MMA for Dummies: A Guide for the Aspiring Fan
- “It’s basically pro-wrestling, right?”
- “What if some huge fighter gets in there with a small one? That seems unfair…’
- “Who would win between Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee in their prime?”
- “Simple: Just kick’em in the nuts!”
MMA is relatively new in France (where I’m from), and I figured it would be useful to break down the basics and bring some light to a sport I’ve enjoyed watching for years. I’ve decided to write a guide for beginners, including everything you need to know from the rules to the history of the sport, where to start, etc. Now that the French version has pretty much received critical acclaim across the board (2 friends told me it was funny), I decided to translate it in English as well, for you to join me in the wonderful world of MMA fandom.
But before we dive in, a word about myself.
My MMA Journey and expertise
While I would love to tell you that I have a bunch of shiny belts to show for, I’m really just a fan of the sport with no fighting experience appart from being pretty good at Tekken. I started like most people by downloading gruesome knockout videos online as a teenager, before starting to follow more intently around 2013/2014.
I lived in Ireland at the time and some colleagues started telling me about Conor McGregor, an up-and-coming MMA fighter on the verge of getting signed by the UFC, MMA’s largest organisation. I had watched fights before, but now I was starting to check out the interviews, read about the classic rivalries, revisit older fights… I was hooked. And here I am, years later, ruining most of my weekends by staying up until dawn to watch the fights (when I’m in France, as most fights broadcast on US time). What a ride.
In other words, I have no qualifications except being a fan, and being fluent in English, which allows me to translate MMA content to my Francophone readers (more on that at the end of the post).
Now that we established my expertise (or lack thereof), let’s get to it!
What’s an MMA, anyway?
MMA, standing for “Mixed Martial Arts”, is a full-contact sport. Sometimes referred to as “cage fighting”, it’s based on bringing various martial arts together to create a complete mix: Fighters can kick, punch, clinch, grapple, fight on the ground and submit their opponent.
At its core, the concept is similar to tournaments in video games like Street Fighter for example. What if you were to lock a Muay Thai fighter and a boxer in a cage, who would win in a fight? What about an electric man beast from the jungle and a guy from Spain wearing a mask and wielding sharp metal claws? Those are legit things we needed to know as a species, and that’s how I figure MMA was born.
History of the sport
For an actual history of the sport, please refer to the Wikipedia page which is quite complete, instead of me copying and pasting it here. But basically, we can go back as far as Pancration in Greece, and especially to Vale Tudo and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu to find the origins of modern MMA.
Looking into the relationship between Japan and Brazil is very interesting. It started a long time ago and still has an impact today, but it was in the early 20th century that the Brazilian Gracie family was exposed to Judo and traditional Jujitsu by a Japanese Judoka traveling in Brazil. This was the starting point for the creation of what would become Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art favouring ground fighting and technique instead of brute force and blows.
After immigrating to the United States and opening gyms across the country, one of the Gracie family members, Rorion, teamed up with businessmen in the 1980s to create the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a tournament where different fighters compete to see who’s the strongest. Success came quickly for the promotion despite a dodgy reputation. Fights were taking place in an Octagon (an 8-sided cage), and everything quickly went off the rails at the time (let’s be honest): No weight classes, not a lot of rules either, some guys fighting with clothing, others in boxer briefs, kicking in the face with shoes on…. it was a big ole mess.
Soon the UFC was getting into trouble with regulating bodies and the moral police. But with time, things started taking off in other places, notably with PRIDE in Japan, and that’s when two Vegas casino guys, the Fertitta brothers, teamed up with their boxing promoter friend Dana White to buy the UFC. They saw potential, and wanted to turn MMA into a “clean” sport.
Call it a hunch, because they bought the organisation in 2001 for $1M, and sold it in 2016 for $4B.
Let’s go over the rules quickly so you can get the gist, and start enjoying some fighting. We will concentrate on the Unified Rules of MMA, defined by the Nevada Athletic Commission and pretty much universal across the board. Some organisations such as ONE Championship are mixing it up a bit but overall, it’s more of the same:
- Length of a fight:
3 five-minute rounds for normal fights / 5 five-minute rounds if a championship title is on the line, and for main events.
- Weight classes:
Fighters are organised in weight classes, to ensure that athletes are roughly the same size as their opponent, and to guarantee everyone’s safety. Because human nature of course, this is definitely not what happens: Since weigh-ins take place the day before fights, athletes usually “cut weight”, meaning that they try to lose a maximum amount of weight, dehydrating and starving themselves, to try and fight in a category that’s lower than their “real” one, thus gaining an advantage.
This is not unique to MMA and happens in most combat sports, but it’s quite ridiculous and very dangerous. Because everyone cuts weight, athletes are forced to roll with it unless they want to fight against guys that are 20 pounds heavier than them on fight day. There is an alternative to this system, practiced by ONE Championship and mentioned later in this article.
Anyway, these are the weight classes:
- Judging criteria:
The only person in the cage along with the fighters is a referee, responsible for the protection of the athletes and for stopping the fight if necessary. There are three judges on the side, watching and scoring the fights. Each round is scored 10 points for the winner and 9 for the loser, or even 8 if it was really one-sided. Points can also be deducted in case of a foul. Judging is based on:
- Significant strikes and effective wrestling: Who’s dealing the more effective blows, taking down the opponent effectively, etc
- Aggression: Who is pushing the pace, goes after it?
- Cage control: Who’s controlling the center of the mat, dictating the rhythm?
With the unified rules, there seems to be a push for giving out more 10–8 rounds in order to force fighters to engage and not play it safe (although it is questionable whether there’s anything safe about all of this). Also note that depending on where the fight happens, the regulating body is different and the judges are not always familiar with MMA, leading to questionable decisions. New York, where MMA was legalised a few years ago, is notoriously bad in that regard.
- How can a fight end?
It goes without saying but a fight can end by Knockout (KO) if one the fighters loses consciousness due to strikes, Technical Knockout (TKO) if the referee has to jump in and stop the fight due to a fighter not defending him/herself, or Submission when a fighter gives up either verbally, by tapping, or by losing consciousness due to a choke for example.
Finally, if the fight goes on for the entirety of the rounds, judges will hand over their scorecard for a decision that can be either unanimous, split, or even a draw. In rare cases, fights can also be scored as no-contests, in case of a forbidden strike given in good faith for example.
- What is not allowed?
It’s getting juicy! In MMA, fighters can do a lot of things, but not quite everything. For the mot part it’s common sense, if you think something is too fucked up, it’s probably a foul. Here’s a short list of the main things fighters cannot do in the cage:
- Eye gouging, fish hooking or hair pulling
- Biting or spitting at an opponent
- Striking to the spine or the back of the head.
- Throat strikes of any kind, and/or grabbing the trachea
- Downward pointing elbow strike (’12 to ‘6 strike)
- Groin attacks of any kind
- Kneeing and/or kicking the head of a grounded opponent
- Stomping a grounded opponent
- Holding or grabbing the fence or ropes with fingers or toes
You apparently also cannot “throw an opponent outside the cage”, but I would love to see someone try. You can find the full list of illegal strikes in the Unified Rules of MMA here.
- General questions
To answer some general ones: Yes Women fight in MMA, fighters wear 6oz gloves and I believe Bruce Lee would beat Mike Tyson in MMA in their prime thanks to his kicks. DON’T COME @ ME.
Now that you have a good base understanding of the sport and its rules, what are the different MMA organisations?
The main MMA Promotions
Much like many athletes in other sports, MMA fighters can evolve in different leagues, each with their specificities, formats and politics. While the rules are generally the same, there are some exceptions.
So what are the different promotions currently operating in the world of MMA?
- Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
MMA is intrinsically linked to the UFC, almost synonymous at times. It is the largest MMA Organisation in the world, generally considered the “best”, with the largest talent pool.
Athletes usually start fighting in local promotions, then move on to a larger professional league in hope of being signed by the UFC. This is not always true, as we’ve seen in the past some of the most gifted athletes (Fedor Emelianenko) never make the transition to the UFC, but it is generally a fact for the average fan, as a result of the popularity and the power of the organisation.
Let’s call a spade a spade, Bellator is considered by most like UFC’s little brother. Aside from the cage being round, the presentation of the fighters slightly different and a smaller bank account, the two brands are relatively similar, hence the difficulty for Bellator to stand out.
Many athletes start their pro career in Bellator, hoping to then move on to the UFC, while others finish their post-UFC career there. This is not always the case however, with fighters like Michael Venom Page who chooses to stay in Bellator despite his status, or Gegard Mousasi, one of the world’s best middleweight in my opinion, who decided to leave the UFC to go there.
There are a bunch of reasons why a fighter would chose Bellator over the UFC:
- Conflicts between fighters and the UFC regularly make headlines, while Bellator athletes regularly praise their relationship with the promotion.
- A deal with Bellator could be, contrary to popular belief, more interesting financially for some fighters. Most likely because huge stars are monopolising the attention (and income) in the UFC.
- The perception that Bellator is a more “fair” and less US-centric organisation for athletes -especially Europeans- in terms of fighting opportunities.
Despite all these qualities, public opinion is for the most part focused on the UFC and a Bellator champion, as dominant as he can be, will always be considered as second-zone compared to their UFC counterpart.
- ONE Championship
One Championship is a very interesting use case for competitive positioning, which I went over in another article. Contrary to Bellator which decided to stick closely to the UFC format, ONE Championship, ailing from Singapore, embraces its Asian heritage to its core and embodies it through its traditional martial arts values, brand image, and communication .
Not only does the promotion makes it a point to stay clear of American, pro wrestling-style sensationalism (trash talk, disrespect and showboating for publicity’s sake) but it also pushes forward different sports (MMA, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Lethwei), branding itself as “The home of Martial Arts”.
It’s worth checking a ONE event for the cultural shock, the level of competition and the rules, slightly different than in other leagues: Kicking the head of a grounded opponent is allowed, so are ‘12 to 6’ elbows. Additionally, the promotion introduced a “walking weight” system, ensuring that athletes don’t cut weight. This is amazing in my opinion, a true game changer for the safety of athletes but also for the fans, making weight classes more accurate, and levelling the playing field for true competition.
- Professional Fighters League (PFL) and others
The PFL is an up-and-coming promotion, using the same unified rules of MMA in a decagon (10 sides). It is the first organisation to introduce a season system with a championship and playoffs, an interesting take I’m curious to check out when the fights start again.
There are a lot of other local, professional or amateur promotions throughout the world. As MMA evolves and becomes more mainstream, I think we will see a lot more initiatives such as PFL or ARES FC, the first Afro-European MMA league. To get started with MMA however, UFC should do the trick, sprinkled with a bit of Bellator and ONE from time to time.
Now that we’ve covered the rules, the different promotions and the history of the sport, are you ready to watch fights?
How to watch fights live?
It all depends on your geographical location. Depending on your country, you might be able to catch fights in your TV package, on ESPN for the UFC or DAZN for Bellator, or even live on their Youtube channel. ONE Championship, on their end, broadcasts directly on their app.
When it comes to the biggest UFC events, the company works in the US with a “Pay Per View” (PPV) system much like boxing, forcing you to dish out 50 bucks to watch. Yikes!
In France, PPV events are available on UFC Fight Pass, a suscription-based streaming service featuring lots of content. That’s personally what I use when I’m in Europe, otherwise on the other side of the pond I’m generally catching the fights at a bar, an interesting experience if you’re not used to the UFC crowd, that I hope to talk about at a later date in another article.
There’s plenty of way to catch the fights! I won’t go any further in suggesting how to watch them for free, but I’ve no doubt that some of you sneaky ones already have an idea.
What to do until the next fights?
I’m glad that you’re eager to continue your MMA journey, this is the fun part now! Before the next fight airs (probably next weekend), you have a few options: Watch past fights, check out MMA-related content online, read MMA books, watch movies… Here are my recommendations.
Watch classic fights
A good way to get started and develop your understanding of the sport is to watch past fights hailed as some of the greatest. Between YouTube and the various apps, most of them are available online. To get you started, here are some of my all-time favorites, including links. They are mainly UFC fights since that’s what I watch most of the time:
⚠️ Content Warning: These fights are quite violent / bloody. Not for the faint of heart! ⚠️
- Jorge Masvidal vs Ben Askren (UFC 239): A perfect introduction to MMA with a clash (pun intended) between a high-level kickboxer and a renowned wrestler. Don’t blink!
- Mark Hunt vs Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva (UFC fight Night 33): A legendary heavyweight fight between two absolute units, both ending up drenched in blood. Bigfoot was suspended for elevated testosterone levels after the fight, but it’s still an all-time great moment.
- Michael Bisping vs Luke Rockhold 2 (UFC 199): One of the best storyline of the sport in my opinion, Michael Bisping’s rise to the top culminates here as he competes on two weeks notice for the Middleweight belt against cocky champion Luke Rockhold.
- Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 1 (UFC 196): Conor McGregor at the peak of his career facing Nate Diaz, an eccentric character expert in Brazilian Jiujitsu, mean mugging and and slapping opponents in the cage.
- Robbie Lawler vs. Rory McDonald (UFC 189): Pure VIOLENCE, a scary amount of damage taken and received on both end, super gruesome.
- Ronda Rousey vs Holly Holm (UFC 193): Ronda Rousey, Judo Olympien and dominant champion who was systematically destroying all her opponents, faces an experienced boxer/kickboxer decisively not fucking around at all.
- Cheick Kongo vs Pat Barry (UFC on Versus 4): One of the most impressive comebacks in the history of the UFC. By a French champion! 🇫🇷
- Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama (PRIDE 21): One of the very first fights that really took my breaths away. These guys are just going for it and they look both terrifying and somewhat hilarious doing so.
- Any fight with Francis Ngannou (quite handy as well, because it rarely exceeds a minute).
You’ve got quite a lot to go over! There are obviously many more, but these are a good place to start. Be careful not to watch them all at once however, or symptoms such as shadowboxing in your living room or destroying a door for no reason might start showing up.
Movies / Books
There are a few MMA movies and plenty of MMA books written by athletes or coaches, but out of principle I will only recommend the ones I have personally enjoyed and given my seal of quality. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know!
I honestly can’t think of any good MMA movies except for this one, so that’s already a strong selling point.
Despite some inconsistencies (bad Russian dude supposedly in the same weight category as the hero despite being twice as big), the movie checks all the boxes: great actors, good fighting, no rubbish love storyline, and of course a training camp montage with dope music that makes you want to go and run up the street punching the air at 11pm…
It doesn’t get any better than that!
Extra points for featuring some MMA figures in the movie.
- Michael Bisping — Quitters Never Win & Mark Hunt — Born to fight
Two of my favorite fighters’ biographies. Mark Hunt, mentioned above among the classic fights, had a big career in kickboxing and MMA in several organisations, and is an overall savage renowned for his walk-off KOs. The book tells us more about his heavy background and coming up as a young fighter, it’s a tough read but gives insight into his character and how the ‘Super Samoan’ came to be.
Michael Bisping also has an entertaining story, from being a British loudmouth lad without much direction to becoming the UFC Middleweight campion of the world. His book is a fun read, a sneak peak into what it took for “The Count” to get to the top, from great victories to terrible defeats, without ever losing sights of his goal, even with only one eye!
There are plenty of cool MMA sources, websites and social media profiles to follow but this is what I consider to be the crème de la crème MMA starter pack, everything you need whether you’re looking to stay up to date with the sport, see someone get punched in the face or have a good laugh:
- MMA Digest: The absolute best MMA channel on YouTube. Short, no-nonsense videos, quality original content with inside jokes and even exclusive interviews. If you need to follow only one MMA-related channel, that’s the one.
- Sherdog: One of the reference website for the entire sport: Fighter records, cards details, Pound for Pound and division rankings, forums… It’s a great independent source for you to get your info.
- UFC, Bellator and ONE Championship Youtube channels: Great resources to get promotional content, they each do a great job of posting old fights and pumping content ahead of big cards, especially the UFC Marketing machine with series such as Embedded, which follows the fighters all week.
- Bloody Elbow: Real investigative journalism and critical thinking within the sport of MMA. Bloody Elbow brings meaningful content, beyond the fight results and generic headlines. Very valuable if you want to explore the sport deeper than the surface level.
- Social networks: I mainly use Twitter to keep up to date with MMA news, but Reddit also boasts nice communities of fans to get updates, and of course Instagram which is a must to follow fighter accounts and of course memes.
- Uncle Joey’s MMA Edits: Some of the best edits on Youtube, each video usually focuses on a fighter or a theme. Not very active as of late but great content.
- ESPN MMA: Massive Youtube channel from the American network, featuring interviews, shows, panels etc. Mostly good content even though it can get pretty fan-serving at times, but still worth it to enjoy commentary from influential figures such as Ariel Helwani, Chael Sonnen or Daniel Cormier.
- Podcasts: Those are a big thing in MMA, probably because of Joe Rogan, who you might have heard about. There’s too many to list and to be completely honest they mostly all say the same thing, so I recommend picking a fighter or a commentator you find fun to listen to, and just following that one. I personally like Bisping’s.
This is the end of the road for this guide, but hopefully the beginning of a great love story between you and MMA. I hope that this article helped you understand the sport a little better, you now have everything you need to start becoming an annoying fan like myself among you family and friends.
If by any chance you speak French or are trying to learn(why would you, that’s beyond me), I’ve recently started running a weekly newsletter called La Bagarre, covering MMA in 5 minutes every Monday.
Thanks for reading!