UFC Illegal Moves: 17 Banned Strikes You Won’t See

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MMA is described as the most brutal form of modern combat sports. It incorporates different moves from various martial arts that puts on a show for the fans.

Casual MMA viewers think that the UFC doesn’t implement strict rules inside the cage. Well, it’s the exact opposite. 

There are a total of 17 UFC illegal moves, which are:

  • 12-6 Elbows
  • Groin strikes
  • Headbutts
  • Piledrive
  • Fish hooking
  • Throat strikes
  • Kicks and knees to a grounded opponent
  • Eye pokes
  • Strikes to the back of the head
  • Biting
  • Hair pulling
  • Small joint manipulation
  • Grabbing opponent’s shorts or gloves
  • Fence holding
  • Throwing an opponent out of the rings or fenced area
  • Pinching and clawing
  • Spitting

To know more about why these moves are banned, I’ve summarized each illegal move in the UFC below.

1. 12-6 Elbows

12-6 elbows are also known as downward elbow strikes. The strike starts from 12 o’clock and slashes downward to 6 o’clock until it hits the target, usually the head.

This career-ending strike got its name from the clock analogy, mainly used in military communications. 

The amount of damage made from this strike is significantly higher compared to a standard elbow. In this move, the pointed tip of your elbow will pound through your opponent’s skull like a nail.

Jon Jones took his first ‘L’ against Matt Hamill through disqualification due to repeated 12-6 elbow strikes. This happened in the co-main event of the UFC – TUF 10 Finale.

Karate masters use downward elbow strikes to break multiple layers of bricks. That’s the amount of power that this strike can generate. 

Now imagine your head replacing those bricks.

2. Groin strikes

Groin strikes, also called “low blows,” are when one of the fighters hits the genital area of their opponent. Despite having a groin cup, the strength of the strike can still penetrate and even crack the protective layer.

Prohibiting groin strikes is one of the first rules of the UFC since its 1993 debut. This rule is effective both in women’s and men’s divisions.  

Groin strikes are mostly done accidentally inside the cage. During the first offense, the striker will get a warning from the referee. 

The receiving end of the groin strike will have a maximum of 5 minutes to recover. 

Failure to recover will result in a no-contest. But, if the action was repeated throughout the fight and was proven intentional, the offending fighter could receive points deductions and, potentially, lose via disqualification.

3. Headbutts

Back in the early days of the UFC, banging your head into your opponent’s skull was completely fine. 

After knowing how severe the consequences of this move were, the promotion banned it for good.

Headbutts are one of the most common banned moves inside the octagon. This usually occurs during a series of punch exchanges or a rough clinch. 

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When an accidental headbutt happens, the referee will pause the match. He will give the hitter a warning or a point deduction if it’s done multiple times. 

The receiver of the strike will be given time to recover. If the fighter can’t recover, the fight might either end via disqualification or a no-contest, depending on the referee’s decision. 

UFC Middleweight Kevin Holland was once KO’ed by an accidental headbutt. Everyone, including the referee, thought it was from a clean strike until they watched the replay.

4. Piledrive

Piledriving is a move more popular in the WWE. If you know The Undertaker’s finishing signature move, you know what a piledrive looks like. 

For others who don’t, a piledrive is performed by lifting your opponent upside down. A head-to-canvas slam immediately follows this up. 

Piledriving can cause severe damage to the head and the spine. With enough force, it may cause one fighter to be paralyzed and suffer from a long-term head injury or even worse.

During the latest Dana White’s Contender Series, a controversial piledrive win was recorded. It resulted in a dislocated shoulder forcing the fighter to tap. 

Fans argued about the illegal move, but the decision remained the same. 

5. Fish hooking

Fish hooking is when a fighter sticks one or more fingers inside their opponent’s mouth and pulls on their cheek. This doesn’t impose any severe medical consequences, but it is seen as a very unsportsmanlike action to inflict pain during the match.

It’s a dirty move that will likely irritate the opponent easily. Some fighters have used this to escape or set up a submission, like in the Chandler vs. Poirier bout.

Chandler was in the turtle-back position. He fish-hooked Poirier and pulled his head backward to set up a rare naked choke. 

Chandler failed the attempt, and in the end, he was the one choked out via RNC. Karma, am I right?

6. Throat strikes

Intentional throat strikes in the UFC are illegal. The human throat is fragile, and a series of direct strikes can easily break it, along with other organs attached to it.

So that means no karate chops on the neck in the UFC, I’m afraid.

With the constant changing of pace and levels of striking in MMA, accidental throat strikes are fairly common.

Based on my experience, strikes, especially kicks, can be easily miscalculated and land slightly lower than the jaw.

These accidental strikes usually aren’t registered as illegal strikes unless they become frequent in the same match.

Only intentional or successive throat strikes are subjected to a timeout.

7. Kicks and knees to a grounded opponent

UFC doesn’t allow kicks and knees to a downed opponent’s head. A fighter is considered downed when they’re lying on their back or in a kneeling position.

The “soccer kick” is one of those assaults that is banned in the UFC but is surprisingly still allowed in some other promotions like ONE.

But because of the nature of the sport, sometimes it is difficult to follow this rule when competitors are in a fighting mode.

A great representation of this is the controversial UFC 259 main event between Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling. 

During the fight, Sterling went to a kneeling position. After some confusion between Yan and his coaches, Yan threw a knee straight into Sterling’s head and was disqualified, as Aljamain couldn’t recover.

8. Eye poke

Eye poking or “eye gouging” is the act of sticking your fingers in your opponent’s eyes. It’s illegal because it can cause long-term or permanent vision loss. 

Eye pokes can severely compromise one fighter’s game plan during a fight. Take, for example, Miocic vs. Cormier 3. 

Cormier was doing well in that fight, but after receiving a gruesome eye poke that closed his right eye, his performance went downhill. 

A lot of fighters are great at making an eye poke look accidental. Fighters with a long reach, like Jon Jones, are notorious for doing this. 

A severe eye poke can cause a fight to end via no contest or disqualification. In the case of Belal vs. Leon, it ended with a no contest.

9. Strikes to the back of the head

Striking on the back of the head is illegal not only in the UFC rule book but in every combat sport in existence. The back of the head holds the brain stem and a part of the spine.

Getting these vital parts severely damaged may cause career-ending injuries or, worse, death.

As a long-time UFC fan, back-of-the-head strikes are mostly accidental, especially when a fighter is trying to finish a rocked opponent. 


During this scenario, the referee most likely won’t stop the fight. But if the fighter got rocked due to a back-of-the-head strike, then the fighter will have time to recover. 

10. Biting

Biting is pretty much self-explanatory as to why it is banned inside the cage. Compared to other illegal moves on this list, biting is extremely rare.

The most famous case of biting in all combat sports is during Mike Tyson’s vs. Evander Holyfield. 

If a biting incident happens inside the octagon, the action will automatically be subjected to disqualification. 

It’s near impossible to bite an opponent with your mouthguard in, so an actual bite would require considerable motivation to do it – which is why it’s an easy DQ.

11. Hair pulling

Hair pulling can be seen more frequently in the women’s division. Hair pulling has no severe medical consequences, but it is considered unprofessional and an unsportsmanlike move.

The main goal of hair-pulling is to distract the opponent and, of course, to inflict pain. It could be used to make easier submission attempts or to escape from one entirely.

If the UFC allowed hair-pulling inside the octagon, every women’s fight would look like a classic bar brawl.

The men’s division has significantly lower cases. Because they’re bald or have shorter hair when fighting. Well, except for Clay Guida. 

Clay Guida fighting in the octagon for UFC 74
Lee Brimelow, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

12. Small joint manipulation

MMA fights include using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which involves joint locks and choke holds. But this doesn’t mean that a fighter is allowed to twist any joint they can grab during the fight. 

Small joints are easily broken when tweaked, especially the fingers, wrists, and toe joints. That’s why only tough-to-break bones like the arms and legs can be used for submissions.

Small joints are so fragile that a fighter might not have the time to tap before it breaks.

The UFC doesn’t want their fighters suffering constant small fractures that could change the outcome of too many fights and keep them out of action too often.

13. Grabbing opponent’s shorts or gloves

Grabbing your opponent’s fighting apparel is strictly prohibited inside the octagon. It gives a unique advantage over your opponent as you can control their movement more.

If your goal is to humiliate your enemy, there are better ways to do that than pulling down their shorts like a high school student.

Plus, veteran referees like Herb Dean can easily spot these attempts. 

A warning will be given on the first offense and a point deduction if the fighter tries it again. 

Some dirty fighters do this to stop or stall the fight and have a rest. They know that if the shorts or gloves move too much, the referee will call a timeout to fix the wardrobe malfunction. 


Little to no activity from the fighters will lead to a point deduction and an angry Dana White. Stalling inside the cage is an effective way to rest, but it also makes the fight boring for the fans.

UFC 112: Silva vs. Maia is a good example of stalling in a fight. Everyone, including me, expected a fireworks performance from Silva. 

But what he did was joke around for almost 25 minutes and refuse to fight seriously. The main event gave birth to thousands of disappointed fans, including UFC president Dana White. 

14. Fence holding

Fence holding is observed in many UFC bouts with grappling on the side of the cage.

Fence holding happens when, usually automatically, a fighter is preventing takedowns and trying to maintain balance while being pressured up against the cage.

Grabbing the fence gives an unfair advantage to the fighter doing it. It will make him/her harder to bring down to the ground.

Fence grabbing can have negative consequences on the fighter doing it, too.

The thin metal from the cage may severely wound the fingers of the fighter, which might cause a doctor’s stoppage.

Once caught doing an intentional fence grab, the referee will normally call a pause to the action, warn the offending fighter, and reset the fight regardless of the position.

15. Throwing an opponent out of the rings or fenced area

Another famous WWE move that’s banned inside the octagon is throwing your opponent outside the fighting area.

It might make UFC a ton more flashy, like pro wrestling, but it would easily severely injure fighters. It is a real fight, after all.

It would also be dangerous to cage-side audiences, and the UFC would have some lawsuits on its hands. Imagine a fan being squashed by a Heavyweight like Derrick Lewis; not good.

16. Pinching and clawing

Pinching and clawing are closely similar to fish hooking. The only difference is the body part being attacked. Despite that, both are moves are equally disgusting inside the cage. 

Fish hooking only attacks the mouth, while pinching and clawing can be done in any body part. 

Clawing and pinching are often seen during the ground game or a clinch. Clawing or pinching causes discomfort and distraction, which is generally disallowed.

17. Spitting

Spitting is the most disgusting unsportsmanlike move a fighter can do.

But during a messy fight, it’s fairly common for fighters to taste and share bodily fluids, like saliva, blood, or sweat.

During the chaotic fight between Rockhold and Costa in UFC 278, Luke smeared his blood on Paulo’s face while they grappled on the ground.

But the referee didn’t seem to see it as an unsportsmanlike move and didn’t change pause the fight at all.

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