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Which moves are illegal in the UFC?

Aljamain Sterling (left) and Petr Yan (centre) at UFC 259; UFC president Dana White (right)
Aljamain Sterling (left) and Petr Yan (centre) at UFC 259; UFC president Dana White (right)

According to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, several purportedly controversial combat techniques are illegal in MMA and the UFC. Today, we briefly examine some of the notable illegal moves that are banned in the sport of MMA and the world’s premier MMA organisation, the UFC.

In fact, not only will our discussion cover illegal moves, but also a few other notable fouls that could get a fighter disqualified or, at the very least, have points deducted from the judges’ scorecards.

Although the Unified Rules of MMA are followed by many organisations around the world, not all of them adhere to these rules. Certain moves that are illegal in the UFC and other North American and European MMA promotions which follow the Unified Rules of MMA, may not be illegal in other promotions such as Japan’s RIZIN and the Singapore-based One Championship.


Which moves are illegal in the UFC?

So, without further ado, let's have a look at the list of illegal moves in the UFC.


#1 Shots after the bell, disrespecting the referee and the infamous Piledriver are not allowed in the UFC

One of the basic tenets in the UFC is that the two fighters involved in a given MMA bout aren’t permitted to hit one another after the bell/buzzer signals the end of a round or the end of the fight. Fighters aren’t allowed to strike or grapple with each other after the bell.

The fighters are separated by the referee as soon as the bell/buzzer signals the end of a round/fight. If any fighter blatantly disregards the referee’s instructions, the referee can disqualify the fighter. For instance: when the referee tells both fighters to stop, they are indeed obligated to stop fighting, be it striking or grappling.

Additionally, one of the most high-risk moves in professional wrestling, popularly known as the Piledriver, is banned in MMA. A fighter is not allowed to spike his/her opponent to the mat on the said opponent’s head or neck.


#2 Grabbing the fence, the opponent's gloves or shorts, and head-butts are banned in the UFC

Fighters in UFC are not allowed to grab the fence. This move is usually used by fighters to either hold their opponent against the octagon fence or to grab the fence while on the mat and help themselves stand up.

Holding the opponent’s shorts and/or gloves too, trying to unfairly gain leverage and catch one’s opponent, is prohibited in MMA. Moreover, head-butts too are illegal in the UFC. Head-butts are notorious for cutting open opponents and not just seriously hurting the opponent but also the fighter that delivers them.


#3 Unsportsmanlike conduct, timidity and throwing an opponent outside the octagon is not allowed in the UFC

Instances of unsportsmanlike conduct which injures one’s opponent are also illegal. This includes activities such as attacking the opponent during a pause in action, in-between rounds, before or after the fight and/or when the opponent is being tended to by the referee.

Besides, a fighter’s corner too cannot display unsportsmanlike conduct. A fighter’s corner persons cannot interfere during a fight, be it to defend their fighter or to hurt the opponent.

While hostile behaviour that qualifies as unsportsmanlike conduct is most definitely illegal, extremely docile behaviour to is deemed illegal in the UFC. What we’re talking about here is timidity.

Actions such as constantly disengaging from striking or grappling exchanges, running away from one’s opponent, repeatedly dropping the mouthpiece on purpose so the referee would pause the action, feigning an injury, etc., are regarded as acts of timidity in the UFC.

A fighter in the UFC could have points deducted from the judges’ scorecards or be disqualified for displaying excessive timidity.

Coming back to hostile behaviour, throwing one’s opponent out of the MMA ring/cage, the octagon in the UFC’s case, is illegal. This move, although incredibly popular in professional wrestling-based sports-entertainment promotions, is illegal in the sport of MMA.

A fighter can face severe consequences for throwing his/her opponent out of the octagon, particularly since this could result in serious injury to the opponent.


#5 Groin strikes, hair-pulling, eye-pokes, biting, spitting and fish-hooking are illegal in the UFC

Attacking an opponent’s groin area, pulling their hair, landing intentional eye-pokes or downright trying to gouge their eyes out, biting, and/or spitting at one’s opponent are all illegal moves in the UFC.

Intentionally fish-hooking one’s opponent, which is the placement of one or more fingers into the mouth or any other orifice and trying to pull the orifice apart, is also illegal in the UFC.

The fish-hooking technique is generally used by fighters by inserting their fingers into a cut/laceration on the opponent’s face in an attempt to worsen that. That could permanently disfigure the opponent and/or result in serious injury.


#6 12-6 elbows, small-joint manipulation, rabbit punches, throat attacks, pulling the opponent's flesh, clawing, pinching and outstretched fingers towards the opponent's face are banned in the UFC

One of the most well-known and debated illegal moves in MMA is the 12-6 elbow. The 12-6 elbow can be better understood with the analogy of a wall clock, the 12 occupying the topmost position and the 6 sitting at the bottommost position.

A 12-6 elbow is one that is thrown by a fighter on a downed opponent at an angle that’s perpendicular to the ground but in a direction that goes from 12 to 6 on the wall clock.

Moreover, small-joint manipulation, i.e. pulling and/or twisting the opponent’s fingers, toes, and the myriad of joints in the body, is illegal. Bear in mind that wrist-locks and ankle-locks are allowed in MMA, but they’re often mistakenly categorised as illegal.

This is a highly nuanced issue in the sport of MMA, a sort of a grey area, as in, wrist-locks and ankle-locks are often easily used to disguise small-joint manipulation attacks.

That, in turn, makes it difficult for the referee to stop the action unless a small joint actually ends up getting broken. This rule is perhaps best understood by focussing on the fact that a fighter isn’t allowed to twist and pull an opponent’s fingers and toes.

Strikes to the back of the head (also known as rabbit punches), to the spine, and/or behind the ear are also illegal in the UFC. Even unintentional strikes to these areas could hurt an opponent who receives the strikes. It’d depend on the severity of the damage caused by the strike as to whether the referee would let the fighter off with a warning, deduct a point or disqualify the fighter.

Throat strikes to one’s opponent, including grabbing hold of and attacking the opponent’s trachea, twisting and/or pulling the opponent’s flesh, clawing, pinching, and keeping one’s fingers outstretched towards the opponent’s eyes/face are also illegal in the UFC.


#7 Attacking a downed opponent with stomps, soccer kicks and knees to the head is disallowed; offensive language is also illegal in the UFC

Stomping a downed opponent is illegal in the UFC, and so is hitting a downed opponent with soccer kicks.

Intriguingly, as we saw in the UFC bantamweight title matchup between Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259, landing a knee to the head of a downed opponent is also an illegal move that could get a fighter disqualified.

And arguably, the most interesting illegal move on this list is the use of offensive language against one’s opponent. Yes, this is indeed illegal under the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts and thereby illegal in the UFC. Nevertheless, fighters usually don’t get points taken away from them or get disqualified for swearing and/or using obscene gestures to insult their opponents.


What are the consequences of using illegal moves in the UFC?

UFC fighters who use one or more of these illegal moves can have either points taken away from their scores on all three judges’ scorecards or disqualified by the referee.

If the move is deemed unintentional, the fight ends in an NC (no contest). If the move is intentional, as was decided in the Yan v. Sterling UFC bantamweight title fight, then the fighter is disqualified.

If an illegal move in the UFC injures an opponent and they can’t continue, but they were ahead on the scorecards, then the fight ends in a technical decision win for the opponent. On the contrary, if a fighter injures an opponent and the opponent is losing on the scorecards, then the UFC fight ends in a technical draw.

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Edited by Bhargav
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