It has been argued before: The UFC’s rule against kneeing the head of an opponent while the opponent is on the ground should be overturned. Lately, however, the sport could stand to revisit this rule given some of the latest fights, the evolution of styles and the momentum of the sport.
First, I will confess—kneeing a grounded opponent can be extremely dangerous. In fact, it may potentially be the most vicious move in the sport, as most of us remember from the old days of PRIDE.
Despite this, it may be time to correct this with careful fighting, not legislation.
During a pre-fight press conference held before UFC 110, Dana White explained that he wouldn’t mind legalizing knees on the ground, so long as the people are ready to accept the new rule.
“Eventually, when the whole world isn't afraid of this sport anymore, then we can add knees to the head,” White said.
Wanderlei Silva, who will fight Rich Franklin in a rematch at next week’s UFC 147, expressed his favor of knees on the ground nearly a year after White did the same in an interview with HDNet’s Michael Schiavello (via MMAFighting.com):
Kicks on the ground, maybe no, but I think guys need to use knees on the ground because sometimes guys will just put their four points on the ground so you can't hit them. I think in the future if I could change some things, I would allow knees to the ground and maybe take out the elbows.
Silva’s words explain the timeliness of reintroducing this debate. The main event of last month’s UFC 146—Cain Velasquez vs. Antonio Silva—was one of the bloodiest fights we’ve seen recently. Velasquez threw his elbows in Silva’s face while Silva worked hard to defend from his back. Silva held out for a while, but eventually lost by TKO. More immediately in the fight, though, he lied covered in blood from the sharp strikes of Velasquez’s elbows.
After the fight, Bigfoot Silva’s trainer, Alex Davis, expressed his hope that elbows would be banned given the bloody results of that fight.
I also think that elbows on the ground should not be allowed. For the most part, they cause cuts, which are different then KOs, TKOs or Subs. They also tend to make a bloody mess, sometimes from relatively minor damage, and this does not help MMA as it tends to alienate many people to the sport.
Here, we see the alternative that Wanderlei Silva was talking about. Elbows are sharp strikes that chip away at an opponent, often by cutting at the face. Knees on the ground, while much more dangerous, actually have a tactical use.
And so we’re two arguments to answer. The first, which is the effectiveness of knees on the ground as a tactical move, is fairly established. I admit, fighters have (like all intelligent people) found ways to win fights around the current rule. Silva’s addressing the “four points on the ground” speaks to that immediately. There’s also the “lay-and-pray” strategy that secures points for a fighter and runs down the clock.
It seems to me, though, that strategizing around a rule that protects the fighter and not the fight will ultimately ruin the sport. In fact, it’s beginning to spoil other sports like football, where the violence between players has garnered more attention than what the sport asks of them.
Interestingly, football is dealing with the exact opposite of MMA from an entertainment perspective. Where football is reconsidering what makes it fan- and family-friendly, MMA is understanding how to become those things. Naturally, it all comes down to the violence.
This, then, is our second argument to consider. MMA has a storied history—a history that includes knees on the ground—that it cannot ignore. As it moves closer to both strict state-wide and world-wide regulation and international popularity, these choices need to be considered with more discretion for the public eye than before.
Bigfoot’s cut at UFC 146 is one of those moments where the public eye is upon the sport, waiting for the reaction. However, MMA may be at a place now where these things can be considered without worrying as much about the public’s general concerns as before.
Of course, people will still consider the sport violent—it is, after all, a combat sport and knees on the ground limns that violence. In the end, though, it’s more acceptable as an effective technique than others (like elbows on the ground) given the defenses—such as touching the ground or lay-and-pray—that have evolved from it.
Now that we’ve seen many cases of the sport’s integrity changing from this rule bending, seen the effects of the alternatives and gained a certain status as an international sport, it’s time to begin creating rules that protect the identity of that sport. It shouldn’t happen overnight, but this argument needs to begin anew on the new foundation of MMA as a sport.