13 Illegal Moves in UFC Fights (Most Dangerous)

Have you seen some illegal moves in the UFC and are wondering what moves are the most dangerous?

In 1993, UFC 1 had the tagline, “there are no rules”. While this isn’t entirely true as biting, eye-gouging and groin strikes were enforced only by a $1,500 fine, most of the illegal moves listed below were legal back then, which can be hard to believe once you see them.

Why Are There Illegal MMA Moves in UFC?

Some MMA moves are banned in the UFC because various US state commissions sought rules that would remove the stigma surrounding mixed martial arts, and provide rules to protect fighters.

Preceding this, US senator John McCain, labeled the UFC as ‘human cockfighting’ in 1996. This made the UFC lose a lot of business, attention, and respect; leading to Dana White reshaping the UFC’s branding and adding more rules. 

White knew in order to turn the UFC into a sport people respected, controversial moves needed to be made illegal.

This led the UFC to adopt the Official Rules of MMA in November 2000, taking the 3 original rules to a total of 27.

Dana White went as far as to say, “I consider John McCain the guy who started the UFC… If it wasn’t for McCain I wouldn’t be here right now.”

13 UFC Illegal Moves

There are currently 27 illegal moves in the UFC fighters are penalized for. Below are 13 illegal moves that are the most dangerous, while some are not as dangerous but are included because of how common they are.

1. Eye-gouging of Any Kind

An eye poke, or eye gouge, is the act of putting your fingers, elbows, or chin into an opponent’s eyes. Legal strikes to the eye socket, such as a punch or kick, are not considered eye gouges.

Eye pokes are dangerous because they can permanently damage the eye, causing blindness and possibly even loss of the eye. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most common illegal strikes in the UFC.

If a UFC fighter performs an eye poke, the referee will often pause the fight to give the injured fighter time to recover. In severe cases, they may also call in a doctor to examine the damage.

Extreme or repeated offenses can even result in disqualification, as determined by the referee’s ruling.

Fight examples:

  • Leon Edwards vs Belal Muhammad (UFC Vegas 21) – Edwards was comfortably winning the fight but unintentionally eye-poked Muhammad in round 2. As he was unable to continue, the fight was declared a no contest.
  • Michael Bisping vs Alan Belcher (UFC 159) – Bisping eye poked Belcher in the third round, and as Belcher was unable to continue and the referee deemed the foul unintentional, the fight resulted in a technical decision for Bisping. Strangely, Bisping wasn’t even deducted a point for the foul.
  • Jake Matthews vs Li Jingliang  (UFC 221) – Matthews went on to win via unanimous decision, but Li Jingliang blatantly eye-poked Matthews to escape a submission during the second round, where he escaped with only a warning; which is more inconsistent refereeing. Due to the damage from this eye poke, Matthews now wears glasses.

2. Groin Attacks of Any Kind

Groin attacks, or ‘low blows’, refer to any blows to the groin region and are applicable to both male and female UFC fighters. “Any kind” refers to attacks through striking, twisting, pinching, or grabbing.

Although UFC fighters are required to wear groin protection, groin attacks are still dangerous and can cause severe damage. In extreme cases they can cause testicles to rupture, potentially resulting in sterility.

Groin attacks are extremely common in the UFC; with each event likely seeing at least one low blow.

Fighters are given 5 minutes to recover from a groin attack. The guilty attacker will be given a verbal warning for strike one, and maybe strike two. Reoccurrence will result in a point deduction and potential disqualification.

Fight examples:

  • Alessio Sakara vs Ron Faircloth (UFC 55) – Unintentional low blow of Sakara led to him being unable to continue and the fight was declared a no contest.
  • Gabriel Gonzaga vs Chris Tuchscherer (UFC 102) – Tuchscherer was audibly dry heaving and took more than the allotted five minutes to re-enter the fight.
  • Teruto Ishihara vs Rolando Dy (UFC Fight Night 117) – Ishihara survived three groin attacks and went on to win.

3. Headbutting

Headbutting, or ‘butting’, is using your head as a striking instrument. Headbutting any part of the opponent is considered illegal. The unintentional butting of heads may also be referred to as a clash of heads.

This move can leave both parties unconscious, and also break an opponent’s nose. Both intentional and unintentional headbutts are uncommon in the UFC, but mostly occur accidentally when a fighter is on top in full guard, and they have their head under their opponent’s chin.

Intentional headbutting results in a point deduction or potential disqualification, as determined by the referee. Light unintentional headbutts or a clash of heads causing no significant damage will lead the referee to give a verbal warning, while ones causing the fight to end prematurely, likely result in a draw or no contest.

However, they can also end in disqualification if the referee feels the fighter at fault could have avoided the headbutt.

Did you know? A point deduction in a three-round fight leaves the guilty fighter needing to win all three rounds.

Fight examples:

  • Holland vs Daukaus (UFC Fight Night) – an accidental headbutt led to Holland being KO’d shortly after. A no contest was awarded because the KO was the result of an accidental headbutt.
  • Jack Cartwright vs. Sylwester Miller (Cage Warriors 121) – Miller was disqualified after headbutting Cartwright 4 times.

4. Downward Pointing Elbow

Downward pointing elbows, or 12-6 elbows, most easily understood by the clock analogy, is the “straight-up straight down” elbow strike. The elbow strike becomes legal once it deviates slightly from the 12-6 motion (12 to 5 being legal).

12-6 elbows are illegal whether the fighters are on the ground or standing. However, it’s only really possible to throw 12-6 elbows if you’re above someone, as from the back position you would be throwing more of a 3-9.

The motion of 12-6 is dangerous because it allows for maximum strength to be exerted, aided by gravity. This angle also leaves the opponent’s head with nowhere to go (in full guard), which can lead to eye-gouging and breaking of the orbital bone.

Since slight arcs in the elbow’s path (such as with a whip or twist-action) make the strike legal, unintentional 12-6 elbows are common in the UFC; while intentional elbows 12-6 elbows are rare.

Referees give a verbal warning for 12-6 elbows, though the high-paced nature of UFC fights makes them easy to miss. Ignored warnings result in a point deduction and eventually disqualification.

Fight examples:

  • Jon Jones vs Matt Hamill (UFC – TUF Finale 10) – Jones was disqualified for using illegal 12-6 elbows repeatedly from the full mount position.

5. Kneeing or Kicking the Head of a Grounded Opponent

A grounded fighter is someone with one hand (palm down or fist down) and the soles of their feet touching the mat, or with any other part of their body touching the mat. This includes a single knee or arm, or their butt or back. A knee, kick, or upkick is only illegal if it’s used against a grounded opponent.

Grounded fighters are not able to defend and soften a kick, and the density of knees and heels combined with extreme power generated by the legs can cause concussions, the breaking of bones, and possibly brain damage.

Kicks and knees to the head of a grounded opponent are uncommon as fighters are oftentimes verbally told a fighter is grounded.

An illegal knee or kick to a downed fighter will likely result in disqualification as the injured fighter is likely unable to continue. Often there’s confusion about how they should be officiated, and you’ll likely see different interpretations and outcomes. 

At times, if the guilty fighter is clearly winning and the fight is nearly over, they’ll be deducted a point and the decision will likely go to the scorecards. If a fighter can continue and the damage wasn’t extreme, a point will be deducted from the guilty fighter.

There’s even a possibility the referee sees the illegal strike as unintentional and awards a no contest.

Did you know? Before the rule change in 2016, a fighter was considered grounded when they had both feet touching the mat and just one part of their hand touching the mat (same rule as boxing).

Fight examples:

  • Petr Yan vs Aljamain Sterling (UFC 259) – Disqualification of Petr Yan after illegally kneeing Sterling, who was unable to continue.
  • Alex Oliveira vs Tim Means (UFC 207) – Means was ruled to have unintentionally kneed Oliveira, who was unable to continue. Ruled as a no contest.
  • Anderson Silva vs Yushin Okami (UFC 134) – From the back, Silva upkicked Okami who was a downed fighter. Silva was disqualified.
  • Caio Barralho vs Gadzhi Omargadzhiev (UFC Vegas 51) – After clearly dominating the fight, Caio illegally kneed Gadzhi in a similar fashion to Yan vs Sterling. However, despite Gadzhi being unable to continue, Caio was only deducted a point and won via technical decision. The only difference between the two is that this must’ve been considered unintentional whilst the Yan and Sterling knee was considered intentional (inconsistent application of the rules).

6. Strikes to the Spine or the Back of the Head

Strikes to the spine or back of the head refer to any punches, elbows, knees, or kicks. The back of the head is defined as starting from the crown of the head with a one-inch variance to either side, going down the back of the head to the occipital junction.

This region is sometimes referred to as the ‘mohawk’, or the ‘soft spots’ of the head; as these parts are less protected from strikes or blows.

Strikes to the spine are defined as starting from the entire back of the neck, down the spine, and the tailbone. A one-inch variance from the spine’s centerline and tailbone apply.

Strikes to these regions are dangerous for a couple of reasons. The connection between the bottom of the skull and the spine is relatively unprotected, and therefore vulnerable to strikes, potentially resulting in a paralyzing injury.

There’s also the vulnerable area of the brain stem (soft spots) that if struck can cause serious neurological damage, death, and long-term complications.

Strikes to the spine are uncommon in the UFC, but strikes to the back of the head are fairly common and are seen frequently.

As referees see the strike as unintentional, the consequences of this illegal move are light. Fighters receive a verbal warning from the referee after the strike has occurred, and then change the location of their strikes.

If verbal warnings are ignored and multiple strikes connect to the back of the opponent’s head, the guilty will have a point deducted.

If the injured fighter is unable to continue, the guilty fighter will be disqualified. 

Fight examples:

  • Erick Silva vs Carlo Prater (UFC 142) – Disqualification of Silva due to unintentional illegal back-of-the-head strikes in his fight-ending flurry.

7. Spiking an Opponent to the Canvas Onto the Head or Neck

Spiking, or pile-driving, refers to any throw where a fighter controls their opponent by placing their feet in the air and dropping them straight down onto their head or neck from above (similar to the 12-6 elbow).

If a fighter is thrown with an arc motion onto their head or neck, the move is legal and not considered spiking. 

If a fighter is under attack by submission and can lift their opponent in the air, they may throw the attacker onto their head or neck because they’re deemed as not being in control of their opponent’s body.

Spiking is extremely dangerous and can cause career-ending, paralyzing injuries. This is because of the hard impact on the head and the compression of the neck.

Spiking is extremely uncommon in the UFC, as most throws are used with an arc in the motion and are therefore not considered as spiking. The throwing or dropping of an opponent onto their head or neck is commonly seen when defending a submission.

Spiking would be an immediate disqualification, regardless of intention. It’s up to the referee to judge whether it was a straight up and down pile driver motion without an arc to the throw.

Fight examples:

  • Sapp vs Nogueira (Pride FC 2002) – This showed the brutality of the move. However, it’s not considered a piledriver due to the slight arc in the throw.
  • Nate Marquardt vs Thales Leites (UFC 85) – Considered an illegal piledriver but the referee missed the illegal foul, or maybe he thought there was a slight arc.

8. Intentional Throat Strikes or Grabbing the Trachea

Intentional throat strikes, and grabbing or gouging an opponent’s neck are illegal. Clean strikes that happen to hit an opponent’s throat are deemed legal.

They’re dangerous because they can cause tracheal shearing or even ruptures (also known as crushed windpipe), causing problems such as difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, and disruptions to nearby structures; while extreme cases lead to the loss of respiratory function.

Intentional throat strikes or grabbing in the UFC are rare because it’s unprofessional and inefficient; a fighter could do more damage with a clean strike. Unintentional throat strikes are frequent and occur during stand-up striking exchanges, where they’re deemed legal if they connect sporadically.

Intentional throat strikes result in verbal warnings, followed by immediate point deductions, while repeat offenders are disqualified.

9. Stomping of a Grounded Opponent

Stomping refers to the bending of the knee and the downward initiated leg strikes with either the bottom of the foot or heel. You can stomp an opponent in the UFC, as long as they’re standing (foot and knee stomps).

The stomping of a grounded fighter is too dangerous as the power generated from the above position leads to devastating damage as grounded fighters are less able to defend themselves.

Stomping looks amateurish, lacks skill and respect for the opponent, and makes ground control and positioning redundant. You rarely see the stomping of a grounded fighter in the UFC.

If stomping of a grounded fighter occurs, the guilty fighter is disqualified.

Fight examples:

  • Wanderlei Silva vs Yuki Kondo (Pride Final Conflict 2004) – Not in the UFC but a great example of how dangerous the illegal move is.
  • Michel Pereira vs Niko Price (UFC 264) – Pereira’s backward flip and stomp of Niko Price. The referee missed the illegal move and allowed the fight to continue.

10. Biting or Spitting at an Opponent

UFC Biting is illegal and refers to a fighter using their teeth in any way as an attack against an opponent.

Biting is considered dangerous because a fighter could easily bite away an opponent’s flesh. Biting and spitting are both vulgar and have always been banned by the UFC since 1993.

Biting and spitting are unheard of in the UFC. No fighter would engage in this and even if they wanted to, mouthguards are required and prevent biting or spitting from happening.

If a fighter were to bite or spit at an opponent in the UFC, it would be an instant disqualification and a possible release from the roster. 

Fight examples:

  • Diego Brandao vs Akhmed Aliev (Fight Nights Global 73) – Former UFC fighter Brandao bit Aliev’s ear in the second round and fled the cage after the crowd began throwing bottles at him.

11. Attacking an Opponent After the Bell

Initiating an attack on an opponent after the bell, or once the referee has called time, is known as a sucker punch or cheap shot. They’re called sucker-punches because they’re unexpected strikes.

If a fighter isn’t expecting the strike, they won’t be defending against it, meaning they’ll likely take the full power of it.

Intentional attacks after the bell are uncommon in the UFC, whereas unintentional punches are commonly seen when a fighter is trying to finish the fight with a flurry of punches, late in the round.

Intentional attacks in the UFC result in point deductions or disqualification and the possibility of being released. Unintentional attacks result in a strong verbal warning from the referee, while repeat offenses may result in point deductions or disqualifications.

Fight examples:

  • Paul Daley vs Josh Koscheck (UFC 113) – Daley was released from the UFC due to his after-the-bell sucker punch.
  • C.B. Holloway vs Hector Lombard (UFC 222) – Lombard was disqualified for a late knockout punch against Holloway.

12. Throwing an Opponent Out of the Ring or Caged Area

Throwing an opponent out of the ring would mean either through the two doors or over the octagon walls.

The top of the octagon wall is 3 meters above the ground outside. Depending on how a fighter landed, the fall could result in broken bones, concussion, unconsciousness, and possibly spinal injuries.

This is the rarest illegal move in the UFC, it hasn’t happened and will likely never happen. If it were to happen the fighter would be disqualified and immediately released from the UFC.

13. Timidity

Timidity refers to falsely claiming a foul or faking injury, avoiding contact with an opponent, or using tactics to stall or delay fight action; such as the continual spitting or dropping of a mouthpiece.

If a fighter continually loses their mouthpiece, they’re in a situation where they could have their teeth knocked out, tongue injured, or jaw broken.

Timidity is uncommon but often occurs when a fighter takes five minutes for a claimed low blow or eye poke; when upon further review, it was a legal strike that landed. Fighters often do this if they are tired, or ‘gassed’, and are looking to catch their breath.

If the referee calls a fighter on timidity, they’ll deduct points. Continual timidity by a fighter will signal to the referee they don’t want to fight, and may face losing by disqualification or TKO.

Fight examples:

  • Nick Serra vs Matt Makowski (EliteXc) – Serra was disqualified for repeated timidity. There hasn’t been a timidity disqualification in the UFC.

What Are the Consequences of Illegal Moves in UFC?

Illegal moves in the UFC should be punished according to the rules, however, it’s hard to determine whether something was intentional or unintentional, especially when everything thrown by UFC fighters is thrown with the intention to hurt their opponent.

Referee interpretation of intentional and unintentional fouls is subjective and changes the outcome of fights, often causing confusion and disagreements. This is the reason the UFC has had so many problems with referees over the years, as well as judges where it can be hard to score fights.

Nevertheless, here’s how the rules are written:

Intentional fouls causing a fight-ending injury result in disqualification of the offender. If an intentional foul causes an injury, but the fighter can continue, two points are to be deducted from the offender. However, rarely are 2 points deducted which is a common deviation from the rules.

Unintentional fouls causing a fight to end prematurely result in either a no contest or disqualification; if the fight is less than halfway through the scheduled rounds.

If the fight is more than halfway through the scheduled rounds, the fight results in a technical decision in favor of the fighter currently ahead on the scorecards.

Nowhere in the rules does it specifically mention point deductions for unintentional fouls, so it must be up to the referee’s discretion. One point is normally deducted for repeated unintentional fouls.

UFC Illegal Moves – The Bottom Line

Fans and people within the sport argue some of the UFC illegal moves listed above should be made legal, as they’re no more dangerous than any legal move; especially the 12-6 elbows.

However, the majority of illegal moves were banned for good reason and made the UFC and MMA a more skillful, respectful, and watchable sport; as opposed to a no holds barred cage fight lacking professionalism and rules.

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