Discussing MMA rule changes with Tom Supnet - Idaho Central Arena
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Discussing MMA rule changes with Tom Supnet

As Scott Thometz and David Castillo tap gloves at the center of the cage at Front Street Fights 9 on August 12th, fight fans at CenturyLink Arena and watching around the world will be focused on strikes landed, on arm-bars, and on choke-holds. What may not be at the forefront of every viewer’s mind is what will certainly be in the minds of the judges and the fighters- the rules.

Despite the focus on strategy and compete-level that dominates every mixed martial arts fight, the rules in place can affect how those fighters approach a bout. Those rules may experience some changes soon.

Last week, the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) voted overwhelmingly to approve several modifications to the Unified Rules of MMA. Those changes affect both the athletes and judges to varying degrees. Judges will be encouraged to approach scoring rounds differently, while fighters will now have a few more tools in their tool belt to use inside the cage.

These rule changes will not be a factor at Front Street Fights 9, according to Tom Supnet, the Head of Officials for the Idaho Athletic Commission. Supnet notes that the ABC will not be implementing the rule changes until possibly January, and he would like to take the time to discuss the modifications and their potential impact.

“I’m going to review them with the officials,” said Supnet, who has been the Head of Officials since May but has been working in mixed martial arts for 15 years. “They are slight changes, but we want to see how they go, too. “

Some of the suggested changes are subtle, says Supnet, and reflect efforts that were already being taken in Idaho. For example, judges have already been encouraged to score more 10-8 rounds, as opposed to 10-9 rounds.

“A lot of times over the years, you would have two rounds where one corner gets one round and the other corner gets the next round, and let’s say they’re both scored 10-9,” explained Supnet. “Yet you know in your mind that one 10-9 round was stronger than the other and it would create a gray area there. We’ve been trying to do more 10-8, so that basically a 10-9 should be viewed as a closer round.”

In judging those rounds, Supnet cites a set of priorities judges use when deciding. Strikes and grappling are most prominently looked at, with strikes having the most impact and effect. When that is judged equal between the fighters, and only then, judges will consider the element of aggression. If those are all equal, footwork and cage control, who dictates the pace of the fight, will come into play.

“As far as the 10-8 rounds, they’ve changed it so that dominance, direction, and damage are the three factors,” said Supnet. “If you get two of those three, you would consider scoring it a 10-8. If you get three of the three, you must judge it 10-8.”

While adjustments for judges would require less of a learning curve, rule changes for fighters might have a greater impact. The most controversial rule change, a rule voted against by the New Jersey commission while Mississippi’s abstained and Tennessee’s declined to vote, changes the definition of a ‘downed fighter’. The new rule claims that a fighter is ‘downed’ when he has two hands or fists on the ground, where the previous rule only required one hand to be down on the mat. A downed fighter cannot be kicked or kneed in the head by their opponent.

“So what was happening was some of the fighters started to get in a position and would put a finger on the ground so as to say, ‘I’m down, you can’t kick me in the head.’ It got to be that a fighter would put his finger down and someone would initiate a kick and then they’d put the finger back down,” said Supnet, showing how fighters were trying to lure their opponents into illegal head kicks to earn fouls.

Officials in Idaho were successful in managing this problem because they spoke to fighters extensively before fights to explain how the rule would be applied, insisting that fighters would only be considered down if they put considerable weight on that downed hand, rather than just a finger. Such communication might be more effective, and safer for the fighters, than the current rule change being discussed.

“I think we’ve done pretty well adjusting for the way the rule is written and explaining it a certain way,” said Supnet. “Not only do I personally do the group meetings, but I also go and speak one-on-one to the fighters I will be personally refereeing and explain the rules very thoroughly so that there’s no question when they get out there.”

With the rule change codified, fighters would be vulnerable to head kicks if they were using one arm to push themselves off the mat, as many fighters would. Fighters would not commonly use two hands in getting up, meaning far more fighters would be open to kicks or knees above the shoulders.

“A lot of fighters are going to want to be able to use one hand to get up. It’s going to take them a while to get confident enough to keep both fists on the ground,” reasoned Supnet. “I wouldn’t want to do it because even if it’s a rule, I’m vulnerable to get whacked in the head by an illegal kick with both fists on the ground.”

Uniformity in the rules is beneficial for the sport, but it’s also important for judges and referees to have a uniformed understanding.

Supnet currently is not authorized to formally certify referees, but he is able to informally update them on matters such as current rule changes. Yet a standardized curriculum for referees, using the teaching materials of industry giants that Supnet has worked with like John McCarthy and Herb Dean, can help Idaho officials keep pace with the rapidly growing sport. Supnet is considering seeking that authorization so that he can better prepare Idaho’s officials.

“The referees and judges we have in Boise are already good, but the one thing that I’ll bring in is to keep them current on the changes,” said Supnet. “I’ll get the formal education and I’ll bring it home to let everyone know what we’re moving towards.”

There will be no new regulations in place when Castillo and Thometz tangle, but knowing they may be on the horizon may just have everyone watching the cage just a little bit closer.