Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest-growing sport in the world, and it’s not difficult to see why.
MMA practitioners utilize a remarkable variety of maneuvers from a multitude of disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, karate, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And when the cage door shuts, fans are treated to competition that showcases the toughest fighters and the toughest fighting styles. The sport’s minimal ruleset and diverse body of athletes mean that no two competitors—and no two fights—are the same.
While beneficial for up-to-date fans, the sheer scope of MMA can prove intimidating for those who’re just beginning to follow the action. Temporarily disregarding past bouts, rules, fighting styles, and the sport’s nuances, the UFC held a total of 42 shows in 2019, each of which included an average of 12 fights. That’s about 500 new contests in a calendar year—and from a single company!
In other words, MMA’s high-volume nature can be a lot for future aficionados to digest. This crash-course guide is designed to help these individuals—and anyone else who wants to become familiar with mixed martial arts—to quickly gain the information they need.
The Leading MMA Organizations
MMA is a broad term that describes the sport as a whole, while specific promotions maintain their own names. Accordingly, one may “train MMA,” but one cannot “train UFC”—even if he or she signs a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A casual practitioner’s “training UFC” is roughly the equivalent of a high-school football player’s “practicing NFL,” and both statements are likely to draw curious glances and/or curt remarks from dedicated fans.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was founded in 1993 and is the global leader in MMA. The company maintains a roster of more than 600 fighters and makes annual stops in countries around the globe. William-Morris Endeavor (WME), a well-known Hollywood talent agency, has owned the UFC since 2016.
Bellator MMA is the second-largest MMA promotion in the world. Owned by Viacom, Bellator possesses a plethora of stellar competitors in its ranks and has made a habit of signing developmental deals with up-and-coming martial artists. Bellator visits many domestic and international destinations.
The Professional Fighters League (PFL), which was formerly named the World Series of Fighting (WSOF), is the only MMA promotion that follows a tournament-based schedule—including playoffs. Every year, the top-two competitors in each weight class, having fought their way to the finals, compete for $1,000,000.
ONE Championship is today’s largest Asian MMA promotion. Partially owned by Disney, ONE organizes its shows—and signs its athletes—with the preferences of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Laotian, Filipino, and Bangladeshi viewers in mind. In practical terms, this means that “trash talk,” which is widely accepted and enjoyed in North America and Europe, is frowned upon and discouraged. ONE fighters are expected to behave respectfully both inside and outside the cage.
MMA has 13 main weight classes:
Flyweight (125 lbs./56.69 kilos)
Bantamweight (135 lbs./61.23 kilos)
Featherweight (145 lbs./65.77 kilos)
Lightweight (155 lbs./70.3 kilos)
Welterweight (170 lbs./77.11 kilos)
Middleweight (185 lbs./83.91 kilos)
Light Heavyweight (205 lbs./92.99 kilos)
Heavyweight (265 lbs./120.2 kilos)*
Women’s Strawweight (115 lbs./52.16 kilos)
Women’s Flyweight (125 lbs./56.69 kilos)
Women’s Bantamweight (135 lbs./61.23 kilos)
Women’s Featherweight (145 lbs./65.77 kilos)
Women’s Lightweight (155 lbs./70.3 kilos)
In non-title fights, athletes are given a one-pound allowance; a welterweight competitor could tip the scales at 171 lbs. and still make weight, for instance.
*Virtually all leading promotions and governing bodies refuse to sanction bouts involving athletes who’ve exceeded the heavyweight limit.
The vast majority of MMA organizations adhere to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, a collection of regulations and procedures that’ve been developed (and are updated) by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the foremost combat-sports regulatory body.
Small-joint locks, headbutts, pokes to the eye, low blows, hair pulling, biting, and scratching are illegal under the unified rules. Similarly, so too are strikes to the back of the head, kicks and knees to the head of a grounded (on the canvas) opponent, and “12 to 6” elbows, or elbows connect with their target at an angle similar to that between the number “12” and the number “6” on the face of a clock.
Otherwise, athletes are free to use their preferred techniques.
MMA Fight Outcomes
MMA fights can end via:
Knockout/TKO: Strikes render an athlete unable to continue.
Additionally, cage-side doctors can stop a fight when they believe that an athlete’s health will be threatened if he or she continues—perhaps due to a cut, tear, or eye injury, for example. In these situations, the opposing athlete is declared the winner by TKO Due to a Doctor’s Stoppage.
Submission: Strikes or a submission hold force an athlete to tap out. If an athlete loses consciousness as a result of a choke, the opposing athlete will be declared the winner by Technical Submission.
Decision: A fight goes the distance (3 five-minute rounds for most contests and 5 five-minute rounds for most main events and title fights), and the judges’ scorecards are consulted. A Unanimous Decision indicates that all three cage-side judges agreed on the winner, while a Split Decision indicates that one of the three judges selected a different winner than the majority did.
Scoring MMA Fights
MMA utilizes the “10-point must” scoring system, which calls for round winners to receive 10 points and their opponents to receive nine points or less.
A 10-9 score would be issued in the instance that one athlete wins, but does not dominate, a round. If an athlete clearly controls a round and comes close to finishing the bout, a 10-8 score may be in order. 10-7 scores, though technically legal, are very rare.
Judges base their scores on “effective striking, grappling, and cage control,” though the guideline’s ambiguity often produces differing opinions of fights and, in turn, controversial decisions.
UFC President Dana White played (and continues to play) a key role in making MMA as popular as it is.
Comedian, actor, and podcaster Joe Rogan has served as a UFC commentator since 1997.
French-Canadian welterweight Georges St. Pierre holds the record for the most victories in UFC title fights, with 13, while Brazilian middleweight Anderson Silva holds the record for the longest championship reign in UFC history, having consecutively held the 185 lbs. belt for six years, eight months, and 22 days.
If MMA’s recent growth is any indication, the coming years will bring with them bigger fights, better action, and more high-profile stars. Consequently, there’s never been a better time than now to see what the hype is about.
Thanks for reading, and here’s to today’s most uniquely fun and exciting combat sport.