What Is a Rabbit Punch In Boxing/MMA? (Penalties & Deaths)

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Are you wondering what a rabbit punch in boxing and MMA is?

In this article, we’ll look at what a rabbit punch is, where the name rabbit punch comes from, why they’re illegal in boxing and MMA, the penalties for rabbit punching, and the cases of rabbit punching causing serious injury.

What Is a Rabbit Punch In Boxing/MMA?

A rabbit punch is a punch landing on the back of the head or back of the neck. A rabbit punch is illegal in boxing, MMA, and all striking sports because it can disconnect the brain from the brain stem causing death. It can also cause brain damage and paralysis by damaging the cervical vertebrae and spinal cord.

Although rabbit punches are illegal, they’re very common in both boxing and MMA. Due to the nature of these sports, unintentional rabbit punches connect throughout a fight.

In boxing, rabbit punches commonly occur and continue to occur because they’re deemed unintentional. 

They occur during clinches as the boxers are close together. Here, strikes aimed at the side of the head often hit the back of the head because of head movement, off-target punches, and the large impact area caused by large boxing gloves.

Haymaker punches, looping overhand punches, cuffing hooks, and punching down can also strike the back of a boxer’s head when they duck down. This is common in boxing because they don’t have to worry about knees, kicks, or takedowns and are often covering their face from uppercuts when ducking.

Not only when ducking down, cuffing hooks and wild punches can often hit the back of an opponent’s head in boxing during standing exchanges. 

Rabbit punches also occur often when boxers are falling to the canvas in the opposite direction and another punch hits the back of their head on the way down. This is often unintentional as a boxer is trying to land a knockout shot and not give their opponent the opportunity to get back up.

In MMA the likelihood of a rabbit punch is increased because of the ability to continue attacking an opponent from behind, while on their back, in a clinch, during frantic attempts to finish a fight with ground and pound once a fighter has been knocked down, and because of frequent spinning attacks which the leave the back of the head exposed.

Overall though, rabbit punches occur a similar amount of times in boxing and MMA because while MMA has a lot more events where a rabbit punch may connect, boxing has many more punches to the head.

Here’s a short video showing rabbit punches in boxing.

Why Is It Called a Rabbit Punch?

A punch to the back of the head or back of the neck is called a rabbit punch because it’s very similar to the technique used by rabbiters (rabbit hunters), in which they strike the back of a rabbit’s head to quickly stun or end its life.

When stunning, the rabitters use a karate-style chop, club, or stick to strike the back of the rabbit’s head.

The term rabbit punch was therefore very applicable to combat sports, as a punch to the back of the head can have very serious consequences for combat sports athletes.

Why Is the Rabbit Punch Illegal in Boxing and MMA?

A rabbit punch is illegal in boxing, MMA, and all sports-based martial arts because it can paralyze, cause brain damage, and result in death.

At the back of the head lies the start of the spine, the cervical vertebrae (neck bones); which if damaged can lead to irreparable spinal cord injury and potential paralysis because the spinal cord isn’t able to efficiently send and receive messages from the brain.

Rabbit punches are also illegal in boxing and MMA because they can cause brain injuries resulting in paralysis, coma, or death. Rabbit punches are especially dangerous because the brain stem is located at the back of the skull and connects the brain to the spinal cord.

Although rare, a rabbit punch can detach the brain stem from the brain and cause instant death.

More likely is damage to the brain stem from a rabbit punch, which can be irreparable. The brain stem is the link that sends messages from the brain to the body for unconscious functions such as the control and regulation of heartbeat, digestion, and breathing; which if damaged may go offline and become life-threatening.

Rabbit punches are also dangerous because they can drive the lower parts of the brain into the foramen occipital magnum and cause traumatic brain injuries. 

Overall, a rabbit punch is an illegal blow to the back of the head and a very dangerous one.

What Are the Penalties for Rabbit Punching In Boxing and MMA?

The penalties for rabbit punching in boxing and MMA is highly dependent on whether the referee deems the foul intentional or unintentional. 

However, intentional rabbit punches in boxing or MMA are rare because fighters know the dangers. Even if a rabbit punch was intentional (which it can be), it can be hidden and said to be an accident; and the referee will find it hard to disagree.

Intentional rabbit punches
In rare cases, if an intentional rabbit punch injures an opponent, but they can still continue, the fouling boxer is deducted 2 points – which is the same deduction for all intentional fouls in boxing.

The exact same rule applies to all intentional illegal strikes in MMA, as per the Unified Rules of MMA

However, referees in MMA and the UFC only ever deduct 1 point. Why the rules are ignored and 2 points aren’t deducted is unknown, but it’s likely to be because the Unified Rules of MMA are yet to be updated on this issue.

In both boxing and MMA, if an intentional rabbit punch causes an injury that renders the injured fighter unable to continue, the fighter who threw the rabbit punch is disqualified.

Lastly, if a fighter is injured by a rabbit punch early in the fight and the bout continues, but the fight is then stopped after halfway through the scheduled rounds because they’re injured by another illegal foul (rabbit punch or other) or the original rabbit punch is deemed to have seriously hurt them; then the injured fighter wins by technical decision if he’s ahead on the scorecard, or the fight results in a technical draw if he’s behind.

However, this is rarely ever seen because it’s essentially impossible for a referee to consider the original rabbit punch as causing the fight to be stopped later in the fight; since once the fight has restarted, the fighters have been medically cleared from previous injuries.

Unintentional rabbit punches
More commonly, rabbit punches are deemed unintentional in both boxing and MMA for the reasons mentioned above.

In boxing, if an unintentional rabbit punch ends the fight before 4 scheduled rounds have been completed, the fight results in a no-decision. If the fight is ended after 4 completed rounds, a technical decision is awarded to the boxer ahead on the scorecards.

In MMA, an unintentional rabbit punch causing a fight to end less than halfway through the scheduled rounds results in either a no-contest or disqualification. The line between intentional and unintentional can be hard for referees to determine, so most often a no-contest is the result here.

If the fight is ended more than halfway through the scheduled rounds, the fight results in a technical decision in favor of the fighter currently ahead on the scorecards after point deductions have been applied.

Nowhere in boxing or MMA rules does it specifically mention point deductions for unintentional fouls, so it’s up to the referee’s discretion.

Normally, if a referee sees an unintentional rabbit punch they give a verbal warning such as, “watch the back of the head!” If further unintentional rabbit punches continue after the warning, the fight is momentarily stopped and one point is deducted. This applies to boxing and MMA.

If a rabbit punch lands and is caused by a boxer or MMA fighter turning their back to avoid strikes to the head, the referee won’t consider this a foul as it was not the striker’s fault. However, they’ll still give a verbal warning because of how dangerous rabbit punches are.

Overall, despite being a very dangerous illegal strike, rabbit punches are penalized exactly the same way as other illegal strikes.

Rabbit Punch Deaths and Injuries in Boxing and MMA

There hasn’t been a recorded death from a rabbit punch in boxing or MMA. However, they’ve caused some life-changing injuries and have certainly caused some deaths. The rabbit punch just hasn’t been recorded on the death certificate as the cause of death to save face.

Raul Hirales vs Francisco Leal (2013)

Mexican boxer Francisco Leal died three days after his eighth-round KO loss to Raul Hirales. He suffered a severe brain injury and brain stem damage.

The two finishing punches were right hooks, the first cuffing just behind the ear (legal when unintentional), and the second was a rabbit punch which sent Leal to the canvas.

Somehow the referee didn’t consider the illegal blow to the back of the head as a rabbit punch, so Raul Hirales got away with it and unfortunately, Leal lost his life.

Tim Hague vs Adam Braidwood (2017)

Ex-UFC fighter Tim Hague suffered a brain hemorrhage and died two days after being viciously knocked out by an uppercut in a boxing match against Adam Braidwood.

Throughout the fight, Tim Hague was knocked down four times and every time it was the result of him bending his head downward toward Adam, and Adam using behind-the-ear cuffing and downward punching shots.

These rabbit punches likely accumulated and the final blow was how hard Tim Hague hit the back of his head on the canvas.

Ultimately, the fight should’ve been stopped way before and the referee shouldn’t have continually missed several rabbit punches.

Terrell Williams vs Prichard Colon (2015)

During the fight, Williams landed numerous rabbit punches which went unpunished by the referee. However, another rabbit punch in the seventh round knocked Colon to the canvas, for which the referee deducted Wiliams one point as it was a deliberate illegal blow to the back of the head.

Later in the ninth round, again Colon was hit and knocked down with a rabbit punch, which somehow the referee didn’t penalize; despite Colon gesturing to the referee throughout the fight that Williams was using rabbit punches and how the referee had previously deducted a point for rabbit punching.

In a bizarre ending, Colon’s team took his gloves off thinking the bout was finished (it wasn’t), and Colon was disqualified. Backstage, Colon started vomiting and was rushed to the hospital, where it was revealed he’d suffered bleeding on the left side of his brain.

Colon spent 221 days in a coma and has remained in a vegetative state ever since. He has made minor improvements in 2021 and beyond, but sadly, continual intentional rabbit punches escaping penalty has left Colon with irreparable brain damage and more or less the loss of his life.

Here’s a short video showing the Prichard Colon tragedy.

Rabbit Punches – Related Questions

Here are some related questions regarding rabbit punches.

Why Are Serious Injuries From Rabbit Punches More Common in Boxing Than MMA?

It’s hard to say whether rabbit punches are more common in boxing or MMA, but it is safe to say that the referees in MMA are much better at catching and preventing them from happening with verbal warnings and point deductions than the referees in boxing are.

This is likely because punches to the head are much less frequent in MMA, so referees can more easily see punches that hit the back of the head. It’s also because MMA went through a lot of criticism in the mid to late 90s, so they’re very sharp on how they deal with dangerous and illegal strikes.

This has ultimately meant there haven’t been any serious injuries as a result of rabbit punches in MMA.

However, the world of boxing is now much stricter on rabbit punches after the Prichard Colon case. In 2016, the World Boxing Council introduced the Prichard Colon Rule, which is as follows.

‘1. The first warning will be given by the Referee in the Locker room, during the reading of instructions, prior to the fight.

2. The Referee may Immediately stop the action and warn an offending boxer who punches to the back of the head (rabbit punch).

3. After the first warning, any continuous action by the same offending boxer or by retaliation must be immediately addressed by the referee with a firm warning or a point deduction.

4. Referees have the authority under their discretion to warn, to take away points or to disqualify offending fighters.’

Can You Hit The Back of the Head in UFC?

No, hitting the back of the head isn’t allowed in the UFC. It’s known as a rabbit punch and it’s a very dangerous illegal strike that can cause brain damage, paralysis, and death.

The UFC adheres to the Official Unified Rules of MMA which deems rabbit punches illegal. 

If a UFC fighter strikes the back of an opponent’s head or neck, they will first be warned if it was deemed unintentional. If it was intentional or unintentional rabbit punches continue to connect, the referee will deduct 1 point.

Have Any UFC Fighters Been Deducted Points For Rabbit Punching?

It’s very uncommon for UFC fighters to be deducted points for rabbit punching. Most often if a rabbit punch lands, the referee gives a stern warning and the fighter tries their best to avoid it happening again. Also, given the frantic pace in the UFC, many rabbit punches go unseen.

However, Brock Lesnar was deducted 1 point in his UFC debut against Frank Mir, for landing three or four rabbit punches when throwing ground and pound in half guard. After deducting 1 point, Steve Mazzagatti restarted the fight standing so Brock Lesnar also lost his dominant position.

Not only point deductions, Erick Silva was disqualified at UFC 142 due to unintentional rabbit punches in his fight-ending flurry of Carlo Prater.

To Conclude

So, ‘what is a rabbit punch?’

A rabbit punch is a punch landing on the back of the head or back of the neck. The name rabbit punch comes from a hunting technique used by rabitters to stun (knock unconscious) or kill rabbits. Rabbit punches are very dangerous and can cause brain damage, death, and paralysis.

Unfortunately, rabbit punches are common in both boxing and MMA because they slip under the radar as unintentional shots and because of incompetent referees who fail to see, warn, and penalize fighters who aren’t more careful.

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