What Are Liver Shots in MMA/Boxing? (Why Do They Hurt?)

Photo by WorldSeriesBoxing

Are you wondering what liver shots in MMA are?

In this article, we’ll examine what liver shots in MMA are, why liver shots hurt so bad, the types of liver shot damage, how effective they are in MMA/boxing, how to set up and hit the liver, some of the best liver shot knockouts in MMA and boxing, and more.

What Are Liver Shots in MMA/Boxing?

A liver shot in MMA/boxing is a strike hitting the liver, located on the right side of the stomach under the ribcage and below the diaphragm (see image below). 

If liver shots penetrate enough to damage the liver, fighters experience extreme pain, impaired breathing, and an inability to defend themself as the body goes into physiological shutdown (survival mode).

Not all liver shots penetrate enough to damage the liver, but when they do, no fighter can continue fighting which is why they often result in a KO rather than a TKO. Liver shots also accumulate damage and sap a fighter’s energy and strength over time.

The liver is vulnerable in MMA and combat sports because it slightly protrudes from under the ribcage and is therefore exposed to strikes, and it also rests against the ribs with very little fat to protect it – meaning shots to the right side of the stomach impact the liver.

Photo by DBCLS

Why Do Liver Shots Hurt So Bad? (The Science)

Liver shots hurt so bad because the liver’s a highly sensitive organ, and if struck, the liver compresses and stretches on the other side, which can cause sudden pressure on the vagus nerve – the longest nerve linking to the brainstem and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

When this happens, blood vessels widen throughout the body, heart rate decreases, which causes blood pressure to drop sharply. As a survival instinct, the body forces itself into a horizontal position in order to maintain blood flow to the brain and control blood pressure, which is why fighters fall to the floor.

Upon falling to the ground, pain-inducing chemicals such as cytokines and prostaglandins are released into the bloodstream and fighters can experience impaired breathing, weakness, nausea, and a sharp and intense radiating pain throughout the right side of the body.

What Does a Liver Shot Feel Like?

An effective liver shot that sends a fighter crashing to the canvas has been described by some fighters as feeling like being stabbed with a knife, but the majority say it feels like an electric current that radiates and runs through the right side of the body.

The majority of fighters hit by an effective liver shot and dropped to the canvas need between 2 to 5 minutes before they can get back to their feet, but some can take between 10 and 20 minutes.

Here’s a short video of Joe Rogan discussing what a liver shot feels like, as well as a great video thumbnail showing the exact location of the liver.

Can You Fight Through a Liver Shot?

It’s possible to fight through a liver shot that hasn’t penetrated deeply enough to damage the kidney and pressure the vagus nerve. This is because, while liver shots may still hurt, as long as the body isn’t caving over due to the brain triggering its survival instinct, a fighter can continue to defend themself.

However, when a well-executed liver shot drops a fighter to the ground, most often the referee deems it a knockout blow and the contest is ended. 

Even if the referee doesn’t immediately end the fight (KO), within a couple of ground-and-pound strikes landing the referee will end the fight (TKO) as he sees the fighter can no longer defend themself.

Can a Liver Punch/Shot Kill You? (MMA/Boxing/Martial Arts)

While a liver punch has never led to a death in MMA or boxing, a liver shot in MMA or any combat sport has the potential to kill. This happens if the liver is ruptured or struck hard enough to cause severe internal bleeding that’s not treated in time.

While any organ rupturing can cause death via internal bleeding, the liver is at a higher risk because it has the highest blood flow in the human body and is the largest internal organ – weighing on average 3 lbs.

However, as a whole, MMA has been very well regulated since 2001 due to the introduction of the Official Unified Rules of MMA. This means there are paramedics and hospital transport present at MMA events which prevent fighters from dying due to the internal bleeding caused by liver shots.

Not only MMA regulation, but in the 30 years since MMA has been around, better imaging of an injured liver by computed tomography (CT scan) and improved intensive care management has led to a massive decrease in deaths resulting from liver trauma – which is why no MMA fighters have died as a result.

What Are the Types of Liver Shot Damage?

While liver shots have never caused death in MMA, boxing, or any combat sport, there are varying grades of liver shot damage/injuries that a fighter may sustain.

The World Society of Emergency Surgery places hepatic (liver) injuries into three categories.

1. Minor: Grade 1
2. Moderate: Grade 2
3. Severe: Grade 3 & 4

Here’s a table showing some of the common types of liver shot damage in the three categories.

Grade 1 or 2Grade 3 or 4
Hematomas taking up less than 10 cm and no longer growingVein Damage causing heavy bleeding
Lacerations (cuts) that are less than 1 cm deep and no longer bleedingLacerations (cuts) deeper than 1 cm 
Blood Circulation is stableBlood Circulation is unstable
Blood Supply to the liver has stopped or is slowing
Liver shot damage grades

According to the American Medical Society For Sports Medicine, the most common liver injuries in MMA and combat sports are bruises and lacerations not deeper than 1 cm (grade 1 or 2).

Are Liver Shots Effective in MMA/Boxing?

Liver shots are effective in MMA for the following reasons.

1. MMA fighters and boxers can punch very hard
In a 2013 study on blunt liver injuries, if a healthy adult male were to take a direct liver shot with a punch speed of 5 meters per second, it would be enough to cause liver injury.

Meanwhile, there are estimates that the average professional boxer and MMA fighter can deliver punches in the 13-20 meters per second range, and obviously, knees and kicks are more powerful than punches.

Therefore, it’s easy to understand how liver shots can be very effective in winning an MMA fight.

2. Liver shots get an opponent to drop their guard
A few successfully landed liver shots in MMA and boxing will have a fighter drop their guard in order to protect the liver from further damage and the body potentially shutting down. 

As their guard is lowered, the head and legs are now more open for strikes and knockout strikes can be landed.

How To Punch/Hit The Liver In Different Combat Sports With Setups

Here’s how to punch or hit the liver in MMA and boxing.

MMA fighters have many offensive strikes at their disposal and can hit a liver shot with many techniques such as left hooks, shovel hooks, roundhouse kicks, front kicks, ground-and-pound, and knees in the clinch.

Front kicks are very effective for liver shots in MMA because they allow a fighter to dig their toes into the liver, as is the shovel hook as it’s specifically designed for body and liver shots.

Here’s how to set up a liver shot In MMA.

1. Ground-and-pound
Take an opponent to the ground and get them flat on their front. Here, a knee or punch can hit the liver while they’re focused on defending the head and more importantly the rear-naked choke.

It can be hard to hit a liver shot in MMA against a fighter on their back as they most often have their opponent in full guard and the liver shot is mostly blocked. 

Also, when standing and laying face down the liver presses on the front abdominal wall, which is why it’s easier to hit the liver. When a fighter is on their back the liver falls back and isn’t pressed against the front abdominal wall, making it less vulnerable to shots.

2. In the clinch
Effectively landing knees and hooks to the liver can be done when controlling an opponent’s head with the muay Thai clinch and when controlling an opponent’s upper body with underhooks, head positioning (head under their chin), or wrist control.

3. Calf kick setup to back kick
A great liver shot setup is to get an opponent thinking and reacting to calf kicks because of how common and effective they are in MMA today.

Simply land a few calf kicks from the orthodox position and as the back right leg lands back in position, spin around and land the back kick to the liver on the opponent’s right side.

4. Fake left hook to the head and switch kick
By sending the majority of strikes to an opponent’s head, they’re fully focused on defending the head from strikes.

Simply fake a left hook to the head to have an opponent bring their guard up and use the lead leg switch kick (from orthodox) straight to the liver.

5. Left roundhouse kick from southpaw
Raise the opponent’s guard by using combinations to the head before landing a roundhouse kick to the liver from the southpaw stance.

Another great way to land the roundhouse to the liver is to fire it as a counter at the same time an opponent fires a 1-2 combination from an orthodox stance. Throw the kick on their jab and the roundhouse kick will land while they’re throwing their cross with their rear right.

Liver shots are much harder to hit in boxing than in MMA because fighters only have to defend punches to the head and body.

So, in order to punch the liver, boxers set it up with feints or use it as a second or third punch in a combination where the first punch is to the head. Jabbing the head first brings a boxer’s guard up which leaves them open to either a left hook or shovel punch to the liver.

A shovel hook is a boxing punch that’s halfway between a hook and an uppercut, designed specifically to target the liver.

If an opponent has a long reach and their elbow is protecting the liver when they have a high guard, the answer is to use left overhands to the top side of their head, as this brings their arm up higher and exposes the liver. A boxer then fakes an overhand and executes a liver shot.

Boxers also set up liver shots by introducing and mixing up new patterns, combinations, movements, and timing in order to keep an opponent guessing and not knowing when a liver shot is coming.

Lastly, the high left hook and the left hook/shovel hook to the liver can be both set up and loaded from mid-height so the opponent doesn’t know if the shots are going high or low.

Note: All of the ways boxers set up and execute liver shots are applicable in MMA.

Here’s a short video of legendary MMA fighter Bas Rutten explaining how he sets up and disguises liver shots in MMA.

How To Defend Against Liver Shots in MMA and Boxing?

Defending against liver shots in MMA and boxing is done in the following ways.

1. Keep a high and tight guard
The most effective and simple way to defend against liver shots is to keep a high and tight guard, but not too high so the liver is exposed below the elbow.

If an opponent is targeting the liver, be mindful and keep the guard tight to the body at a level where the elbow is blocking the ribcage while also guarding the head. With the elbows tucked in tight to the body, fighters can also parry punches to the liver with the elbows before countering.

2. Move more
Many fighters take shots to the body and liver because they’re simply not moving out of range.

Improving footwork and cardiovascular endurance gives a fighter the ability to move in and out and laterally for the entirety of a fight in order to evade liver shots. 

Great body movement also allows a fighter to roll liver shots and reduce the power of the strike.

Note: Developing the core and abdominal muscles has no effect on defending against liver shots. A well-placed and powerful strike to the liver is still going to impact the organ and put pressure on the vagus nerve regardless.

Best Liver Shot MMA/UFC Knockouts

Here are some of the best liver shot MMA knockouts in event order that you can watch on UFC Fight Pass.

1. Bas Rutten vs Jason DeLucia 3 (Pancrase – Truth 6)

In their third match in 1996, Bas Rutten threw multiple body and liver shots which dropped Jason DeLucia several times. Bas Rutten connected a hard left hook liver shot which dropped Jason DeLucia for the fourth time and the fight was over.

After the fight, it was revealed Jason DeLucia’s liver had been ruptured, but it wasn’t too bad an injury as he was back fighting two months later. Bas Rutten was one of the first MMA fighters to truly appreciate the effectiveness of liver shots and use it to score a knockout.

2. Jon Jones vs Mauricio Rua (UFC 128)

Jon Jones landed two knees to the side of Mauricio Rua and an uppercut to the chin as Mauricio was getting back to his feet. He then stalked him to the fence and dropped him with a single shovel hook liver shot to become the youngest-ever UFC champion.

3. Alistair Overeem (W) vs Brock Lesnar (UFC 141)

Overeem landed a huge knee to the body and followed up with a huge roundhouse kick from the southpaw stance which dropped Lesnar. The fight resulted in a TKO via body kick and follow-up punches as the referee tried to give Brock Lesnar a chance to recover after being folded.

4. Kyle Noke (W) vs Peter Sobotta (UFC 193)

In the first round, Kyle Noke landed a superb front kick liver shot that sent Peter Sobotta to the canvas. The fight was finished by ground-and-pound TKO but all the work was done by the liver shot as Peter could barely defend himself.

5. Jose Aldo (W) vs Jeremy Stephens (UFC on Fox 30)

Late in the first round, Jose Aldo dug a shovel hook into Jeremy Stephens’ liver that actually sounded like he’d used a shovel to smash him. Stephens crumbled and Aldo finished him with ground-and-pound for the TKO victory.

6. Brandon Moreno (W) vs Kai Kara-France 2 (UFC 277)

In an interim UFC flyweight title fight, Brandon Moreno folded Kai Kara-France with a left front kick to the liver, which he followed up with some ground-and-pound to score the TKO victory.

Best Liver Shot Boxing Knockouts

Here are some of the best liver-shot boxing knockouts of all time.

  • Bernard Hopkins (W) vs Oscar De La Hoya (2004)
  • Canelo Alvarez (W) vs Liam Smith (2016)
  • Terence Crawford (W) vs Julius Indongo (2017)
  • Vasiliy Lomachenko (W) vs Jorge Linares (2018)
  • Shakur Stevenson (W) vs Felix Caraballo (2020)
  • Ryan Garcia (W) vs Luke Campbell (2021)

Some of the best boxers to effectively use liver shots are Canelo Alvarez, Ryan Garcia, Rocky Marciano, and Roberto Duran.

Related Questions

Here are some related questions about liver shots.

Are Liver Shots Legal in Boxing?

Yes, liver shots are entirely legal in boxing. Nowhere in the ABC rules or regulatory guidelines are liver shots even mentioned, meaning they’re fully legal.

Are Liver Shots Legal in MMA/UFC?

Yes, liver shots are entirely legal in MMA and the UFC because there’s nothing against liver shots in the Official Unified Rules of MMA and the UFC adheres to these rules.

While liver shots can be serious if the liver is ruptured, this is rare and there haven’t been any MMA deaths as a result of a liver shot. 

Essentially, liver shots are legal in MMA and the UFC because they’re no more dangerous than many other legal strikes, there are plenty of ways to defend against them, and liver shots which fold a fighter are hard to hit and quite uncommon.

As liver shots are legal, many fighters know how effective they can be and often try to land hard hooks, roundhouse, and front kicks to an opponent’s liver in order to shut their body down and win the fight via KO/TKO.

The Bottom Line

So, ‘what are liver shots in MMA and boxing?’

Liver shots in MMA and boxing are strikes targeting the liver, located on the right side of the stomach under the ribcage and below the diaphragm.

If liver shots penetrate enough to damage the liver, fighters experience extreme pain, impaired breathing, and an inability to function normally meaning they’re unable to defend themself as the body goes into survival mode.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *