Todd Martin: Jeff Blatnick & the development of UFC rules

By Todd Martin

Jeff Blatnick passed away today, which brought to mind a piece I wrote a few years back on his role in the sport.

In the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the fledgling sport of MMA gained its share of powerful enemies. Influential politicians like John McCain called for a ban on the sport, decrying the perceived barbarism of UFC events. UFC struggled to combat this backlash, and it lost its share of battles before turning the tide for good in recent years.

During this early period, one of the UFC’s most prominent advocates both publicly and behind the scenes was Jeff Blatnick, a highly respected figure in the world of wrestling. Blatnick was a high school state champion, Division II collegiate national champion and Division I collegiate All-American.

Blatnick’s stature was further enhanced when in 1982 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Blatnick went through radiation therapy, had his spleen removed, and returned to training just six mother later. Blatnick then went on to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1984 Olympic Games.

This background gave Blatnick the credibility to argue that MMA was not in fact a sleazy, savage spectacle. But first, he had to develop a taste for the sport. In December of 1994, UFC asked Blatnick to serve as a commentator for UFC events. At the time, he knew little about the sport except that fellow wrestler Dan Severn would be competing.

“I was standing there wondering what was going on,” Blatnick recalls. “Once I saw that first fight with [Royce] Gracie and the skills he brought into the fight it was very impressive. It sparked a keen interest in me and I’ve loved it ever since.”

When Gracie submitted Severn via triangle choke in one of the defining early fights of the UFC, it further altered Blatnick’s outlook.

“To see someone of that physical stature make Dan Severn tap was very impressive,” Blatnick says. “When it was happening I didn’t quite know that Dan was in trouble until you could see Dan trying to wiggle back out and that he couldn’t breathe. Then I realized it. I hadn’t really seen jiu jitsu. That’s when I started trying to study it.”

To learn about the sport, Blatnick began rolling with submission wrestlers and jiu jitsu practitioners. It allowed him to begin to understand the ins and outs of the game.

“As an athlete I made a living off feeling pressure and figuring how to get out of it,” Blatnick notes. “As a wrestler you’d think I’m dominating you if I’ve got you on your back. But it doesn’t work that way. That’s your best defensive position and you can launch offense and catch people in submission locks. I had to get out there and feel what it was like.”

With Blatnick firmly entrenched in MMA culture, he became a part of the movement to develop MMA as a sport. A key moment came prior to UFC 12 in 1997. UFC 12 was originally scheduled to take place in New York, but the state elected to ban MMA and the event was moved to Alabama. The New York ban still exists, and UFC is heavily lobbying the state to legalize MMA so the promotion can run a card at Madison Square Garden. The New York ban served as an impetus for the adoption of a UFC rule book.

“The whole idea behind it was show our policies and procedures so if someone from the state commission came in they would be able to pick up our manual and follow step by step everything a fighter would go through from medical testing right through the bout conduct rules,” Blatnick says.

While many news outlets have perpetuated the false notion that current UFC owners Zuffa brought in a whole set of rules for the sport, the truth is that MMA rules evolved over a period of time. At UFC 1, there were only the most basic of rules prohibiting biting and eye gouging. Later bans on fish hooking and low blows were added.

As there became a need for additional rules, new rules were put into place. “Fighters are creative,” Blatnick observes. “Fighters would hold onto shorts so we made a rule that you can’t grab onto clothing. They would grab the fence, so no grabbing onto the fence. People would target cuts and the fingers were free so we had to make a rule that you couldn’t pull apart cuts. I think the biggest one was no head butts.”

All of these rules were codified at UFC 13, where UFC’s Mixed Martial Arts Council created a Manual of Rules & Procedures which addressed medical safety, judges, referees and bout conduct.

The rules continued to evolve from that point. At UFC 14, gloves became mandatory. At UFC 22 in 1999 the 10 point must system was adopted, along with five minute rounds. Smaller changes continued to be made as well.

Weight divisions also evolved over time. Initially there was only one weight class. At UFC 12, the promotion divided fighters weighing over 200 pounds and fighters weighing under 200 pounds. At UFC 16, the 170 pound division was added. UFC 26 saw the debut of the 155 pound division.

The culmination of this process came in early 2001. Zuffa purchased the UFC, and in April the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board adopted the unified rules of MMA. These rules were modeled after the MMAC rules, and included some cosmetic changes such as a ban on shoes and a ban on throwing the point of the elbow straight down.

UFC adopted the unified rules at UFC 31 on May 4, 2001 along with the current weight classes of 155, 170, 185, 205 and 265 pounds. This began the modern state of MMA regulation.

Beyond his role as a commentator and in the UFC’s rule making process, Blatnick became a fan of mixed martial arts. MMA has opened up a world of opportunities for successful wrestlers once they finish their wrestling careers, a development Blatnick is greatly pleased by.

“I loved [MMA] and tried to talk wrestlers into this for years. Now I hear people talking about it all the time,” Blatnick notes. “It’s something younger wrestlers are very much aware of. It gives an opportunity at a career once they are done with their college and/or Olympic dreams.”

Like many older wrestlers, Blatnick wishes MMA had been around when he was finishing his wrestling career. “There’s no question I would have looked into it,” Blatnick says. “I liked the fact that it could show that wrestling is a viable entity of its own and a great base to become successful.”

Blatnick’s background was in Greco-Roman wrestling, and he feels that style is particularly well suited for MMA. Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland are among the Greco stars that have successfully transitioned into MMA.

“Freestyle athletes have a variety of attacks on the legs, based on the fact that they aren’t going to get punched,” Blatnick explains. “A Greco guy knows how to do a single leg, and when it comes to the upper body he knows how to clinch effectively. If you have the ability to clinch you not only can get that double leg but you can also throw the upper body or create the angles to throw punches.”

While Blatnick left the UFC under Zuffa ownership, he wishes the company well: “I know Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and think they’re great people. They brought MMA to the forefront. I have to give them good grades in running the company, making money and giving fighters names.”

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