Boxers wear shoes, wrestlers wear them, and in many martial arts, practitioners also wear them. But MMA fighters go in the ring barefoot. Why is that?
MMA fighters are barefoot because of uniform rules created in 2002 and then adopted in 2009. Any sanctioned event must follow these rules. Although some people would like to see MMA fighters wear martial arts shoes, many MMA fighters prefer to fight barefoot.
Organized MMA is a recent creation, and most of the information about it is focused on the athletes and their fights. So some detective work and reasonable guesses were necessary to decide why MMA fights are barefoot. Read on to find out.
The Rules State They Must Fight Barefoot
A host of rules govern the sport, and if an athlete wishes to compete in a sanctioned event, they are subject to them. There are rules that govern:
- Weight categories. Eleven. The best category name goes to Atomweight, which is for women up to 105 lbs. (47.6 kg).
- Rounds. Non-title matches have three five-minute rounds, with a one-minute break in-between. Matches like the Main Event can ask and receive permission for 5-round matches. The standard for title matches is five rounds.
- Judging criteria. The scoring system and how judges should score come from the Association of Boxing Commission.
- Medical requirements. Fighters must complete pre- and post-medical exams, as well as urinalysis tests for prohibited substances.
Clothing requirements are minimal:
- Approved shorts
- No shoes or foot padding
- No shirts or long pants
- Groin protector (cup) for males
- Chest protector for females
The regulations for the taping of the hands and gloves are nearly as detailed as those for clothing, including the length and width of the gauze and tape and how the adhesive tape to protect the wrist should be wrapped.
So if a fighter wants to play, they must go barefoot, or they are not allowed in the Octagon.
Were They Always Barefoot?
If something is being banned, there should be a good reason, correct? Since early the early history of MMA is complicated and not well-documented, here are several assumptions to make:
- The sport has elements of boxing, where shoes are worn
- Wrestling is incorporated into the sport, and wrestlers wear shoes
- Some martial arts also allow shoes
Also, commenters on discussion boards, like the Reddit r/MMA, mention fights pre-2000 where athletes wore shoes.
The early history of modern MMA gives us another clue. MMA, as we currently know it, grew out of CV Productions, founded in 1979. The co-founders, Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri, wanted to answer which is superior—boxing, martial arts, or wrestling. These Tough Guy competitions were anything goes fights, including striking, grappling, punching, and kicking. In a video of those fights, the fighters are wearing shoes.
How Did the MMA Rules Change?
In the early days of mixed martial arts, no standardized rules existed as the sport did not have a governing body. Although Viola and Caliguri wrote guidelines for the new sport, their version of it was short-lived. In 1983, Pennsylvania’s legislature banned MMA-style fights, a ban that the legislature would not overturn until 2009.
Since these state laws applied only to Pennsylvania, other states could continue the mixed martial arts fights that would eventually be known as MMA. In 1993, the term MMA was coined, and the UFC was founded.
On the national stage, senator John McCain thought the sport was very barbaric and tried to make it illegal nationwide. In response, the UFC developed rules that would decrease the danger of the sport.
However, since states have their own athletic commissions, there was still no consistency in rules. This began to change in the early 2000s, especially with the regulations set forth by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (NJSACB). In 2009, the rules were finalized by the Association of Boxing Commissions and became what is called the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.”
Perhaps this convoluted history is why we may never know exactly who or when the decision was made that led to the NJSACB to require fighters to be barefoot.
Most MMA Fighters Prefer Fighting Barefoot
Some think that fighters should wear wrestling shoes to reduce injuries. Most fighters, however, do not want to wear shoes. Among the reasons they cite are muscle training, increased awareness, and tradition. Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
If you train without the support of shoes, your feet and ankles must work harder since they have lost that support. A lack of shoes also improves your ability to train the muscles. Barefoot training provides more consistency since your feet won’t shift in your shoes as you train.
Barefoot training has moved beyond martial arts to sports that might surprise you. One of those is running. The minimalist movement of training barefoot began in the mid-80s. Advocates of this training believe that the cushioning is bad for our feet because it has changed where we land on our feet.
Another sport in which athletes have begun to train barefoot is powerlifting. The thinking is that training barefoot increases the powerlifter’s awareness of their feet.
When our body encounters something, a signal is sent to the brain. Our brain sends a signal back, which trainers call a feedback loop. When we cover our feet in socks and shoes, we change the feedback loop.
This feedback loop is essential to movement in two ways:
- Kinesthetic awareness—being able to move without thinking.
- Proprioception—being aware of where our bodies are in space.
Both are important to MMA fighters, and they do not want to give those up. But there is still a third reason—tradition.
Although MMA includes elements of boxing and wrestling, MMA stands for mixed martial arts. And fighters in many martial arts are barefoot. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, considered one of the precursors to MMA, is fought barefoot. Karate, Taekwondo, and a few other sports are traditionally fought barefoot.
In addition, in many Asian countries, visitors are expected to remove their shoes when entering a house.
However, tradition ignores that not everyone follows the same guidelines. For example, in some Japanese homes and traditional dojos, students are required to wear slippers. In America, some training centers require shoes while others prefer students be barefoot.
Financial considerations are a consideration for martial arts schools. Mats are not cheap, so owners want them to last. That is why in some martial arts that are fought with shoes, the owner asks students to train barefoot.
Sometimes They Are Required To Wear Shoes
A minor controversy in the UFC world occurred in 2016. MMA had signed a deal with Reebok that athletes could only wear Reebok sports clothes during fight week. Matt Mitrione found out the hard way that he would have to leave his Jordans outside during media interviews.
Since Mitrione left his shoes outside, he was not fined. Not all players have removed their non-Reebok shoes, and they have been fined. These players include Donald Cerrone, Rafael dos Anjos, and Nate Diaz.
Needless to say, players are not happy with this deal.
The early history of MMA is not clear on why shoes were eventually banned. Video of fights in the 1980s shows contestants wearing shoes. However, those fights were considered by many to be brawls instead of contests of skill. The threat of banning the sport led to the Unified Rules that all sanctioned events now follow.
Maybe when the complete history of the sport is written, we will finally know why athletes fight barefoot. Right now, that’s the way many of them prefer it anyway.
- MMA History: Who Invented MMA?
- The 42: Reebok Deal Causes UFC Fighter to go Barefoot
- Men’s Journal: Should You be Running Barefoot?
- Bleacher Report: Should Wrestling Shoes Be Required in MMA?
- Craft of Combat: Why are Martial Arts Practiced Barefoot?
- Featured Image: “Cowtown Beatdown” by Schlüsselbein2007 is licensed under CC BY 2.0