How the Ultimate Fighting Championship Works

ufc fight image
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Unlike boxing, where athletes can only strike with their fists and only above the belt, the UFC's rules allow competitors to use punches, kicks, elbows, knee strikes, takedowns and submissions to win a contest.

"I've been to everything. I've been to the NBA finals. I've gone to a Super Bowl. I've gone to big playoff games, and I've been to big fights here in Las Vegas. I don't think any other sporting event stacks up to it." What sport tops basketball, football and boxing? According to its president, Dana White, it's the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The UFC bills itself as the premier Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organization, but its history is filled with highs, lows and controversy. After nearly folding in the late 1990s, the UFC reinvented itself and attracted new legions of fans.

The UFC organizes, promotes and hosts MMA events, which feature several bouts. Each bout is a fight between two different competitors. Like boxing, the fights are divided into rounds and are under the supervision of a referee, although MMA events are more complex than a typical boxing match.

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Standard UFC bouts have a limit of three rounds (championship bouts have a limit of five), with five minutes to a round. Fighters get a one-minute break between rounds. Unlike boxing, where athletes can only strike with their fists and only above the belt, the UFC's rules allow competitors to use punches, kicks, elbows, knee strikes, takedowns and submissions to win a contest. Fighters are allowed to strike each other both above and below the belt (with a few restrictions). Early in its history the UFC claimed that its events featured no-holds-barred (NHB) fighting, but this is a misnomer. Even the earliest UFC fights had rules that all athletes were expected to follow. These included:

  • No gouging
  • No fish hooking (using your fingers to "hook" an opponent's mouth)
  • No strikes to the groin

Thank You
Thanks to UFC President Dana White for his help with this article.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission, which regulates all boxing and martial arts exhibitions in the state of Nevada, identifies 31 fouls. Athletes who commit fouls can be penalized or even disqualified. Not all fouls are directly related to physical violence -- for example, you commit a foul if you hold on to the fence, use abusive language while inside the ring, fake an injury or drop your mouthpiece on purpose to delay the fight. A complete list of the fouls can be found on the UFC Web site.

In addition, the UFC adheres to the Nevada State Athletic Commission's drug policy, which expressly forbids the use of recreational or performance-enhancing drugs. Fighters who test positive for drugs before a bout are not allowed to fight and may face additional disciplinary action. If a fighter wins and it is later determined that he used drugs, the commission may change the result of the fight to a no contest.

In the next section, we'll look at the basics of the UFC, and learn where fights take place.

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UFC Basics

Image courtesy Josh Hedges/ © Ultimate Fighting Championship
An overhead view of the UFC Octagon.

Fights in the UFC don't take place inside a ring -- they take place inside the Octagon. As you probably have guessed from its name, the Octagon is an eight-sided octagonal mat and cage. Its walls are made of fencing material, with padding covering all the edges and corners, and it's 30 feet across. The mat is made of canvas, which is custom painted for each event and then never used again. Two gates lead into the Octagon, and they're secured shut at the beginning of each round.

When a fight is in progress, only the referee and the two fighters are allowed inside. Between rounds, officials open the gates to allow a fighter's corner men to enter. Corner men can give their respective fighters strategic advice and help stop cuts and scrapes from bleeding.

Tank Abbott
Image courtesy © Ultimate Fighting Championship
Tank Abbott

Competitors are not allowed to go outside the Octagon during a bout, nor are they allowed to try and throw their opponents over the side of the cage (you might laugh, but UFC legend Tank Abbott once appeared to try and throw Carl Worsham over the fence in a UFC bout).

Why does the UFC use an octagonal mat in the first place? According to Dana White, there are several reasons. The original UFC event was conceived as a way to match styles against each other to find which was best. Various styles of fighting take place in different kinds of rings or mats -- for example, boxing is in a square and wrestling is in a circle. The Octagon was designed to avoid giving any one martial arts discipline an advantage. Because the angles in an Octagon are wider than those for each corner of a boxing ring, there is little chance for a fighter to get stuck in a corner with no way out. The UFC bordered the Octagon with fencing so that fighters couldn't fall or get thrown out of the ring. The Octagon is a stable structure designed with the fighter's safety in mind, while still providing a good view for spectators.

The UFC has no formal ranking system, though each weight class does have its own champion. UFC President Dana White says that ranking systems often get in the way of putting together the best fights and invite corruption. Instead, the UFC relies on Joe Silva, vice president and matchmaker. Mr. Silva uses his own system, analyzing the style and records of fighters to determine the most exciting fights. When a fighter has proven himself sufficiently, he can earn himself a title shot against the reigning champion.

The UFC recognizes five weight classes:

Lightweight 145 to 155 pounds
Welterweight 155 to 170 pounds
Middleweight 170 to 185 pounds
Light Heavyweight 185 to 205 pounds
Heavyweight 205 to 265 pounds

Fighters only face opponents in their same weight class, but they are free to move up or down weight classes. Most fighters find that moving up in a weight class (gaining weight) means they sacrifice speed, while moving down a weight class could mean losing striking power.

In the next section, we'll talk about the fighting techniques allowed in the UFC.

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Fighting Techniques

Fighters' techniques can be classified in three broad categories: striking, grappling and ground fighting. Let's look at each one in more detail.


Official UFC gloves
Image courtesy Josh Hedges
© Ultimate Fighting Championship
Official UFC gloves

Striking includes punches, kicks, knee strikes and elbows. Often fighters will learn striking techniques from various disciplines, from boxing to Muay Thai (a Thai style of boxing). The UFC requires all fighters to wear fingerless 4 to 6 ounce gloves and no footwear. Because the gloves are thin compared to boxing gloves (which weigh 8 to 10 ounces, depending on the weight class of the boxer), fighters must be careful not to damage their own hands when throwing punches.

There are restrictions on where and how a fighter may strike his opponent. Fighters can't throw a knee strike or kick to the head of an opponent on the ground, for example. They also can't use a downward strike with the point of their elbows or strike the back of their opponent's head.

Some fighters spend more time working on grappling and wrestling skills than striking. A fighter can attempt a takedown on his opponent, meaning he forces his opponent to the ground. You can defend a takedown with a sprawl, where you use balance and leverage to stay standing. Takedowns can be spectacular -- such as a slam or suplex -- or they can be as simple as knocking someone off balance.

Good grapplers may also be skilled in submissions. A fighter might submit due to strikes or submission holds like a guillotine choke. While many submission holds are best applied when both fighters are on the ground, there are some that can be applied when standing.

Ground fighting

Image courtesy Josh Hedges © Ultimate Fighting Championship
Jason Lambert (on top) fights in the guard of Renato Sobral

Unlike boxing -- or even most kickboxing matches -- in the UFC, fights continue even if a fighter falls to the ground. Fighters can throw strikes (sometimes called ground and pound) or apply submission holds while on the ground. There are many ways to attack and defend. Usually one fighter will end up on top of the other fighter, and you're likely to hear terms like guard, half guard, side control and full mount. These terms refer to the position of the fighters in relation to each another. For example, if the Fighter A is on bottom and has his legs on either side of Fighter B's hips, Fighter B is said to be inside Fighter A's guard.

For a fighter to be successful in the UFC, he must train in all three techniques extensively. While most fighters tend to focus on particular styles such as wrestling or striking, almost all of them have at least a basic working knowledge of other techniques.

In the next section, we'll look at how winners are decided in UFC matches.

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How to Win a UFC Match

Image courtesy Josh Hedges © Ultimate Fighting Championship
Wilson Gouveia submits Seth Petruzelli with a Guillotine Choke

So you can strike and grapple with your opponent in a UFC match, but how do you actually win?

You can win by submission, indicated when your opponent either physically taps out or verbally submits. A fighter might submit if he is unable to defend effectively against strikes or if he is caught in a painful hold such as an armbar or ankle lock. A fighter can even knock out an opponent with a submission hold such as a rear naked choke, where either his opponent's air supply or blood flow is cut off. Unlike other sports, submitting to your opponent is considered an honorable way to lose a fight. In some competitive sports you might see your career end if you were to "give up," but not in the UFC.

You could also win by technical knockout (TKO). In a technical knockout, the referee stops the fight when he determines that a fighter is no longer able to defend himself intelligently. Referees are responsible for determining a fighter's status in rapidly changing and often chaotic conditions. Unlike boxing, there is no standing eight count. A technical knockout can be declared whether a fighter is on the ground or still standing.

Image courtesy Josh Hedges © Ultimate Fighting Championship
Luke Cummo defeats Josh Haynes by KO

If a fight goes the distance and the last round ends without a submission or knockout, the results are determined by decision. A panel of three judges scores each round using a 10-point must system, meaning that when a judge determines a fighter won a round, that fighter receives 10 points (barring any penalties due to fouls). His opponent receives a nine or lower. Lower scores are usually the result of penalties for fouls, for being inactive or for being timid during a round. At the end of the fight, each judge adds up the scores given to each fighter. If all three judges score the same fighter as the winner, it is called a unanimous decision. If two judges score one fighter the winner, but the third judge scored the fight in favor of his opponent, it's called a split decision. If two judges determine that one fighter is the winner and the other judge determined the bout a draw, it's called a majority decision.

You could also win by technical decision, meaning your opponent is too injured to continue. If the referee determines your opponent is violating the rules, you could win through disqualification. Finally, your opponent may forfeit a match, giving you the win. Fighters might forfeit if they are suffering from an injury or illness.

Too Scared to Fight?
Why is timidity considered a foul in mixed martial arts? The Nevada State Athletic Commission equates timidity in MMA with a boxer "purposely going down without being hit" [Source: Nevada Administrative Code Chapter 467, Unarmed Combat]. It's considered an unsportsmanlike delaying tactic. Referees are encouraged to step in when a fight's pace slows, even going so far as to stand the two opponents up if they reach a stalemate on the ground.

Fights can also end in a draw. A standard draw results when the three judges' scores for both fighters are the same or cancel each other out. If both fighters are too injured to continue the match, the referee can declare a technical draw. A referee can declare a match as a no contest if both fighters violate the rules or if a fighter is unable to continue due to an injury sustained as a result of a foul.

Because there are so many ways to win (or lose) a fight, bouts in the UFC can be very exciting. A fight may seem to be a one-sided affair while both athletes are standing but completely change when the fight goes to the ground. Just when you think a match is over, a fighter can turn the tables on his opponent with a well-timed escape or by taking advantage of a simple mistake.

Fights in the UFC are more complicated than boxing matches, and so judges must take more into consideration when scoring a round. They look at how many strikes fighters land, whether a fighter manages to take down his opponent and the fighters' ground technique. While the bottom position in ground fighting is usually considered weaker than the top position, some fighters can defend themselves so effectively that a judge could award the round to the fighter on bottom. UFC President Dana White says, "There's a lot of controversy right now over judging. Being a judge is very subjective . . . the main thing you have to judge, round by round, is who did the most damage."

In the next section, we'll look at the controversial history of the UFC.

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UFC History

Promotional art for the first UFC event
Image courtesy Josh Hedges
© Ultimate Fighting Championship
Promotional art for the first UFC event

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was the brainchild of Rorion Gracie, an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), and Arthur Davie, an ad man. Gracie wanted to promote his family's martial arts school, which focused on techniques that would work in a real fight and discarded any that were meant more for show or style. Before working on the UFC, the Gracie family had become legendary for "the Gracie Challenge," an open invitation for experts in any fighting technique to face off against a member of the Gracie family or one of their students in a real fight.

Davie pitched the idea of a martial arts tournament to Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG). In this tournament, experts in different martial arts disciplines would face off against one another to determine which style was best. Reportedly, it was an SEG employee named Michael Abramson who coined the name "The Ultimate Fighting Championship." On November 12, 1993, the SEG debuted the first UFC event. Later, the event would be called UFC 1.

The event was in a tournament format (most early UFC events followed suit). The winner of a match moved up in the tournament to face another opponent. Davie designated some fighters as alternates in case a fighter was unable to continue. The tournament featured masters in karate, kickboxing, boxing, jiu-jitsu and even Sumo wrestling. Royce Gracie, Rorion's younger brother, eventually won the tournament after he caught Gerard Gordeau in a rear naked choke in the final bout.

The event was a success, and immediately SEG began to plan more tournaments. SEG decided to keep the Ultimate Fighting Championship name and would designate almost all future events by numbering them sequentially (UFC 2, UFC 3, et cetera).

Royce Gracie
Former UFC Champion
Royce Gracie

Ken Shamrock
Early UFC star
Ken Shamrock

Images courtesy Josh Hedges © Ultimate Fighting Championship

Early UFC events were very different from modern ones. There were no weight classes -- a smaller fighter might find himself facing a Sumo wrestler. Weight classes would be defined for the UFC 12 tournament (though they would be refined several times). Fighters could wear clothing traditional to their fighting style (such as a gi for jiu-jitsu). The UFC experimented with how long rounds should last, and a few early events had no limit on how many rounds could be fought -- they wanted fights to last until a clear winner emerged.

The style versus style format faded away gradually. Most fights would end up on the ground, and many of the disciplines represented in early UFC events had no focus or training in ground fighting. Royce Gracie won three of the first four UFC tournaments and proved that a ground game was necessary to be successful. Fighters began to adapt, expanding their repertoire of styles to include elements of wrestling and submissions. Events featured fewer black belt martial artists - the UFC quickly discovered a black belt didn't necessarily mean the wearer was a good fighter.

In the early days, the UFC held events in states that didn't have athletic commissions to avoid regulation. There were no judges, either. Even after judges were added to events, there were no clear parameters on how to judge a fight. Referees could not stop a fight; their job was to make sure the few rules that did exist were enforced, and to witness any submissions. Fortunately, the UFC gave referees the authority to stop fights after the first few events.

Apart from UFC 9, which featured a series of single fights, all UFC events used the tournament format until UFC 18. From that point on, with the exception of UFC 23, events featured single matches - fighters no longer had to worry about multiple fights in one night.

Best Fight Ever?

When asked about his favorite fight, Dana White recommends the second fight between Matt Hughes (welterweight champion at the time) and Frank Trigg at UFC 52. Two years earlier in their first fight, Matt Hughes defeated Trigg in the first round with a rear naked choke. When they met for their rematch, it looked like Trigg was going to avenge his loss. Early in the fight, Trigg threw a kick that hit Hughes in the groin. The referee did not see the foul and the fight continued. As Hughes tried to recover, Trigg capitalized on the situation and pressed the attack.

As Mr. White describes it, "Frank Trigg gets on top of him, gets top position, and starts dropping punches down on Hughes. It looks like the fight is over - like he could have knocked Hughes out. Hughes tries to turn over, and Frank Trigg gets his back and starts choking him out the same way Matt choked him out in the first fight. Unbelievably, Matt Hughes gets out of the choke, scoops Frank Trigg up onto his shoulder, and runs him the entire length of the Octagon and slams him down on the ground. I'm not kidding you, the roof exploded off this building."

Four minutes and five seconds into round one, Hughes managed to catch Trigg in a rear naked choke and submit him for the victory, retaining his title.

According to Dana White, the evolution of the UFC was haphazard because it was never meant to happen. "That show [the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event] was only supposed to be a one-off. Well, it did so well on pay-per-view they decided to do another, and another. Never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport."

Gradually, the UFC introduced more rules and restrictions, both as a means to appease critics and to shape mixed martial arts into a legitimate sport. Unfortunately, by this time SEG was in trouble financially. From UFC 23 to UFC 29, SEG faced the risk of bankruptcy. As a result, SEG could not afford to release these events to home video.

Courting Controversy
The SEG promoted early UFC events as brutal fights between martial arts experts. They claimed the fights were no holds barred, and that all fights would end with a clear winner. In the end, they said, the superior martial arts style would emerge. By trumpeting the fights as brutal exhibitions of force, they invited scrutiny from critics.

One such critic was United States Senator John McCain. McCain, a boxing fan, thought UFC fights were akin to "human cockfighting." He urged state governors and city governments to ban UFC events. Several planned fights had to change venues at the last moment when arenas told the UFC they were no longer allowed to hold their fights there.

For a long time, the UFC resisted taking steps to partner with state athletic commissions. Instead, SEG continued to promote the UFC as a primal sport, which only invited more trouble. Some cable companies refused to carry UFC pay-per-views. SEG's options became more and more limited. By the time the UFC adopted rules established by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, it was too late for SEG to recover.

In the next section, we'll look at how a new company was able to re-invent the Ultimate Fighting Championship.


The UFC Today

Injuries in the UFC
Despite the perception of Ultimate Fighting as a brutal sport, injuries are relatively minor and rare. "We've never had a serious injury," says Dana White, "and what I consider a serious injury is something that changes the quality of your life. We've had cuts and broken hands. I think the most serious injury we had was a broken forearm." Most injuries occur during training rather than in the Octagon -- some fighters train six to eight hours a day for several weeks leading up to a fight.

In 2000, SEG promoted UFC 29: Defense of the Belts. It was the last UFC event SEG would produce. The company faced bankruptcy and political pressure had crippled its ability to book and promote shows. Two brothers, Frank Fertitta III and Lorenzo Fertitta, formed Zuffa, LLC (zuffa means "to fight" or "to scrap" in Italian) and bought the UFC. Former amateur boxer and fight promoter Dana White became president of the new organization.

Lorenzo Fertitta was a former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and soon the commission oversaw UFC events. This gave the UFC some much needed credibility, and soon cable companies began to carry their pay-per-view events again.

Five-time UFC champion Randy Couture
Image courtesy Josh Hedges
© Ultimate Fighting Championship
Five-time UFC champion Randy Couture

In 2001, the first Zuffa-promoted UFC event, UFC 30: Battle on the Boardwalk, premiered. UFC 30 saw not only the return to wider pay-per-view coverage, but also a return to home video production. Since that event, Dana White has concentrated on increasing the popularity of the UFC and shedding its historically brutal image. Mr. White is quick to point out, "At the end of the day, these guys aren't barbarians the way they were sold early on. These guys are all good guys . . . they come in to compete to find out who's the best fighter in the world."

The Ultimate Fighter & Spike TV
In 2005, Spike TV aired the first season of a reality television series called "The Ultimate Fighter." The show followed a group of UFC hopefuls as they competed for a contract with the organization. Fighters divided into different training camps, and at the end of each episode a member from one team fought someone from the other team. The winner would stay in the competition; the loser would go home. The show marked the first time viewers could watch a UFC fight on a cable station outside of pay-per-view, and it helped to educate views about the UFC. "The Ultimate Fighter" is currently scheduled for at least two more seasons.

In the next section, we'll look at the plans for UFC's future.



The Future of the UFC

UFC President Dana White
Image courtesy Josh Hedges
© Ultimate Fighting Championship
UFC President Dana White

In March 2007, the Fertitta brothers announced that they had purchased Pride Fighting Championship, a competing mixed martial arts organization based out of Japan. Fans of mixed martial arts have talked about dream matches between the best fighters of Pride and the best from the UFC. According to Dana White, that can now become a reality. While plans are still in the very early stages, fight fans may soon get to see who really is the best fighter in each weight class.

While the UFC has its headquarters in Nevada, the company has recently begun a campaign to hold fights in other states as well as internationally. UFC events can already be seen on television in 170 countries. Dana White's goal is to bring live events to these countries to help build a grass roots fan base and build word of mouth support. He says, "When you take the live event somewhere and you get 15,000 or 20,000 people to show up to the event and those people leave the event and go to work the next day, they talk to their relatives. They talk to their friends. It starts to spread...that whole word of mouth thing happens, and it's imperative for the growth of the business and to take it global." UFC events are planned for Europe, Japan, Canada and Mexico.

Today, fans can see UFC bouts on pay-per-view (about once a month), on "The Ultimate Fighter" and special "Fight Night" events on Spike TV, on DVD and at live events. Unfortunately, UFC events 23 through 29 are still not available commercially.

For lots more information on the Ultimate Fighting Championship and related topics, check out the links on the next section.



How much does it cost to go to a UFC fight?
The average UFC ticket costs $208, but tickets can start as low as $64 depending on the event and the location.
Who is the richest UFC fighter?
Conor McGregor is currently the richest UFC fighter with an estimated net worth of $120 million.
Where can I watch UFC events live?
Most UFC events are pay-per-view. You can pay to watch the fights on the UFC website or on the ESPN+ streaming service.
What exactly is MMA?
MMA stands for mixed martial arts, which is a hybrid combat sport that utilizes techniques pulled from multiple martial arts-based sports like boxing, wrestling, judo, jujitsu, karate, Muay Thai, and more.
Why is MMA illegal?
MMA actually isn't illegal -- it's one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. today. The UFC popularized MMA on a large scale, introducing legions of fans to the sport. As recently as 2016, states like New York have lifted their previous bans on MMA.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Cauchon, Dennis. "Amateur fighting rounds up crowds and controversy." USA Today. 2006.
  • Gentry, Clyde. "No Holds Barred: Ultimate Fighting and the Martial Arts Revolution." Milo Books Ltd. 2002.
  • Montgomery, Cliff. "This History of the UFC."
  • Ultimate Fighting Championship
  • "UFC - About the Event."
  • White, Dana. Personal interview conducted on April 16, 2007.