The New Jersey Athletic Control Board, headed in 2000 by Larry Hazzard, helped mixed martial arts take a giant step forward by becoming the first major state athletic commission to regulate the sport. The IFC was the first promotion to run a show in the Garden State in September, 2000. The UFC soon followed with UFC 28.
These fight cards were a test run for the sport. Hazzard liked what he saw and MMA passed with flying colors. In April, 2001, Hazzard headed a meeting that included the UFC and other promoters, with Nevada's Marc Ratner dialing in from his office in Las Vegas. Together they hammered out the official Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, relying heavily on previous work done in California and the Mixed Martial Arts Council rules created by Jeff Blatnick that the UFC already used to self-regulate their own bouts.
A few important changes were made, including banning the gi and wrestling shoes, and the establishment of weight classes from flyweight to super-heavyweight. The most important change, from a competition standpoint, was the banning of knees to the head of a grounded opponent.
It was a change Hazzard insisted upon. In the very first show in New Jersey, enormous heavyweight Gan McGee dropped knee after knee on the head of overmatched and outsized opponent Brad Gabriel. Blood flowed and it took the referee an eternity to intervene. Hazzard cringed sitting ringside and the knee to the head had seen its last day in American MMA.
Today, a fighter cannot be kicked or kneed in the head when he's on the ground—including when he has a hand on the ground. The intent is to eliminate the Gan McGee knees of doom. But, along the way, savvy fighters like John Dodson have used the well-intentioned rule to game the system.
In his title fight against Demetrious Johnson, Dodson put one hand on the ground to remove the knee from Johnson's arsenal of strikes. Johnson either didn't notice or didn't care, kneeing Dodson right in the face.
“The first time I put my knee to his head, I couldn’t tell because I was looking at the back of his head," Johnson told Fuel TV after the bout. "After the first time I got warned, I apologized about that. I could feel his pressure and he has to move. It’s not checkers – it’s chess damn it!”
Referee John McCarthy was forced to step in and separate the fighters when the technically illegal blow affected the bout. He didn't take a point, but he could have, unnecessarily adding controversy to a fight that was a thrilling back-and-forth showdown.
“I do think the point should have been taken away. It was an illegal knee and it caused damage," UFC President Dana White told Fuel TV after the fight. "There should have been a point taken away. But I hate that rule. The reason it’s there, it’s for soccer kicks when guys are down on the ground. But I don’t like when guys put their hand down to protect them from it. It was an awesome fight, a close fight and a controversial fight.”
It's a rule that needs to be adjusted to protect the integrity of the sport. Anytime a fighter can blatantly game the system, the way Dodson did, the sport as a whole looks downright silly. He wasn't protecting himself and his position didn't make him particularly vulnerable. He was exploiting a loophole. And that has to stop.