Since it launched to mainstream popularity in the early 2000s, mixed martial arts has functioned under a relatively uniform set of rules.
However, there are slight variations from promotion to promotion when it comes to things like round times, weight limits, and even the kind of strikes that may be thrown.
Certain strikes are now and have always been illegal since stricter rules became a part of the sport. Strikes to the back of the head and heel-strikes to the kidney have long been illegal, but there is still some murkiness when it comes to certain attacks.
Perhaps the most confusing case of all is knees on the ground. Knees are one of the more prominent strikes in MMA, being a staple of Muay Thai kickboxing and seeing use in other fighting styles as well. But if an opponent is downed, their opponent isn’t allowed to knee the head – the question is, what counts as being downed?
This topic of controversy emerged once more when Jeremy Stephens took on Josh Emmett on a recent FOX card. Stephens landed a knee to Emmett that, although only seemed to barely graze him, did appear illegal after looking at the replay.
Stephens claims that he was told the updated rules in the locker room by Dan Miragliotta before the fight, but one or both of them may have been confused. That’s because the amended rules only deal with the position of a fighter’s hands on the ground while they’re standing to determine if they’re downed.
But Emmett’s was kneeling – this means that no matter what position his hands were in, he was a downed opponent and thus kneeing him in the head would’ve been illegal under either set of rules.
This isn’t the first time the change to the rule has created controversy. Chris Weidman was hit with a knee from Gegard Mousasi that was believed to be illegal. Weidman took a break to recover – but after a replay showed the blow was, in fact, legal under the new rules, Mousasi was awarded the victory.
Former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar has a suggestion to simplify the issue – make all knees legal.
He said: “To me, I say let it all go. Let it all go. What’s the difference between kneeing someone on the ground or kneeing someone when they’re [standing in a Muay Thai clinch]? If anything, I think you can probably knee someone a lot harder [from the Thai clinch] than on the ground. So, I think let’s just make knees legal.”
There have been some promotions where this was legal. In Japan’s PRIDE organization, knees to a downed opponent were legal, as were soccer kicks and stomps – two other strikes that have long been banished from mainstream MMA.
However, PRIDE did ban elbows – a strike still allowed in the UFC today. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka famously cut Fedor Emelianenko with an illegal elbow during a fight in the RINGS organization. However, because it was a tournament and Emelianenko couldn’t continue, Kohsaka was declared the winner.