MMA Rules: 10 Illegal Moves

Sean SmithAnalyst IFebruary 2, 2011

MMA Rules: 10 Illegal Moves

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    Despite the long-standing public perception of the sport as no-holds-barred human cockfighting, MMA has evolved from its arguably barbaric beginnings into a heavily regulated sport. Thankfully, the public view of MMA has made great strides as the sport's popularity has grown.

    In order to gain acceptance, several rule changes were made to ensure fighter safety. Eventually, the Unified Ruled of Mixed Martial Arts were created. These common rules have allowed the sport to be sanctioned in nearly every state in the country.

    Still, new viewers of MMA events still often need explanations of what is legal or illegal. So for you new fans who are still trying to learn more about the rules of the sport, here are a few actions that are illegal in MMA. If you have any questions, or would like to know about more rules not discussed in this article, feel free to comment below.    


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    Extremely rare at this time in the evolution of MMA, intentional headbutts are illegal. If a fighter executes an intentional headbutt, the referee would almost certainly deduct one point from the guilty fighter. In a three round fight, one point could make the difference between winning and losing. If the fighter's opponent is injured and unable to continue fighting as a result of the intentional headbutt, the guilty fighter could lose by disqualification.

    In the case of an unintentional headbutt, the referee may still decide to deduct one point from a fighter. If an accidental headbutt occurs within the first two rounds of a three round fight, the bout will be declared a no contest if the opponent is unable to continue fighting. If the accidental headbutt were to occur in the final round of a three round fight and the opponent was unable to continue, the judges would score all three rounds and a decision would be made.

    At UFC 110, an accident headbutt in a fight between Stephan Bonnar and Krzysztof Soszynski was handled incorrectly. Bonnar and Soszynski clashed heads early in the third round, which opened a cut on the head of Bonnar. After Bonnar was declared unable to continue, Soszynski was declared the winner by technical knockout. The decision was made because the referee believed that cut had been caused by a punch. However, video replays showed that the cut was a result of an accidental headbutt. 

Groin Strikes

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    For obvious reasons, MMA fighters are not permitted to strike their opponents in the groin in any way. Although all fighters are required to wear a protective cup, major damage can still be done by groin strikes.

    Like headbutts, intentional infractions of this type are almost non-existent. However, accidental groin strikes are somewhat common in MMA. Poorly executed inside leg kicks can often lead to a painful break in action for one fighter.

    The rules for groin strikes are very similar to the rules for headbutts. Whether intentional or not, the referee has the option of taking a point away from the guilty fighter. Also, the same rules regarding the outcome of the fight apply in cases where the opponent is unable to continue fighting. 

Striking To The Spine Or Back Of The Head

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    Striking to the back of the head is one of the most common reasons you might see a referee deduct a point from a fighter. The risk of paralyzing injury is the primary reasoning for the rules against these types of strikes.

    Since fighters are unable to control when their opponent turns their head, referees usually give fighters some leeway when it comes to strikes to the back of the head. Unless a fighter is knocked out or badly hurt from a blow to the back of the head, referees will often give the guilty fighter at least one warning before deducting a point. 

Striking Downward With The Point Of The Elbow

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    Although many in the MMA community disagree with outlawing them, downward strikes with the elbow are illegal under the Unified Rules of MMA. To clarify, fighters may not strike their opponent from a twelve o'clock position to a six o'clock position with their elbow.

    This rule was likely made to appease those who believed that early MMA was too violent. The justification for the rule is that it is believed that these type of elbow strikes are more capable of cutting an opponent or causing eye injury. 

    At The Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale, Jon Jones was handed a disqualification loss for delivering downward elbow strikes to the head of Matt Hamill. It was an unfortunate situation considering Jones was clearly the better fighter, but the rules was administered correctly in this situation.

Kicking Or Kneeing The Head Of a Grounded Opponent

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    Like downward elbow strikes, many longtime MMA fans believe that kicking or kneeing to the head of a grounded opponent should be made legal. Prior to the drafting of the Unified Rules of MMA, many fights were finished in exciting fashion by these types of strikes.

    When thinking of this rule, the first thing that comes to mind is often a fighter standing over their opponent and stomping on their head. However, a fighter can also land an illegal strike of this from while on their own back. If a fighter has an opponent in their guard, they may not land a kick to the head if their opponent is postured up and on a knee.

    Also, the term grounded refers to a fighter who has three points of contact on the ground. When a fighter standing on both feet leans over and places one or both hands on the canvas, their opponent may not knee or kick them in the head. This form of avoiding punishment has become a point of argument against the rule. 

Spiking an Opponent To The Ground on Their Head Or Neck

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    Commonly referred to as a piledriver, fighters may not slam their opponent onto their head or neck. This move is considered very dangerous because of of the risk of spinal injury that it poses.

    The penalties for spiking an opponent on their head or neck are identical to the previously mentioned rules for illegal moves. In this case, there would almost never be a warning issued to the guilty fighter. Instead, the fight would be immediately stopped and the fighter would be penalized.

Avoiding Contact With Opponent

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    Perhaps, this is a rule that should be expanded. One of the most pressing issues in MMA at the moment is fighters who avoid action. Aside from standing fighters up, referees have done little to enforce this rule.

    Kalib Starnes put on what might the most notable display of avoiding contact when he fought Nate Quarry at UFC 83. Starnes constantly backed up in that fight, which led to Quarry taunting his opponent for much of the third round. Despite Starnes' obvious infraction, he was not penalized once.

Holding The Fence Or Ropes

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    First of all, I want to apologize. This is the best visual representation of holding the fence that I could find. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

    Because of the unfair advantage the use of the fence or ropes can provide, grabbing of the fence is another action that is not allowed in MMA. By grabbing the fence, fighters give themselves an unfair advantage in defending takedowns and escaping from the bottom position.

    Recently, Anthony Pettis used the fence to land an amzazing kick against Ben Henderson. That kick prompted questions on whether this rule concerning the use of the fence should be expanded. 

Attacking Opponent After The Bell

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    Common sense should tell a fighter that they shouldn't hit a fighter after the end of the round. However, Paul Daley disregarded that rule at UFC 113, when he hit Josh Koscheck after having 15 minutes of legal time to do so.

    In a sport that is still striving to achieve mainstream acceptance, this is a foul that has no place in MMA. As such, the UFC cut Daley from their roster immediately after the event.  

Eye Gouging

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    Intentional eye gouging is illegal for the obvious injuries that it could cause. Intentional eye gouging has been almost non-existent in the recent history of MMA. However, accidental eye pokes have almost been commonplace.

    Because of the open-fingered gloves worn by MMA fighters, it is not overly uncommon for a fight to end due to an eye poke. Since they are almost always unintentional, eye pokes are rarely grounds for a disqualification loss.


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