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Unified Rules of MMA: Are Elbow Strikes Allowed in UFC/MMA?

Robert Green
Published: September 29, 2021
Updated: July 11, 2023

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MMA has a history of being a brutal sport, but since modern-day MMA has been around, the rules and regulations are constantly being revised. The rules have changed to improve the sport while protecting fighters from serious injuries.

So, are elbow strikes allowed in UFC/MMA? 

Yes, elbow strikes are legal in the UFC and most MMA promotions. Some martial arts styles, such as Muay Thai, even teach fighters how to land devastating elbow blows. However, one elbow move, known as the 12 to 6 downward elbow strike, is illegal due to the dangerous nature of the strike.

The history of MMA has evolved from the Ancient Greek sport, pankration, where there were only two rules; no eye-gouging and biting. However, since modern-day MMA is quite new at less than 30 years old, the rules are often reviewed and changed to create a safer sport.

Here I will explain how the rules view elbow strikes, including the ones that are allowed and what the illegal 12 to 6 elbow is. 

The Damage Caused By Elbow Strikes

Elbow strikes are damaging to fighters in MMA due to their sharpness and the lack of elbow padding used in the sport. While very few elbow strikes knock an opponent out, certain organizations don’t like them as they result in opponents being cut badly. 

When an opponent is cut in the cage, it may lead to excessive bleeding that ends the fight due to a medical stoppage. These cuts are caused by the sharpness of the elbow as it strikes an opponent. 

Since the elbow is one of the toughest parts of the body, it is a useful move during MMA fights and certain martial arts focus on these strikes. Muay Thai is known as “The Art of Eight Limbs” since practitioners use elbow and knee strikes as well as their hands and feet to create a full-body weapon. 

Elbows are useful to knock your opponent to the ground or knock them unconscious. Although the elbow isn’t deemed much worse than hand and foot striking according to the rules. 

While generally elbow strikes are permitted, fighters are not allowed to strike opponents on certain parts of their body, while that is true for hand and foot striking too.

Fighters cannot land strikes on an opponent’s spine, back of their head, groin, behind their ears, or throat. This includes hand, foot, knee, and elbow strikes.

The main problem with elbows arises when a downward elbow strike lands on an opponent, known as a 12 to 6 elbow strike.

The 12 to 6 Elbow Strike Explained

The 12 to 6 elbow strike refers to a downward elbow strike that mimics a move from the 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock position on a clock face. This would be a strike when a fighter hammers his elbow straight down onto an opponent below them on the ground. 

Since this strike can cause extreme damage and life-threatening injuries if it hits an opponent in the wrong place, it has been deemed illegal as per the Unified Rules of MMA. The strength of the elbow bone along with the downward force creates a powerful impact.

The Unified Rules of MMA were determined by representatives from multiple MMA organizations, including the UFC. These rules involved input from doctors to determine whether certain moves could be fatal or severely impact a fighter for the rest of their life. 

These rules were a big step away from the previous unregulated fighting that had been around for thousands of years. MMA and the UFC needed to implement such regulations to increase the popularity of the sport while making it safer for athletes.

Many fans believe the 12 to 6 rule was implemented as a way to make MMA seem less barbaric due to its unregulated past. While certain fans debate whether this strike is really that damaging as other elbow strikes could generate more power.

One incident which brought the 12 to 6 elbow strike into the spotlight happened when Jon Jones was disqualified for landing a downward elbow strike to Matt Hamill’s head during The Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale in 2009.

Whether fans agree or disagree with the 12 to 6 elbow being classed as an illegal move, there is no getting around it as fighters will be disqualified for attempting this move.

person using training helmet inside the ring

Legal Elbow Strikes

All other elbow strikes are legal as long as they do not land in the illegal zones, which include the back of the head and behind the ears, the groin, spine, and throat. These zones could cause life-threatening damage to an opponent. 

Fighters can strike their opponent anywhere else with a side elbow, including arcs and other striking movements. Fighters tend to use the elbow in combination with other strikes to move closer to their opponent and land damaging blows.

Here are three common elbow strikes allowed in the UFC and most MMA competitions. 

The Snap Elbow

During close combat, the popular snap elbow works similar to a hook using your lead hand. While keeping your forearm tight against your bicep, swipe your elbow horizontally across your body. This will only work if you are close enough to your opponent, otherwise, you will need to take a step forward before striking.

The Up Elbow

This elbow strike is similar to an uppercut punch and can produce similar damage if done correctly. Land an up elbow by taking a step forward with your lead foot while slicing your elbow up with your hand close to your face. This can be aimed at your opponent’s stomach, face, or chin.

The Cross Elbow

The cross elbow is similar to a rear hook punch as you will use your rear elbow to do damage. As you would land a snap elbow, you do the same using your rear arm to land this strike. Make sure your rear forearm is curled in and swipe it horizontally across your body while taking a step forward to close the gap.

Elbow Strikes FAQs

Are elbows stronger than punches?

The hardiness of the elbow results in a stronger strike than a punch if the elbow strike is carried out correctly. Elbow strikes tend to cause cuts and can be used in combination moves along with punches and kicks. 

Muay Thai is one of the main martial art forms which focuses on elbow striking techniques as well as striking with hands, feet, and knees.

Why do elbows cut skin?

Elbows have a sharp tip that can split open skin when a lot of force is used in the strike. The closeness of the elbow to the body produces a more compact strike with a stronger force. When elbows are landed while in clinches, it can do a lot of damage to an opponent at close range.

The Final Strike

Elbow strikes are useful in MMA fighting and, since they are legal in the UFC, it is a good idea to learn a few of these moves during training. As long as you refrain from landing an illegal strike and stay away from the 12 to 6 elbow strike, you can inflict damage while not being disqualified.

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