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MMA rules explained: What you can and can't do in the octagon

Profile Picture: Danny Howard

November 9th, 2020

There once was a time when there wasn’t much separating Mixed Martial Arts from a local Toughman contest. Back then, weight classes weren't even part of the sport, although broken bones and gruesome injuries most certainly were.

Join us now as we take a look at the official MMA rule book to give you a better idea of what separates a professional MMA fight from a brawl.

The unified rules of MMA

MMA takes a page from the sweet science by operating on a set of unified rules. These rules are applicable to all the major MMA organizations, and they cover the following procedures:

  • Judging criteria
  • Designation of weight classes
  • Medical requirements
  • Banned substances and PED protocols

Whether it is a Bellator or UFC fight, fans are not going to see a drastic departure from a typical MMA event. While these protocols are in place as general rules, each organization is also subject to the rules and regulations of state athletic commissions as well.

Though these are rules the average fan wouldn’t bat an eyelash at, there are some things that directly impact what we see in the octagon. These are illegal tactics and actions that could get a fighter disqualified, which we'll deal with below.

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Dominick Cruz (top) in action against Demetrious Johnson in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

What can’t a fighter do in the octagon?

Because MMA is a combination of varying disciplines, the list of banned moves are larger than that of professional boxing. There are unique sets of illegal strikes and grappling techniques that are barred during competition.

These are the most common fouls seen in competition:

  • Headbutts and eye-gouging
  • Any strikes to the back of the head or spine
  • Biting, spitting and hair pulling
  • Deliberately planting an opponent head first (or spiking)
  • Throat strikes
  • Fish hooking techniques, such as pulling the nose or open mouth of an opponent
  • Knees or kicks to the head of a grounded opponent
  • Strikes to the groin
  • Grabbing the barriers of the ring for leverage
  • Grabbing of an opponent’s gloves or shorts.

Because of the nature of the competition, the most common fouls are typically strikes to the back of the head and headbutts.

Not all fouls are intentional, and referees are instructed to inform fighters to avoid any illegal tactics during the bout, even if they are accidental. Repeated violations can lead to a point deduction or disqualification.

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Heavyweights Shane Carwin (right) and Junior dos Santos square off in the octagon during UFC 131 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. (Photo by Kathleen Hinkel/Icon Sportswire)

What can cause a disqualification in MMA?

In general, a disqualification can happen when one fighter recklessly and repeatedly fouls his opponent, but it often comes down to the tolerance of the referee. There are some fouls that can draw a disqualification faster than others.

These fouls could draw a potential disqualification without a prior warning:

  • Repeated fouls against referee instructions
  • Reckless or unsportsmanlike conduct
  • Unauthorized attack of an opponent, such as between rounds or during a referee pause
  • Entry of an unauthorized combatant, such as training staff, during regulation

While the wild and unpredictable nature of MMA may make it seem that it is a vicious fight to the finish, there are plenty of rules in place to ensure the fighters’ safety and best interests are protected at all times.


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