A Timeline of UFC Rules: From No-Holds-Barred to Highly Regulated

Adam HillContributor IIIApril 24, 2013

August 11, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; A general view title belt of Benson Henderson's (not pictured) belt after defeating Frankie Edgar following UFC 150 at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship exploded into people's homes via pay-per-view on Nov. 12, 1993. The first event took place in Denver and was designed as an eight-man tournament pitting fighters of all sizes and different disciplines against one another in no-holds-barred matches. 

The fights took place in an eight-sided cage (now known as the Octagon), but promoters had also toyed with the idea of either electrifying the fence or surrounding the ring with alligators (via cagepotato.com).

And though the fights were advertised as having no rules, that wasn't entirely true. At the inaugural UFC event, there were three rules: no biting, eye gouging or groin strikes. 

Ironically, these were the same rules employed for the ancient Greek sport of Pankration, a precursor to modern mixed martial arts. 

However, even with the limited rules, these early fights appear downright barbaric in comparison to the polished UFC events of today. There were no judges, time limits or rounds. All fights had to be finished via knockout, submission or the opponent's corner throwing in the towel.

The brutality was on display in the first-ever UFC match, which saw Dutch savateur Gerard Gordeau kick a downed Telia Tuli so hard in the face that it sent one of his teeth flying past the announcer's table. 

Obviously, controversy arose, but it was actually the negative press that initially helped propel pay-per-view and VHS sales, turning what was supposed to be a one-time event into an on-going series.

The rules fluctuated with each new event often changing arbitrarily or in order to accommodate local authorities. This happened at UFC 9, when political pressures forced the promoters to ban fighters from punching their opponents in the head with closed-fist strikes. 

Ultimate Fighting took a huge hit in 1996 when Sen. John McCain, a supposed boxing fan, saw a UFC tape and famously characterized it as "human cock-fighting." McCain went on a crusade against MMA and was almost successful in getting the UFC banned in all 50 states.

In response to the backlash, the UFC began implementing more rules in order to legitimize it as a real sport. This included instituting judges, time limits, rounds, weight classes, and a 10-point must scoring system. 

Most importantly, the UFC also made changes to the ways in which a fighter can strike his opponent. Combatants now wore fingerless gloves and were not allowed to headbutt, throw elbow strikes to the back of the head/neck or kick a downed fighter to the face.

This was not enough though as SEG, the company that produced the UFC, teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Few states were sanctioning events and the money from pay-per-view had all but dried up.

However, in 2000, Station Casino executives Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and business associate Dana White entered into a deal with SEG to purchase the UFC for $2 million. They finalized the deal in January 2001 and created Zuffa, LLC.

Another major event happened in 2001 that would shape the future of MMA in the United States. In April of that year, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board adopted a set of standards that would become known as the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts

These rules were also officially recognized by the Association of Boxing Commissions in July 2009.

This was a huge step forward because for the first time in MMA's history there were an agreed upon set of comprehensive rules that state regulatory bodies could use to sanction the sport. The Unified Rules were very specific and covered all aspects of an MMA event including scoring, round length, fighter attire and fouls.

These new rule changes even earned the seal of approval from John McCain who stated that, "The sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition." (via mmafighting.com).

The list of fouls ballooned from the original three to 30. Most of the fouls are rarely ever violated in the course of a bout, but there are five that still remain problematic.

1. Eye-poking has been a foul since the first UFC, but it is still a big problem due to the fingerless gloves the fighters wear. It's a double-edged sword because on one hand a finger to the eye could cause serious injury, but on the other fighters need to have open hands to effectively grapple.  

2. The use of 12-6 (straight up-and-down) elbows to the head and face are strictly prohibited. However, elbow strikes are legal, so it is up to the referee to decide if the shots are within bounds.

3. Groin strikes are illegal and all fighters are required to wear athletic cups; however, most opt to wear the comfortable soft plastic cup as opposed to the steel thai cup which gives more protection. The foul usually occurs accidentally when inside leg kicks and knees to the thighs miss their mark. After the foul, the fighter is allowed a five-minute period to compose himself. 

4. Knees to a grounded opponent's head are illegal. A grounded opponent is one who has three points of contact with the canvas, so routinely fighters will be in a standing clinch and put one hand on the mat in order to not to be kneed in the head. This is a flaw with this rule and should be slightly tweaked.

5. Strikes (punches or elbows) are illegal to the back and top of the head/neck. This is not a new foul, but it still poses quite the quandary. Fighters are allowed to strike the front and side of the head leaving a slim margin between a legal and illegal shot. 

These rules are far from perfect, but their enforcement (and the business savvy of Zuffa) are what helped the UFC to not only climb back from the brink of collapse, but also to make MMA one of the fastest growing sports of the new millennium. 

The UFC swallowed up most other competing MMA organizations and built a brand that, in 2011, the FOX family of networks decided to get behind to the tune $700 million over seven years.

MMA is now sanctioned in almost every state with only a few exceptions, most notably New York, but there is a good likelihood that fight fans could see a UFC card at Madison Square Garden sooner rather than later.

It's amazing to think that in only 20 years, the UFC has gone from fights with "no rules" to become a sport as mainstream as the NFL, MLB or NBA. And just like all of those sports, the UFC will assuredly continue to evolve, which will inevitably mean more rule changes in the future.