K-1 has announced a rule change that will apply to all K-1 fights across the weight classes.
In an effort to make fights more exciting and aggressive, as well as increase the action during the 3 minutes x 3 rounds fight, starting from the FINAL 16 for both MAX and WGP, any attacks while holding an opponent with both hands will be prohibited. Fighters will be allowed to grab an opponent with one hand for a moment or grab the neck of the opponent from either outside or inside the opponent's arm. Despite these moves being considered authorized, if referee considers these moves are defensive or passive and are bringing the fight to a deadlock, a caution or a warning maybe given to the fighter.
They go on to list the official language of the new rule as such:
7. Attacking an opponent while holding a neck of an opponent with both hands is considered a foul technique. A fighter is allowed to attack momentarily when grabbing his opponent with one hand. Referee may call a brake during a match if the one handed grab does not lead to an effective attack, and may give a caution or a warning if these ineffective single grabbing continues and or if such actions cause deadlock.
8. Passive holding or clinching is prohibited. However, the referee can permit a fighter holding or grabbing his opponent with one hand only when it is accompanied by an authorized attack. A caution and a warning may be given to a fighter even when he is holding with one hand if referee considers this single hand grab or clinch is causing a deadlock or that fighter is trying to avoid attacks.
Essentially what this boils down to is simple - clinching is now mainly illegal in K-1. As the rules point out, there are some allowances. Fighters may grab with one hand only, but they must be doing so in order to attack. Grabbing, either with one hand or two, and not following up with an immediate attack will result in cautions and warnings. In the old rules, fighters were allowed to throw one strike while clinching their opponent - which itself was a new rule added a few years ago, largely to prevent the use of Muay Thai techniques.
These new rules will become effective at the Final 16 events for both MAX and HW.
There are a couple of important points that have to be considered here. First, regarding #8 above, what exactly constitutes "a caution and a warning"? According to the official rules, you get two official cautions before being warned, and two warnings equals a point deduction. But to be honest, I'm not sure how often you see the officials formally sticking to that structure. Even now you see referees repeatedly caution fighters when clinching without deducting a point - and the current rule structure gives them the liberty to do so: "A caution, warning, and a point reduction shall be given to a fighter who repeatedly uses holding and clinches that are not accompanied by attacks, and are judged as being defensive/passive in nature (ie. to avoid attack)." Essentially then, the rule on passive clinching is unchanged - it's simply a question of how strictly they intend to enforce it.
The big change comes in the lack of any strikes at all from the clinch - specifically they single out the clinch behind the head, commonly known in MMA circles as the Thai clinch. So what motivates this change? The obvious situation that comes to mind is Alistair Overeem's brutal KO of Ewerton Teixeira at the GP last year, where he used this exact technique. But if their motivation truly is to "make fights more exciting and aggressive", why ban a technique that led to the biggest K-1 knockout of 2009?
The cynical answer is that they're probably making the change for the same reason they made the first rule change related to clinching - to take away the advantages of fighters they don't want to see at the top. When they first took away repeated strikes from the clinch, it seemed an obvious shot at then MAX champion Buakaw Por. Pramuk, who utilized an aggressive Thai style incorporating clinches into the attack. By forcing Buakaw to give up one of his weapons, they took away some of his skill-set. Now, it looks like they are trying to favor the aggressive style of fighters like Badr Hari and Melvin Manhoef, over the more defensive style of a Remy Bonjasky, or, notably, Semmy Schilt.
If they do crack down on the defensive clinching, it may be Schilt that is hit the hardest. With his lengthy reach, Schilt likes to take fighters out from the outside. Close the distance and get inside, and he'll often use the clinch to either circle away or force a referee break. Take a look at the opening moments of last year's final with Hari for a good example. With four GP victories under his belt, and no indication of slowing down, Schilt is dominating this era in a way K-1 has arguably never seen before. While he gained some fans with this year's performances, the common perception is that Schilt is a dud with the fans, especially compared to fighters like Hari. Is this rule just a way to shackle the current champ? Without knowing how strictly they will enforce it, it's too early to say for sure, but there is no doubt it could have an impact on his game.
Whatever K-1's motivation, this will indeed have some impact on their fights. Some critics will no doubt say it ruins K-1, which is clearly an over-exaggeration. It does, however, further distance K-1 from the rules used by many other organizations throughout the world, particularly Muay Thai rules. And that is a shame. Just as MMA is working to adopt a unified set of rules, kickboxing should strive for the same. Only then can K-1's claim to be to place where the absolute best stand-up fighters in the world meet be truly accurate.