Is it Time for an Eye-Gouging Reform in MMA?

Eye-gouging is a pretty serious issue in MMA. It seems like every year the MMA community revisits the same talking points on MMA rules and changes they would like to see. And every year we experience the same story; we’ll discuss rule changes, then personalities like Joe Rogan, Ariel Helwani, and John McCarthy will weigh in but the rules will largely stay the same.

We can debate knees to a grounded opponent, weight classes, and judging for another few decades however there is an urgent rule that we can reform now and make a massive difference; Eye-gouging. Since 2001 there have been minor updates in MMA rules but no major changes. After 20 years let’s revisit and update some of the rules of our sport.

Quick History of MMA Rules

At UFC 1 in 1993, the event was advertised ‘no rules’ although it did have three: no eye-gouging, no biting, & no groin strikes. Any violation of these three rules would result in a $1,500 fine, not a disqualification.

1995 at UFC 5 time limits are used for the first time, later in the same year at UFC 8 judges were added in case fighters fought past the time limit. 1997 at UFC 14 gloves are required, previously fights were bare-knuckle but fighters could optionally wear gloves. In 1999 at UFC 21 the 10 point scoring system that is used in boxing is now to be used in MMA.

Shortly after the purchase of the UFC by Zuffa (Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta, and Dana White) from SEG in 2001, the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were adopted for MMA. These are the rules in which we recognize today and include rules such as no strikes to the back of the head, no 12-6 elbow, no knees to a grounded fighter’s head, also new weight classes adopted. Since 2001 there have been minor changes however we are still largely using the same MMA rules, judging criteria, and equipment from 20 years ago.

Eye-Gouging and Enforcement

Just this past weekend at UFC Vegas 21we saw Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad fight to a no-contest due to an accidental eye poke which rendered Muhammad unable to continue. Eye-gouging is against the rules however it was ruled a no-contest due to it being unintentional. However, this was not the case in 2018 when Megan Anderson was given a victory when her toenail gouged the eye of Cat Zingano, officially called a TKO eye injury. It was also not the case in 2008 when Anthony Johnson lost to Kevin Burns officially by way of TKO eye pokes.

Or, perhaps, an eye poke will force a fight to go to a technical decision as we saw twice in 2013 on UFC 159. Alan Belcher was unable to continue against Michael Bisping at the end of round 3 due to an eye poke, and Ovince Saint Preux accidentally eye poked Gian Villante; so both fights went to a technical decision and in both fights, the rule-breaker was awarded the victory.

There is no clear standard rule on what should happen with eye pokes in MMA. Sometimes in MMA this rule break results in a victory for the rule offender, sometimes it’s a no-contest, sometimes a technical decision, but most of the time nothing happens.

Nothing happened between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier when the two traded torn retinas and torn corneas. Despite Miocic and Cormier fighting in heavyweight title fights, no point deductions were given, no punishment for the rule break was awarded. Jon Jones has a notorious history with eye pokes that have earned him multiple warnings from referees but never a point deduction, he has never been punished for a gratuitous rule violation that he is well aware of. There are many more examples of fighters using eye-gouging techniques and go unpunished, and there are very few examples of fighters being punished.

An MMA fighter in a UFC title fight is absolutely is aware and knows the rules. Instead of enforcing the rules referees choose to give warnings instead. Eye-gouging is the oldest rule in the sport and is the least enforced. How many warnings until a point deduction, and how many until a disqualification loss? These are decisions made by the referee but what we most commonly see is no enforcement of a well-known rule.

Proposed Resolution: Enforce instant point deductions for clear eye-pokes, eye-gouging, and eye-rakes, even if the eye poke is accidental. Fighters know the rules. Warnings are not enforcing anything nor are they helping save fighters from major eye injuries. There should be a clearly defined standard.

Eye-Gouging and MMA Gloves

“These gloves suck,” Justin Gaethje, UFC lightweight, said during an eye poke exchange in his fight with Dustin Poirier. Many fighters have added their voices to this movement demanding new UFC gloves. The UFC has been in talks about this issue since at least 2013 and no action has been done. “We actually have started to work on a new glove,” Dana White, UFC president, commented in 2013, “the glove is curved like a ‘U,’ so you can still open your hand, but your fingers don’t point straight out.” This was following UFC 159.

Comparing the UFC to PRIDE gloves shows clearly that there can be a simple solution by curving a fighter’s fingers downward. Eye-gouging was fairly rare in PRIDE.

While gloves are a factor it is worth noting, in this instance, eye-gouging may have more to do with the style of fighting than it is just the gloves alone. PANCRASE fought with open palm strikes and oddly did not have any issue with eye-gouging. In addition, early UFC’s and current bare-knuckle boxing with neither had gloves and neither had eye-gouging and eye-poking issues. Additionally, Bellator with Everlast went out of their way to develop a safer glove; however, the first event with these gloves featured eye poke violations.

It seems like the fighters’ style will continue to develop and change. The biggest change from early UFC’s, the PRIDE era, and PANCRASE is an increase in framing usage in recent years. See framing examples with Floyd Mayweather and Israel Adesanya.

Proposed resolution: Glove update. Current gloves are existing that can be brought into usage. Notably, MMA trainer Trevor Whittman has a glove design ready.

Eye-gouging, eye pokes, and eye rakes can cause permanent damage to a fighter. We understand the need and urgency for changes. We are not seeking massive reform with these resolutions; instead, we desire to see small changes being made that can make massive differences. Clear enforcement of clearly defined rules, plus an update to the gloves should both be enacted by the UFC immediately in an effort to ensure fighter safety.

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