Are Elbows Strikes Allowed in UFC/MMA?

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Elbow strike MMA

Unlike the hands’ structure, the structure of your elbows is solid. You can also get much more leverage when throwing elbows than when throwing punches (especially if you have long arms) and cause massive damage. So if elbows can be so dangerous are they allowed in the UFC?

Are elbow strikes allowed in the UFC/MMA? Yes, almost all types of elbow strikes are allowed both on the ground and in stand-up in most of the big modern MMA promotions (UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship). The only elbow strikes that are illegal are the so-called 12 – 6 elbow. Those are downward pointing of elbow strikes.

Also any kind of strikes to the groin, throat, the back of the head, spine or anything behind the ears is illegal (reference MMA rules Wikipedia). That includes elbows too as well as the other types of strikes (punches, knees, kicks, shoulder strikes, etc).

So as long as they don’t use 12 – 6 elbows and don’t elbow your opponent in the places where it’s illegal MMA fighters can use elbow strikes in every situation. And the elbows are a very useful strike. In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss why exactly is that and we’ll also answer questions such as why 12 – 6 elbows are illegal and why was throwing any elbows whatsoever illegal in some old school MMA organizations.

Why 12-6 elbows are illegal?

An example of 12-6 elbows you can see in the Jon Jones vs Matt Hamill fight where Jones was disqualified for using them:

In the early 2000s, MMA organizations decided to come up with new rules which will make the sport more mainstream. People from different organizations (UFC, Pride, and IFC) as well as referees and doctors had a meeting to discuss those new rules.

Doctors were concerned that 12-6 elbows can be very dangerous even life-threatening after watched a UFC 1 fight where those elbows were thrown to the back of the head of a downed fighter. They also thought that those elbows can severely damage the orbital bone if they are thrown in someone’s face.

There are different opinions on whether or not that rule should be removed. First of all, you can use 12-6 elbows only in a few positions.

The only two that come to my mind at the moment are if you have a full mount (when you are on top of your opponent on the ground and passed his guard) or you have side control (similar position to the mount; the difference is that you are still top but your body is perpendicular to your opponent’s and you are usually chest to chest). Other than in those two positions I don’t see how you can use 12-6 elbows effectively.

There are some Muay Thai fighters who like to step on their opponent’s lead leg, use it to jump and hit a 12-6 elbow to the head of the opponent. The technique is flashy but I am not sure how effective it is. Also, I never saw anybody use it in MMA. Probably because there is a big chance for the fighter who uses it to get taken down.

The second argument against that rule is that you can actually generate more power using normal elbow strikes (elbows on an arc) which are legal. So what is the point of prohibiting 12-6 elbows if they aren’t as powerful as the already legal elbows which people use since the first days of MMA?

That was my opinion until recently when I accidentally got hit with a 12-6 elbow and it really sucked. We were doing boxing sparring with that tall guy and I trying to bob and weave to close the distance. I ducked my head and he probably thought I was going for a body shot and he brought his elbows down to defend his body. I was too close to him and as he hit me with the point of his elbow right on the top of my head. It really sucked, I waited about 2 minutes for the pain to go away.

So that was my experience with 12-6 elbows. I haven’t been hit with any other types of elbows, to be honest, other than accidental elbows during kickboxing/boxing sparring or grappling. But that was the only time I really felt in pain.

Where elbow strikes are illegal and why?

In the early days of MMA people weren’t that sure which strikes were dangerous and which not. They didn’t have the knowledge we have today so the people who created the rules were often guessing what should be legal and what shouldn’t.

For example in Pride FC (the biggest Japanese MMA promotion company; does not exist today) elbow strikes to the head were illegal. The people who created Pride Rules probably thought that elbows were too brutal and dangerous. Surprisingly, though, elbow strikes were illegal but things such as kicking, kneeing and stomping the head of a downed opponent were completely legal.

And today, all those things are considered fouls according to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts which are adopted by almost all modern MMA organizations. You’ll never see someone kicking or kneeing the head of a downed opponent in the UFC without being punished by the referee.

Rizin Fighting Federation is the only existing MMA organization today that adopted Pride Rules. If you’re interested in seeing the implementation of those “illegal” techniques you can check out some Rizin fights.

Bellator is the other big modern MMA organization that has different rules on using elbows. Usually, elbow strikes are legal in Bellator because they’ve adopted the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts but that’s not the case when there is a tournament.

Bellator occasionally conducts tournaments in each weight class over a 3-month period. Only in quarterfinal and semifinal tournament bouts, elbow strikes are illegal because they can cause cuts which can prevent the fighter to participate in the finals. In other words, Bellator wants to reduce the chance of losing money by not being able to conduct finals.

Elbows are legal in the final bouts, though.

Are elbows really that devastating?

The main danger of elbows (other than that they friking hurt) is the cuts. There is no padding on your elbows so you can cut your opponent even if the strike isn’t that powerful. All Tony Ferguson’s opponents, for example, look so bad after the fight because he cuts the with elbows.

Having a cut especially above the eyes can reduce your vision and discourage you / encourage your opponent. If the cut is severe enough, the fight may even be stopped and you are going to lose by doctor stoppage.

Cuts are very common but to see someone knocking his opponent out with only 1 elbow strike is extremely uncommon. The only example that comes to my mind is Matt Brown vs Diego Sanches:

That doesn’t mean you can’t knock someone out unconscious with elbows. That happens often in MMA. For example in the second Jon Jones vs Cormier fight or the fight between Daren Till and Wendell de Oliveira. The thing is that you need to get your opponent to the ground, get a dominant position an elbow him from there.

Elbow strikes can also cause broken nose – like in the Daren Till vs Donald Cerrone fight or broken orbital bone and swelling like in the Leon Edwards vs Gunnar Nelson fight. You can also use elbows to the body from a top position on the ground – like Yoel Romero finished Dereck Brunson.

So yeah, elbows can cause a lot of damage and be really devastating. I think they are even more dangerous than knees because they can be used in many more situations especially in modern MMA where knees on a downed opponent aren’t allowed.

Dimitar Ivanov

Just a hardcore MMA fan and practitioner who wants to share some info with the world.