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Illegal Moves In MMA

MMA is now a sport, and just like with all legitimate sports, it has a ruleset that competitors must adhere to. It has a framework within which the sport is played, it has time limits, judges, referees, official equipment. Of course,  there are banned illegal moves in MMA.

The rules of MMA have evolved over the years, and in the past, they have even differed, depending on which promotion is hosting the fight night (e.g. UFC, Bellator, Cage Warriors, One FC, Pride)

However, since 2009, major MMA organizations have agreed to adopt the Unified Rules Of MMA, which were set out by the NJSACB. This allowed MMA to be properly recognized as a real sport.

Since then, certain dodgy fighting tactics have been banned from competition, either because they were too barbaric, too dangerous, or gave a fighter an unfair advantage.

In total, there are 27 officially illegal MMA moves, some of which are purposefully left open to interpretation like ‘ignoring the instruction of the referee in charge.

At Speak MMA, an MMA Blog that answers all your MMA questions, we’ve grouped these illegal moves into 3 categories; Illegal strikes, illegal moves to a downed opponent & illegal moves which simply ignore the rules of a “fair fight”

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Illegal Strikes in MMA

Under the unified rules of MMA, the following strikes are officially banned:


Hitting another fighter with your head, on purpose, is not allowed.

Groin strikes

No strikes of any kind are allowed to the groin area of an opponent. Every fighter wears a mandatory cup in their shorts, but a heavy knee or kick to the groin can still cause pain through the cup

12 to 6 elbows

12 to 6 elbows were made most famous by Jon Jones, as they are the reason for his only loss in his pro MMA career. He used them on Matt Hamill and was immediately disqualified by the referee. 12 to 6 refers to a clock, meaning you cannot strike straight downwards with your elbow on an opponent’s head.

Throat strikes

Due to the danger to the fighter’s trachea, throat strikes have been made illegal.

Strikes to the back of the head

Often called ‘rabbit punching’, strikes to the back of the head are also illegal. This is one of the most common warnings given by a ref in an MMA fight, as it’s very easy to hit the back of an opponent’s head when you are behind them (have an opponent’s back). It is also one of the most important banned moves because a rabbit punch can damage the spinal cord and lead to irreversible damage to the fighter.

Illegal moves in MMA on a downed opponent

What does ‘downed opponent’ mean? An MMA fighter becomes officially ‘downed’ when any part of their body, besides their feet and a SINGLE hand, touches the mat/canvas.

The SINGLE hand is emphasized because, in the old rules, fighters used to play the rules by keeping a couple of fingers on the mat to avoid certain strikes. In the updated rules, both hands must be placed on the mat for a fighter to become ‘downed’.

However, a fighter would also be considered downed if only a knee was touching the ground, even if their hands are not on the canvas.

Kneeing the head of a downed opponent

You cannot hit your opponent with your knee if they are in a ‘downed’ position. This is one illegal move which is commonly broken in MMA competition. Much of the confusion comes from split-second decisions a fighter makes as to whether their opponent is in fact downed or not. Also, some fighters have their vision obstructed and can’t see if their opponent has raised both hands off the canvas or not.

Kicking the head of a downed opponent

Back in Pride days, soccer kicking the head of your competitor was completely fine. However, it is not a banned move.

Stomping a downed opponent

Another rule that fighters could use back in the days of Pride was stomping on an opponent with their feet. Again, it is not banned.

Illegal ‘cheap’ moves

Finally, there are moves which if you saw being used in a street fight you would shout “cheap shot”.

These moves have no place in any sport and are dirty by nature. It was moved like the ones listed below that made early MMA organizations really struggle to gain recognition as a legitimate sport.

Grabbing the fence

Grabbing the fence is another commonly broken law by MMA fighters. A fighter will grab the fence to give them balance or to stop their opponent from taking them down

Grabbing shorts

Without comment!

Hitting the opponent after the buzzer

When the buzzer sounds to end a round in an MMA fight, that means an immediate pause in the fighting. A referee will step in between the fighters and demand they go back to their corners. If a fighter throws a punch after the end of the round, they may be deducted a point.

Fighters who blatantly ignore the buzzer and hit their opponent after the round has ended have even been cut from fighting promotions before. An example would be Paul Daley who was released from the UFC when he hit Paul Koscheck at the end of their fight.


MMA fighters must wear mouthguards to compete, but it is still possible to injure your opponent by biting them. Therefore, biting is a banned move.

Eye gouging

Attempting to injure the eyes of your opponent, in any way, is illegal. Fighters often end up poking each other in the eyes during a fight when they stretch out their arms to either block a shot or impair the vision of their opponent. They may first receive a warning to keep their fingers away from their competitor’s face or they will be deducted a point straight away.


Using your fingers to scratch at your opponent is illegal in MMA.


Fish-hooking is the act of putting your finger inside the cheek of your opponent and pulling back on it. This forces your opponent’s head to be pulled back and it can even rip the cheek flesh. Therefore, this move is highly illegal.

Fingers in an orifice

It is also an illegal move to try to injure or affect your opponent’s fight by trying to stick your finger into any open orifice on their body. This has been attempted in the past on VERY sensitive areas of the lower body.

Attempting to get longer break periods

At the end of each round, both fighters are given 60 seconds to rest and receive treatment from their team. You cannot take more time than this, in order to try and get more rest or to recover.

When he fought Tim Kennedy, Yoel Romero and his team were accused of time-wasting. Romero got hit hard at the end of a round and was wobbly going back to his corner. It appeared as if Romero’s team were attempting to give Romero more time to recover from his damage before sending him back out to the next round.

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