Many people think that a mixed martial arts (MMA) match is a no-holds-barred cage match. A match where anything and everything is allowed.
That was the mainstream idea when the UFC first emerged in the 1990s, but fight fans and newcomers to MMA alike still don’t know that there's an extensive list of moves that are not allowed in MMA – illegal moves.
The rules in MMA cover everything from eye pokes to groin shots and grabbing the cage. In this article, we’re going to be going over 15 illegal moves in MMA that can lead to disqualifications, a loss of points or a temporary stoppage during a fight.
1. EYE POKES
Eye pokes, or eye gouging is an illegal move in MMA. Despite that, it’s pretty common to see eye pokes during an MMA fight since many fighters maintain distance or conduct themselves with their palms facing their opponent. An eye poke can result in a fighter losing points, or if severe enough, a DQ loss for the offender.
In general, the referee give the poker some leeway if they believe that it was an accident. This usually happens alongside a temporary stoppage of action to make sure the fighter that got poked is OK to continue fighting.
However, if the eye pokes don’t stop after the referee warns the fighters, it’s entirely possible that they’ll stop the fight.
So far, The UFC has had seven fights end in a no contest due to an eye poke since 2005.
2. GROIN SHOTS
Groin shots are illegal in pretty much every sport. In the UFC, fighters wear a cup underneath their shorts during a fight, but that doesn’t completely stop the damage from a powerful kick to the groin.
Like eye pokes, if the referee sees a fighter is hit with a groin shot, they will be given up to five minutes to recover. If they’re unable to recover, it could result in a no-contest or a DQ loss for the striker.
3. KNEES, KICKS OR STOMPS TO A GROUNDED OPPONENT’S HEAD
In other MMA promotions (e.g. Pride), knees, kicks and stomps to a grounded opponent’s head are completely legal. Aside from being incredibly dangerous, illegal knees/kicks/stomps to the head made positions like side control and sprawl much more dangerous for fighters.
Considering how devastating they can be, these illegal strikes can often result in a DQ loss for the offender.
Look no further than this past weekend at UFC 259, where UFC bantamweight champion Petr Yan delivered a brutal knee to a grounded Aljamain Sterling’s head. The fight was stopped by referee Mark Smith, Yan was disqualified and Sterling was declared the new UFC bantamweight champion.
4. FISH HOOKING
Fish hooks are another illegal move in MMA. Aptly named, fish hooking is when a fighter places their finger (in a hook shape) in their opponent’s mouth, eyes or nose.
Luckily, there aren’t many instances of fish hooking in the octagon.
Legal in the WWE. Legal in Pride. Illegal in the UFC. There have been some incredibly cringe-inducing piledrivers in the MMA world, like when Bob Sapp piledrivered Antonio Nogueira in Pride. Just watch the video and you’ll see why piledrivers are illegal in MMA – there’s probably no easier way to cause serious head and neck injuries than a piledriver
6. 12 TO 6 ELBOWS
12 to 6 elbows are elbows that travel straight down – up to down – and they’re illegal in MMA. These elbows are illegal because, like a knee to the head of a downed opponent, they can cause serious damage.
In fact, Jon Jones’ only (controversial) loss of his career came after he delivered a 12 to 6 elbow to a downed Matt Hamill at the Ultimate Fighter 10 finale. Although still contested today, the referee made the right call, even if Jones didn’t do it on purpose.
Headbutts are illegal in MMA. In the early days of the UFC headbutts were allowed. However they were banned after a handful of UFC events. The majority of MMA also organizations don’t allow headbutts.
8. HOLDING THE CAGE
Holding onto the cage during an MMA fight is illegal. Fighter’s usually grab a hold of the cage when they’re trying to change their position, in the clinch or when trying to avoid a takedown. Fighters also use the cage instinctively, especially when they get rocked and don’t know what’s going on.
Grabbing the cage gives fighters unfair leverage, and can lead to them escaping positions or taking control of their opponents when they otherwise would not have been able to.
9. SMALL JOINT MANIPULATION
Small joint manipulation refers to the twisting, bending, or pulling of toes, wrists, ankles and fingers. Small joint manipulation is illegal in because, unlike standard joint locks like an armbar or kimura, there’s much less time for the victim to submit before bones begin to break.
This one doesn’t really have to be explained. Biting is completely illegal in MMA. Luckily, there haven’t been many instances where one fighter has bit another, but it has happened in other sports (Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield).
11. HAIR PULLING
Like biting, hair pulling doesn’t happen often inside the cage, even in the women’s division. Of course, it could happen inadvertently when fighters are wrestling or battling in the clinch, but it’s rare to see it take place on purpose. A fighter pulling hair could cause pain or give the fighter some leverage to gain position over their opponent / stop their opponent from gaining position. Because of that, hair pulling is illegal in MMA.
12. PUNCHING THE BACK OF THE HEAD
Because of the (sometimes) messy nature of MMA, you might hear the referee tell a fighter not to throw punches to the back of the head. Punching the back of the head is dangerous and can cause serious damage to a fighter. Since they can be so dangerous, punches to the back of the head are illegal in MMA.
13. HOLDING OPPONENT’S SHORTS OR GLOVES
Like hair pulling or grabbing the cage, holding on to an opponent’s shorts or gloves can give fighters the opportunity to gain position over their opponent or stop their opponent from gaining position. Since it can lead to an unfair advantage – and because it’s just plain dirty – grabbing an opponent’s shorts or gloves during an MMA bout is illegal.
14. PLACING A FINGER IN A CUT OR LACERATION
This one doesn’t need an explanation – don’t do this. It’s unpleasant, can lead to heavy bleeding and infections.
15. THROAT STRIKES
Fighter’s are allowed to target the neck with submissions – rear naked chokes, guillotines, triangle chokes – you name it. There’s a thousand different legal chokes, but striking the throat intentionally is illegal.
These 15 moves are just a few of a long list of illegal moves in MMA. From eye gouging to piledrivers and throat strikes, the sport of MMA is a lot cleaner than most people think, and professional fighters (usually) hold these rules to high regard.
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