While the unified rules which govern mixed martial arts may be universal at the UFC level, the whims of its sanctioning bodies are not. The primary regulators of the sport are the designated athletic commissions which oversee licensing, assignment of judges and referees, and supervision of both promoters and fighters.
Consistency among commissions can be found in areas such as suspensions, which are generally upheld by all commissions, but beyond that, it can be difficult to pin down any sort of universal policies, even within the United States.
In the United States, which constitutes the lion’s share of the pay-per-view audience, as well as the host of most major MMA cards, events are regulated on a state-by-state basis. Though each state is likely to uphold suspensions issued by other states, their handling of matters beyond that can be quite inconsistent.
Grooming for the Octagon
As just a small, but recent example, at #UFC206, held in Toronto, Canada, main card fighter Emil Weber Meek was forced to trim his beard by the Ontario Athletic Commission. While not the first fighter asked to minimize their facial hair before a bout, more egregious cases have gone uncontested.
#RoyNelson, for example, is notorious for his wild, messy beard (one of the sport’s most prominent), and has repeatedly worn it inside the Octagon. When opponent Daniel Cormier requested that the Texas Athletic Commission order Nelson to shave his beard, the request was denied.
While this is a relatively minor example, some instances may be deemed more egregious.
Under normal circumstances, a fighter is allowed a one-pound weight allowance above their designated division. A welterweight contestant, as a result, is allowed to weigh in at up to 171lbs. In a championship fight, this weight allowance is abolished. When #NickDiaz faced #GeorgesStPierre in Montreal, Canada, at UFC 158 for the UFC welterweight championship, St-Pierre was informed by the Quebec Athletic Commission that they would round his weight to the nearest decimal.
St-Pierre claimed that he tipped the scale at 170.4lbs, and would have indeed missed weight under the regulation of most other sanctioning bodies. Instead, he weighed in slightly heavier than is normally allowed. While this may seem insignificant, it was highly frustrating to Nick Diaz, and understandably so.
Jonathan Tweedale, Diaz’s lawyer at the time, issued the following statement.
"The Quebec Commission’s statement is a disappointing admission that the March 16 event was not conducted under the rules applicable to a UFC title fight – or under the rules the fighters contractually agreed to, upon which rules Mr. Diaz was entitled to rely under his bout agreement.
Section 168 of the Regulation respecting combat sports provides that the maximum weight that a fighter must achieve at the official weigh-in shall be determined in advance by contract – and if the fighter does not make the contracted weight – in this case 170 pounds – then 20% of his purse or "the contestant’s remuneration" will be deducted and paid to his opponent (subsections (7) and (8)). The contracted weight for this fight was 170 pounds. 170.9 is not 170, anywhere in the world, for a title fight. There is no question what '170 pounds' means, in the bout agreement, as a matter of contractual interpretation."
This is not simply a matter of splitting hairs. At the championship level, where victory and defeat are so often separated by paper-thin margins, Diaz could reasonably contend that St-Pierre was offered an advantage which, however slight, was unusual and unfair. St-Pierre is, of course, Canada’s greatest MMA export, and these feelings of unreasonable treatment may very well have been exacerbated by the arbiters of this questionable decision, the Quebec Athletic Commission.
More Tales From the Scales
Inconsistently handled weight issues are not an isolated incident. At UFC on FOX 12, #Matt Brown faced #RobbieLawler in the main event, a number one contender bout for the right to face then-welterweight champion, #JohnyHendricks. The event was held in San Jose and overseen by the California Athletic Commission.
Brown missed weight by a full 1.5lbs (undercard fighter Juliana Lima also missed weight), and under normal circumstances, both fighters would be fined a percentage of their purses, and become ineligible to win post-fight bonuses. Instead, no punishments were enacted, and Brown went on to win a Fight of the Night bonus for his performance against Lawler.
This was attributed to mass confusion backstage; fighters who miss weight are usually granted a two-hour grace period in which to reattempt to make the designated weight limit. Both Brown and Lima were informed by the California Athletic Commission that they would not be allowed a second opportunity to make weight. After discussing the matter with commission officials, Dana White and the California Athletic Commission agreed that there was miscommunication between officials and contestants, and that no punishments would be enacted.
Idiosyncrasies Among Commissions
Compare this to the recent UFC 205 card, the UFC’s debut event in New York. #KelvinGastelum was unable to make weight and did not even attempt to weigh-in. He was subsequently handed a six-month suspension by the New York Athletic Commission. In addition, Yoel Romero was suspended for sixty days for climbing the cage and temporarily exiting the octagon following his knockout victory over Chris Weidman.
Mounting and even leaving the cage is far from unusual, and to see a staunch punishment enacted for such a mundane gesture was nothing if not bizarre. By contrast, Jose Aldo, following a knockout victory over Chad Mendes, lept over the cage and celebrated joyously among the Brazilian crowd, with no punishments even proposed.
These idiosyncrasies affect fighters at every level. At Bellator 149, hosted in the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, #RoyceGracie was seen without hand wraps as he entered the cage against historic rival Ken Shamrock. Wrapping the hands is a near-universal requirement among athletic commissions, and to see a fighter enter a bout without such protections is highly unusual. Under pretty much any other jurisdiction, such a request would have been denied, and Gracie would have been forced to wrap his hands.
While the severity and impact of these inconsistencies varies heavily, it all serves to create a very confusing landscape. International consistency may be difficult to achieve, but state-to-state consistency should be a more manageable task. Separate governing bodies may be antagonistic towards the idea of streamlining their policies, but the idiosyncratic nature of MMA regulation is an issue felt most prominently by the fighters.
Where events or allowances are beyond the norm expected of government regulators, combatants may feel unfairly treated, victims of unfortunate circumstances beyond the scope of their control. For the fighters who form the basis of the sport we love, consistency and fairness are the least they can expect from a sport which batters their bodies, mangles their limbs, and deteriorates their mental faculties.
More streamlined regulation is something which would have minimal effect on fans, but could make an incredible difference to the lives of the fighters. That, in the end, is something important. Something of great value.