Illegal Moves in UFC Fight: A Complete List

Illegal Moves in UFC Fight: A Complete List

MMA is often called the purest form of fighting. It combines different types of martial arts into one. Because of that, people often think that there are no rules inside the cage and that everything is allowed. Well, that isn’t exactly true.

Back in the 1990s, the UFC slogan was, “There are no rules.” But in fact, there were some; biting and eye-gouging were illegal, but things, like headbutting, hair pulling, and strikes to the groin were perfectly okay. Today, the rules have changed, and there is a precise list of illegal moves.

Although a UFC fight can sometimes look brutal and violent (because of the punches, kicks, elbows, knees, throwdowns, submissions, takedowns, wrestling, etc.), it is still a sport. As a sport, the first thing that is looked after is always the safety of the fighters. So, not exactly everything is allowed inside the cage. There are still some rules on what is illegal.

Some of the moves one can perform (purposely or accidentally) can cause some severe damage to the opponent, so they are banned. Here, we bring you a complete list of the moves that are illegal inside the cage.

1. Headbutting

One of the most talked-about illegal moves in UFC. Once upon a time, headbutts were completely legal inside the UFC. Today, they aren’t. Why? Headbutting an opponent can lead to severe head trauma and irreparable damage for the rest of one’s life. They are fairly straightforward to perform, so if they were to be allowed, we would probably see a lot of severe injuries inside the cage. There is a lot of talks about whether headbutts should be allowed inside the cage and there are a lot of people advocating it; Joe Rogan being just one example. With headbutts permitted, the game would be completely different (from clinches to grappling positions, etc.). Let’s take a look at what Joe Rogan has to say about it:

Also, worth mentioning is that although headbutts aren’t allowed inside the UFC Octagon, some MMA promotions permit them.

2. Eye-gouging

One doesn’t have to be a genius to deduce that eye pokes are extremely dangerous. Despite this, they happen very often. We can often see fighters fight with their fingers open. Accidentally or on purpose, poking an opponent can lead to severe damage and potentially change the outcome of the fight. Sometimes, eye pokes are punished with a point deduction, even disqualification. But usually, they go unpunished. Eye poking is a thing that should be punished more rigorously, so the fighters are forced to close their fingers when reaching out.

3. Biting

When it comes to biting, it is entirely evident why it’s is illegal. The good thing is that rarely happens (although not in UFC – you know whom we are talking about).

4. Hair pulling

Hair pulling could be used to completely change the position in grappling sequences. It is painful and uncomfortable and definitely not something that should be allowed in a sport. But, there were times, when the UFC was just starting off when it was completely legal. Just take a look at the next video from the 7:20 mark:

5. Fish-hooking

Fish-hooking is the act of inserting fingers inside an opponent’s mouth or nostrils and pulling and/or tearing it. It is an entirely unsportsmanlike move, and it’s obvious why it isn’t allowed. The good thing is that it happens extremely rare inside the Octagon; actually, I can think of just one such occasion, as shown below:

6. Groin attacks

Just like headbutts, blows to the groins almost always happen accidentally. It isn’t uncommon that a fighter throws a leg kick and it ends up hitting the groins. Fighters are obligated to wear cups, but nonetheless, kicks to the groins can cause some severe pain. After a blow to the groin, a fighter has five minutes to recover. If he is unable to recover in the given time, the fight can end in disqualification or no contest.

7. Small joint manipulation

What small joint manipulation means is – twisting, pulling, and breaking of the opponent’s fingers and toes. That isn’t allowed. If it were allowed, we would probably see fighters fight less often.

8. Rabbit punches

A rabbit punch is a blow to the back of the head or neck. That area of the body is extremely vulnerable and delivering a blow to it can cause some serious and lifelong injuries, and it can even be lethal. It is a widespread technique in boxing because there’s lots of head movement there. In MMA, it occurs less frequently, usually when a fighter mounts an opponent’s back and has access to that part. When taking punches to the back of the head into consideration, the referee should be very careful because they are hard to spot. Below is a situation when McGregor knocked out Poirier, and Poirier was complaining the shots were illegal (they were legal, but it was a very close call).

9. 12-6 elbows

12-6 elbows, referred to as “twelve to six elbows” or “downward elbow strikes”, are elbow strikes starting from straight up (clock analogy, 12 o’clock) and going straight down (6 o’clock). They can cause some serious injury to the opponent’s head, so there is no doubt they should be illegal. Using 12-6 elbows can lead to disqualification. When we talk about 12-6 elbows and disqualifications, we have to mention Jon Jones. In his 4th fight in UFC, Jones faced Mark Hamill, who handed him his first and only “loss” inside the Octagon. While completely dominating the match and overwhelming Mark Hamill, Jones hit him with some 12-6 elbows that resulted in disqualification for Jones and his only “loss” of his career.

10. Piledriving

Piledriving is the spiking of an opponent to the canvas on the head or neck. It can very often be seen in WWE, but in MMA, where there is the intention to hurt the opponent, it is illegal. It can cause some serious damage to the spine. In MMA, it happens very often. To show you a close example, although somewhat controversial (this one was legal), take a look at the following video, where Rose Namajunas lost her UFC Strawweight belt.

11. Kicks/knees/stomps to the head of a grounded opponent

While it is perfectly okay to kick or knee the opponent’s head while standing, it is illegal to do it when the opponent is on the ground. If a fighter kicks or knees a grounded opponent, it will almost certainly result in a point deduction or even disqualification. It is something that occurs very frequently during a UFC fight. Worth mentioning is that those strikes are not illegal during grappling exchanges (if both fighters are on the ground). But when one is standing, it can generate a lot of power, and a kick or knee to the head can result in some serious damage. When talking about a knee to the head, how can we not mention Jorge Masvidal’s KO of Ben Askren, resulting in the fastest finish in UFC history (just 5 seconds)?

12. Shorts/gloves and fence holding

Holding the opponent’s shorts or gloves during the clinches and grappling exchanges is also illegal. While there is no risk of unwanted danger, holding the shorts or gloves can disrupt the opponent and give some serious advantage; thus, it is banned. Getting hold of the cage (usually during grappling exchanges near the fence) is also illegal. While referees usually just issue a verbal warning for these, sometimes, a referee can give a point deduction for short/gloves or fence holding.

Rest of illegal moves in UFC fight:

The illegal moves mentioned above are the ones that occur more often. But they’re not the only ones. Here is a list of the remaining illegal moves which occur somewhat less frequent (as stated by the Nevada State Athletic Commission):

  • throat strikes of any kind
  • clawing, pinching, or twisting the flesh
  • grabbing the clavicle
  • kicking to the kidney with the heel
  • throwing an opponent out of the rings or fenced area
  • spitting at an opponent or the referee
  • engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct that causes an injury to an opponent
  • grabbing the fence or rope
  • using abusive language
  • attacking an opponent during the break
  • attacking an opponent who is under the care of the referee
  • attacking an opponent after the bell
  • not obeying the instructions of the referee
  • avoiding contact with an opponent, dropping the mouthpiece, or faking an injury
  • interference by the corner
  • throwing in the towel during competition
  • applying any substance that could result in an unfair advantage
  • striking the part of the body just above the kidneys
  • spitting out the mouthpiece on purpose

Performing any of the illegal moves mentioned above will almost surely result in point deduction or even disqualification. If you are interested in how those points affect the fight outcome and want to learn more about UFC fight scoring, take a look at our article about UFC Fight Scoring System.

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
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Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
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