An interesting phenomenon has piqued debate, along with the interest and emotions of the MMA community.

Fighters have been criticized and referees looked at closely in their assessments of what has been called “playing the game.” The term “game” is in reference to a fighter using a rule to their advantage.

In the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, there are two types of strikes that are allowed when both professional competitors are standing, but not allowed when one or both fighters are grounded. Kicks and/or knees to the head of a grounded opponent are not allowed at any time, in any position (within the Unified Rules). (Please note that there are many international organizations that allow these techniques to be legal under a different set of rules.)

Many have asked and continue to clarify: What is the definition of a grounded fighter?

By definition and explanation, a grounded fighter is when anything but the soles of a fighter’s feet are touching the floor of the fighting area. To clarify further, if a fighter has a foot in the air and one of their hands on the floor, they are still considered grounded.

Do not confuse or compare this current definition with the old one (three points of contact).

This is where “playing the game” comes into strategy. Whether it’s a knee, back side, hand or even finger on the floor, leg strikes (and knees) to the head of the grounded opponent is illegal.

The rule comes into play in several situations. Fighters have become very aware of the rule and are extremely savvy in using it to their advantage, much to the dismay of the media and fans.

Whether you’re an avid or casual fan of the sport, it is now commonplace to see a fighter pinned up against the cage and put their hand down on the floor to avoid leg/knee attacks to the head. Taking it a step further, they will also raise and lower their hand on and off the mat, trying to bait their opponent into causing a foul, which may be enforced by point deductions or disqualification.

Many referees are wise to this phenomenon and are being proactive in their approach to dealing with the situation before it happens. Detailed rules meetings and discussions with the fighters before their bouts help clarify the rule and make a clear case of what is expected of them. Many referees tell the fighters that if they play the game, they are taking a risk (at the mercy of the referee’s call) and gambling on getting what they want out of the strategy.

Many people may (and do) look at this gamesmanship in a negative way.

Keep this in mind. The rules were created to set parameters. Coaches and athletes in all sports will always push the limits of those parameters to gain any edge or advantage over their rivals.

That being said, “playing the game” is allowed. Like it or not…

For more information on MMA Rules or officiating check out Combat Consulting or follow Rob on Twitter: @hindsmmareferee

Photo: John Dodson (rear) makes himself a grounded opponent (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Rob Hinds
Guest Contributor

Rob Hinds has refereed over 4,200 MMA bouts and judged more than 750. He has refereed for organizations on all levels including: UFC, Bellator MMA, Invicta FC, KOTC, IFL and Adrenaline MMA. Rob has an extensive background in martial arts, including both lengthy amateur and professional fight careers. Along with being a tenured referee and judge, Rob dedicates much of his time to researching and updating rules, regulations and procedures to keep not only himself, but the sport's officials current.