promotion taking these necessary steps toward better regulation.

Whether it wanted the job or not, the UFC is the organization out in front, which also makes it the organization with an obligation to make the sport better for both fans and fighters. With its request to improve some of MMA’s murkier rules, the UFC seems to be coming around to the notion. Now let’s hope the commissions know a good idea when they hear one.

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