November 12, 1993 was the first time the world laid eyes on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). What was then a barbaric spectacle, pushed as fights that could end only “by knockout, submission or death,” has become a multi-billion dollar organization featuring brilliant athletes, huge sponsorships, massive broadcast deals and year-round drug testing.

The UFC, its trademark Octagon and many of the fighters within it are now a part of the pop culture lexicon. While boxing has produced global sports icons, stars such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey could only be the product of mixed martial arts and the UFC’s blend of sport and spectacle.

Just as the stars inside the cage are unique products of the sport, it’s difficult to imagine another league or organization having a figurehead like Dana White.

UFC President White is a pitbull when upset and is quick to drop an “f-bomb” in his angriest or happiest moments. This has made him a beloved figure to many in the MMA community and established him as the face of the UFC regardless of what controversy he may stir up.

The branding of the UFC revolves around this mixture of pageantry and raw, unfiltered emotion. But behind the simplicity of “it’s just fighting” is a sport filled with rules and techniques unfamiliar to the untrained eye.

Let’s take a look at what you need to know if you’re new to the world of the UFC.

The Rules

The UFC follows the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, a set of rules adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissions. Local athletic commissions oversee events except in locations that do not have an established sanctioning body, in these cases the UFC oversees the event themselves while adhering to the unified rules.

Fights comprise three, five-minute rounds, with the exception of so-called “main events” and title fights, which take place over five, five-minute rounds.

The fights are scored by three judges who utilize a “10-point must system.” Under this scoring system, the winner of each round must be awarded 10 points (unless there is a rule violation) while the loser of the round is awarded nine or fewer points depending on the level of dominance displayed over the course of five minutes. In the event a round has no clear winner, a judge may score a round 10-10.

If neither man is knocked out or submitted, the judges’ scores are totaled and a winner is declared. If all three judges favor one fighter, it’s considered unanimous; a split decision means one of the three judges disagreed with the other two. (A draw is also possible, if the points total is even.)

Rules of the bout tend to focus on what fighters may not do. They cannot:

  • Bite
  • Headbutt
  • Gouge the eyes
  • Pull hair
  • Fishhook (ie, putting ones fingers in an opponent’s mouth or nose)
  • Grab the fence with fingers or toes
  • Strike to the groin
  • Throw a downward “12-6” elbow strike
  • Kick or knee the head of a downed opponent
  • Manipulate small joints (fingers or toes)
  • Spike an opponent on their head or neck

The full list of possible infractions is slightly longer, and includes a prohibition against pinching, for example. It’s true: You may kick an opponent in the head, you may attempt to extend their limbs so far they break or cut the blood flow off to their brain with various chokes … but you must not pinch.

Fouls may result in warnings, point deductions or disqualifications at the referee’s discretion.

Fights also take place in designated weight classes. Fighters weigh in the day before the fights, often putting themselves through a grueling process of dehydration before stepping on the scales to make weight. Once their weight is official, they begin rehydrating and often step in the cage much heavier than they were a little over 24 hours prior.

In non-title fights, there is a one pound weight allowance. So, for example, a fighter may weigh in at 171 pounds for a welterweight (170 pound) bout. That one pound allowance does not exist in title fights.

When a fighter fails to make weight their opponent may choose to not go ahead with the fight. However, the standard procedure is 20 percent of the offending fighter’s pay (30 percent in egregious cases) is forfeited to their opponent and the fight goes ahead as planned.

Knockouts and Submissions

Knockouts and submissions aren’t only emphatic ways to achieve victory, they’re an opportunity to take home a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus from the UFC.

A knockout is arguably the most visceral moment in sports. A punch, elbow, knee or kick dropping a man or woman to the canvas is not hard to figure out and we understand it on some sort of instinctual level.

A technical knockout (TKO) occurs when a fighter cannot intelligently defend against incoming attacks, resulting in the referee calling a halt to the action in the interest of safety. These finishes can feel unsatisfying at times — especially when the losing fighter appears to want to continue fighting — but are necessary to prevent long-term injury.

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In 2013, the UFC released their top 20 knockouts in their first 20 years, giving some context for the variety of violence you may see in the cage.

Unlike the intuitive nature of striking, understanding the finer points of grappling in MMA can take some time.

Wrestling and jiu jitsu have long been staples in the octagon. Royce Gracie’s Brazilian jiu jitsu stylings put the UFC on the map. He racked up an 11-0-1 record across the promotion’s first five events despite looking like the least threatening man in the arena.

The submission game is based on attacking arms, legs and the neck in an attempt to wrench a joint or sink a choke to the point where an opponent must “tap, snap or nap.” That is, tap out to end the contest, face serious injury or, in the case of a blood choke, be rendered unconscious.

An armbar, kimura, rear-naked choke, guillotine choke, kneebar, heel hook or any other submission depends very much on the attacking fighter being positioned correctly to finish the fight. Because of this, you may hear the old fight adage of “position before submission” from the commentary team during a UFC broadcast. Attempt a submission without establishing the correct positioning and a fighter may quickly go from attacker to defender.

Here is a collection of some of the greatest submissions in UFC history to welcome you to the “gentle art” of the grappling game:

While there are plenty of intricacies to an MMA fight, it is, in the end, a fight and humans understand fighting.

Dana White likes to quote boxing analyst Max Kellerman when explaining the UFC’s appeal.

“If you take four street corners, and on one they are playing baseball, on another they are playing basketball and on the other, street hockey. On the fourth corner, a fight breaks out. Where does the crowd go? They all go to the fight.”

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