TKO vs KO in the UFC/MMA (How Do They Differ?)

TKO and KO are often grouped together in the UFC and MMA and go on to a UFC fighter’s record as KO (knockout), but there are differences between the two. What are these differences?

Short answer: 

TKO refers to a referee/doctor stoppage in which the fighter is not defending themselves.

KO refers to a referee stoppage in which the fighter cannot defend themselves.

Obviously, there’s more to it than this, so let’s take a deeper look at TKO vs KO.

What Is a TKO in UFC/MMA?

TKO stands for Technical Knockout and there are various ways they can occur, but they come under two specific stoppages.

TKO by Referee Stoppage

The first and most common way is through a referee stoppage in which the referee stops the fight as one fighter is not defending themselves. If a fighter is not defending themselves, in the eyes of the referee, they’re beaten. 

However, TKOs by referee stoppage are more technical than that and can occur for a few different reasons. They are:

  • Striking
  • Laceration
  • Corner stoppage
  • Not answering the bell

Referee Stoppage as a Result of Striking

This is the most common TKO and is seen when one fighter is not defending themselves from strikes, and the referee intervenes and waves off the fight.

TKOs are mostly the result of strikes on the ground from a fighter in a dominant position on top. They may have their opponent trapped underneath in a turtle position or have them flattened out on their front.

In both positions, the fighter on the bottom is not defending themselves from strikes and there will likely be a referee stoppage. 

Preceding the TKO, the referee will likely give verbal warnings to the losing fighter that they need to get out of a certain position, fight back, or show that they’re trying and willing to continue fighting.

You often see fighters complaining about an early referee stoppage because the fighter hasn’t lost consciousness and they feel they were able to defend themselves.

Indeed, referee stoppages from strikes are subjective and can change from one referee to another.

However, the referee has a job to protect the health of fighters by preventing them from unnecessary damage, and if they feel a fighter is not defending themselves adequately, they will stop the fight.

Referee Stoppage as a Result of Laceration

A referee can end a fight midway through a round if they deem a laceration as dangerous, but this is the most uncommon referee stoppage to result in a TKO.

This is because referees are also allowed to temporarily stop fights to check on a laceration themselves, but they can also have a fighter’s laceration checked by a doctor.

As referees are not experts in terms of lacerations and fighter’s health, they will always use the doctor when needed. If the doctor clears the fighter, the fight will continue. If the fighter isn’t allowed to continue, it will go down as a doctor’s stoppage and not a referee stoppage.

Referee Stoppage as a Result of a Corner Stoppage

A corner stoppage, also known as throwing in the towel, is a signal from a fighter’s corner to the referee to stop the fight; as a fighter’s corner is looking to prevent their fighter from further damage. 

It’s still known as a referee stoppage as the ending of the fight goes through the referee.

This is a rare event and the least likely way of a TKO happening. This is because most fighters want to continue no matter what and the corner often leaves that decision to the fighter.

Also, a fighter’s team is paid more if their fighter wins as they will receive a share of the fighter’s win money.

Moreover, referees usually beat a fighter’s corner to the punch and will end the fight way before a fighter’s corner consider throwing in the towel.

If a corner were to throw in the towel, it would usually be in between rounds when they get a chance to talk with their fighter, to discuss the possibility of pulling them out of the fight.

Referee Stoppage Because a Fighter Didn’t Answer the Bell

If a fighter stays down at the end of a round after the bell is sounded there may be a referee stoppage if the fighter looks unable to continue. 

Before they end the fight, the referee will usually ask the fighter questions to gauge whether they are fully responsive and well enough to continue fighting. The referee may even confer with the ringside physician before stopping the fight.

TKO by Medical Stoppage

The second more uncommon way is through a medical stoppage. These occur for a few different reasons, and they are:

  • Laceration
  • Doctor Stoppage
  • Loss of control of bodily function

Medical Stoppage as a Result of Laceration

The ringside physician decides that it’s unsafe for the fighter to continue due to a deep cut that is perhaps bleeding heavily or is likely to get much worse if the fighter were to continue. This is to protect the safety of fighters.

Medical Stoppage as a Result of Doctor Stoppage

The ringside physician decides that it’s unsafe for the fighter to continue due to the damage they’ve received. This will likely be broken bones, injured ligaments, or anything that tells a doctor the fighter is unable to or should not continue; such as disorientation or poor body language.

Medical Stoppage as a Result of Loss of Bodily Function

A loss of bodily function refers to a fighter vomiting, urinating, or defecating. If a fighter loses control of their bodily function midway through a round, the referee will stop the fight. 

Despite the referee stopping the fight, the TKO is recorded as a medical stoppage.

If the loss of bodily function happens during a rest period, the ringside physician will be the one to award the TKO by medical stoppage.

Note: Despite these being three separate medical stoppages in the official rules, they are all recorded as a Doctor Stoppage.

Is Submission by Strikes Considered a TKO?

Not written in the Official Unified Rules of MMA, submission by strikes also results in a TKO. This is seen when a fighter is overwhelmed by strikes, and taps as a signal for the referee to stop the bout.

This is seen as a technical knockout because the fighter is beaten by strikes and not a traditional chokehold submission. 

They’re likely not in the rules as they’re very uncommon; most often a referee will stop the fight before a fighter has a chance to tap.

What Is a KO in UFC/MMA?

KO stands for knockout and refers to a referee stoppage in which the fighter cannot defend themselves; due to being knocked unconscious, or injured in a severe enough way that disables their defenses.

In the Official Unified Rules of MMA, knockouts are defined as a referee stoppage, due to strikes. However, a fighter can also be knocked out due to slams.

Strikes and slams causing a fighter to lose consciousness are considered a KO.

Strikes to the body or legs can cause a KO despite the fighter being conscious. Examples of this are liver shots causing a fighter to fall, and oblique kicks crushing a fighter’s knee.

A slam can also cause a KO despite the fighter being conscious. Examples of this are severe spinal and neck injuries that mean a fighter cannot defend themselves.

Unlike boxing, in the UFC and MMA, a fighter only has to lose consciousness for a split second for it to be considered by the referee as an automatic KO.

This is because once a fighter has lost consciousness, they are liable to receive unnecessary damage on the ground; therefore the automatic KO prevents this.

The Bottom Line

Oftentimes, TKO vs KO are used interchangeably. They are recorded as KO on a fighter’s record, and they are also synonymously used when betting on a KO; meaning that both a KO and TKO will result in a KO win for a bettor.

Despite this, the key difference between TKO vs KO mostly comes down to whether a fighter is not defending themselves due to being overwhelmed by their opponent (TKO), or whether they cannot defend themselves (KO) because they’ve been knocked unconscious or injured severely enough for the fight to be automatically ended.

Here you can read about the fastest UFC knockouts ever and whether they were knockouts or technical knockouts.

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