On the surface, MMA may seem to have very few rules, and when you compare it to other combat sports, that’s true. However, the sport has evolved significantly since the early 1990s, and there are several rules to ensure fighter safety. One of these is throat punches.
Deliberate throat punches are illegal in the UFC and MMA. But it’s considered clean and legal if they happen in a striking scenario and a blow happens to land in the throat.
This answer should be clear enough, but let’s delve deeper into the possible scenarios and see why directed throat strikes are illegal.
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Throat punches pose an immediate threat to fighters’ long-term health and lives. It’s not like thrusting your elbow in someone’s face with full power doesn’t, but the throat area hosts the larynx and trachea that, if damaged sufficiently, can lead to even death.
This is the reason the unified rules of MMA prohibit direct strikes to the throat. A throat strike is considered when a fighter deliberately pulls the head to expose the neck area for an attack. In a submission attempt, it’s also not allowed to use fingers and thumbs to gouge and pinch the neck or trachea.
But immediately after the core rule comes the secondary rule, which states that if a strike lands on the neck during stand-up action, it’s considered a clean blow. And there are countless examples of this happening all the time.
In particular, high kicks tend to land on the side of the neck (remember Holly Holm’s famous KO of Ronda Rousey). The rules explicitly forbid fighters to target the throat, but this doesn’t mean strikes don’t land there.
Can A Throat Punch Kill?
Technically, a throat punch can kill a person. Small bones can obstruct the windpipe, or the larynx can be broken. After all, the throat is a very vulnerable part of the body, not coincidentally targeted by animals and people who intend serious harm or even death.
Many self-defense styles and combat systems intended for military use have techniques aimed at the throat used for swift incapacitation of the foe. This is often done as an initial surprise attack to dispatch the person as quickly as possible.
But in all fairness, once the fight starts, the trachea is not so vulnerable. Otherwise, fights would often end after a strike lands there. Fighters usually have their necks tense, so the muscles absorb most of the impact.
Furthermore, one of the first things you learn in fighting is to keep your chin tucked, which automatically shields the throat. Even if a blow does reach there, the neck position does not completely expose the most vulnerable parts.
The point I am making is quite similar to the scenario of receiving a sucker punch out of nowhere and receiving one while both fighters are swinging and fighting. We all know that the strike you don’t expect, see, or both is much more devastating.
What Punches Are Illegal In The UFC?
Throat punches are not the only illegal punches in the UFC. Some other techniques are also considered too dangerous and are forbidden. The main one you will often see UFC fighters warned about by the referee is strikes to the back of the head.
Again, when judging the potential for severe damage, the back of the head is strictly off-limits. Punches there are known as “rabbit punches” in boxing, and the term is also widely used in other sports.
Blows to the back of the head are considered too dangerous because they can damage the top vertebrae and the spinal cord, causing irreparable damage.
The back of the head is also where essential motor brain functions are located. You may not be aware, but many street fight fatalities result from a person falling with the back of their heads on a hard surface, not from the initial strike that caused them to fall.
Another point worth mentioning in this segment is that all fighters must protect themselves intelligently at all times, as we hear from the referees often. This adds to the second rule for throat strikes, and it works the same way for strikes to the back of the head.
While both are strictly forbidden, if a fighter presents these areas as a target and a strike lands on their throat or the back of their head, such strikes are considered incidental and are not fouls.
The dynamic nature of a fight makes both throat punches and strikes to the back of the head hard to disappear, and judges have the tough task of deciding when a foul was committed. The throat is especially susceptible to kicks because the legs travel upwards and often find their way to the neck.
Rolling with punches aims to disperse the impact from the jaw, but it may open the way for a powerful punch to the back of the head. The constant jockeying for superior angles and position inevitably leads to strikes behind the ear or entirely to the back of the head. They often lead to “flash knockdowns”—an immediate loss of balance that a fighter quickly recovers from.
This is all an inevitable part of fighting. Despite some people advocating for stricter policing of these rules, I believe this will lead to too much interference from the referees. Just think about the parody of themselves most Olympic martial arts have become after too many rules, and restrictions were implemented.
To summarize the article, deliberate throat punches are illegal in the UFC. Fighters cannot use techniques and moves that open up the throat and then attack it. But often, strikes land on the neck and throat in striking exchanges, and they are considered accidental and legal. The same rule applies to strikes to the back of the head, but judges are a lot stricter in this case.