How Long Is a UFC Fight? The Rules, Explained

In the beginning of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, there were no time limits. But they weren’t necessary. Cage fighting, as it was called before the modern nomenclature of mixed martial arts, was a brief, violent endeavor, and the UFC’s first official match lasted 23 seconds, ending with a guy getting kicked in the face so hard that his tooth, no longer connected to his mouth, nearly hit the ringside announcer. All that brevity changed with UFC 5 when, in a much-hyped rematch of UFC 1’s final, Royce Gracie faced off against Ken Shamrock. What would happen next would be one of the most important moments in UFC history regarding its evolution into the modern sport.

The End of 30-Minute Matches

Gracie, who had become synonymous with his family’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, had beat Shamrock at UFC 1, and Shamrock, a former pro wrestler who cut his teeth in the full-contact Japanese MMA prototype shoot-fighting, was hungry for revenge. In the first minute, Shamrock shot and Gracie caught him in open guard, a neutral position that moved the match from the feet to the floor. Even in today’s hyper-educated fandom, grappling minutiae can be boring to watch, and UFC 5 proved to be so on an even bigger stage. The two fighters stayed in the prone position, jockeying and shuffling and ultimately achieving little over the next 30 minutes. The UFC never considered this a possibility, but it became a very real problem.

An Introduction to UFC

That first Superfight had a 30-minute time limit, and although it wasn’t considered a traditional match, it still placed a time-limit on a UFC bout. However, the UFC then announced a field-of-play rule change, extending the match an additional five minutes and restarting the pair on their feet. It did not matter; this time Gracie shot first but again pulled guard, where, with Shamrock atop, the two rode out the remaining minutes. The match was ruled a draw, and while the pair of fighters embraced, raising each other’s hands in victory, it was clear by the crowd’s boos that no one was satisfied.

And so began the changes of length of a UFC fight, which would continue over the next decade. At UFC 6 (this was still in the era of single-night bracketed tournaments), the five-minute extension was formalized to the 30-minute limit, along with the ref’s ability to “stand up” two fighters deadlocked on the mat. At UFC 8, three years after the organization’s first event, first- and second-round matches were shortened to 10 minutes, with a 15-minute limit extended to finals and Superfights, as in the Gracie/Shamrock snoozefest.

The Introduction of Five-Minute Rounds

It wasn’t until 1999, at UFC 21, that five-minute rounds were first introduced. Preliminary matches were comprised of two; main-card and non-championship headliners, three; and championship bouts, five. These adoptions formally lowered the max duration of a UFC fight to 10 minutes at its shortest and 25 minutes at their longest. Incidentally, should a match “go the distance,” or run out of time without a knockout or submission, the “10 must” system, carried over from boxing, was introduced, ensuring that there would always be a winner, no matter how controversial.

In 2011, UFC President Dana White announced a further refinement of the rules, extending all headliner matches of a card to the full five five-minute rounds whether a championship was contested or not. This maximum has been upheld in the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, which the UFC led in creation, adoption, and subsequent refinement and covers such disparate topics as ring measurements, groin protection, and weight classes.

More Questions, Answered

While once matches were finished by submission, knockouts, or missing teeth, in the last few years the trend has seen a slight majority of matches lasting through the final seconds. Researchers believe this to be the result of the UFC athletes’ improvements and the greater standardization of training and technique, but the result is that fans are getting a better show than ever before. So whether it’s a pay-per-view match or an ESPN+-streamed UFC Fight Night, when your partner asks, “How long is a UFC fight?” tell them the truth: Hopefully just a little longer.

Now, If you’re looking for the best way to watch UFC online, you can check out our guide on how to live stream UFC fights in 2021.

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