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Illegal Strikes in MMA - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Tom S.

עודכן ב: 1 אוג 2019

Over the history of MMA, various strikes have been banned for many reasons, including athlete safety, perceived brutality, artificial advantages, and many more. The goal of this post is to clarify more broadly why some banned techniques are ineffective (the bad), shouldn’t be banned (the good), or aren’t easy to pin down (the ugly). Throughout this article I will be referring to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

    The classic examples of techniques that are banned but ineffective are eye pokes and groin shots. There are some simple striking principles that logically explain why these strikes are ineffective in reality. The first is that the larger your target is, the more likely you are to hit it. Takedowns have significantly higher success rates relative to the number of attempts than punches to the head, because it is much easier to grab an opponent’s entire body rather than just his head. Consequently, it is much more difficult to specifically poke the eye of a resisting opponent rather than strike him anywhere about his head. This is especially true when the opponents are standing and can utilize a full range of motion to evade and defend.

    Additionally, every attempt to strike explicitly risks a counter. For example, consider Conor Mcgregor’s risky knockout of Jose Aldo. Aldo threw a punch, which was accurately timed and located by Mcgregor, who sent a devastating counter in return. However, Aldo did land the punch that he threw first. I shudder to imagine what would have happened to Aldo had he tried to poke Mcgregor’s eye, let alone the counter of a more devastating puncher like Tyron Woodley or Anthony Johnson. Somewhere, Anderson Silva is cry-laughing.

On the ground, the parameters are different, and yet these strikes are still less effective. From the bottom, attempts to poke the eyes will lead to crushing ground and pound given the lack of control over the opponents posture. While strikes from the bottom can be effective, this is generally attributed to good control over the opponents posture mixed with a fast and wide-ranged attack, such as Bisping’s elbows against GSP in UFC 217. Furthermore, even if you could poke your opponent in the eye, this would not have nearly the effect that elbows to the head could have, and is a waste of time both in training and performance. Kicks to the groin from the bottom would likely lead to your defensive guard being passed almost immediately, assuming the opponent isn’t controlling your legs in the first place.

From the top, the situation is equally bleak. If you are in a position to deliver ground and pound, why would you opt for simple pokes instead, particularly as they are easier to evade and block than fast and hard punches or elbows? Groin shots would require you to compromise your base in full or half guard, and are idiotic in side or full mount (Never Go Full Retard).

A common counter is the question of why eye pokes or groin shots warrant a 5 minute recovery window for the struck athlete, and the answer is simple: because the strikes are illegal. An athlete is inherently unprepared to be struck in those areas, and as such is not defending those types of attacks. Additionally, the recovery window acts as a punishment mechanism for the offending athlete, rewarding his opponent with time to recover from a situation that otherwise may have been very dangerous to him. Eye pokes were likely made illegal in order to disincentivize targeting of the eyes, which otherwise could result in blindness over a fighter’s career, and groin shots were illegalized to reduce the risk of permanent damage to the reproductive system.

It’s true that brain damage isn’t much better, but knockouts are a critical element of the sport, while groin kicks are not and wouldn’t be even if they were legal. This is known to be true given that they were legal in the past, and while there were rare cases (Keith Hackney vs. Joe Son...just remembering that hurts), they did not become a centerpiece of the sport.

This brings us to the good. While controversial, I thoroughly believe there is no good reason to ban headbutting and knees to the head of a downed opponent. It’s hard to justify a ban on headbutting given that elbows and fists to the head are perfectly fine, and headbutting is absolutely effective in many ground positions.

Similarly, it is difficult to explain why knees to the head are legal in the case of flying knees or clinches, but illegal on the ground. Other promotions such as ONE Championship have legalized knees to the head of a downed opponent, and were used beautifully and effectively by Ben Askren against Bakhtiyar Abbasov.

The 12-6 elbow is a particularly egregious offender, given that the technical definition is so loose that essentially the strike can be thrown in a myriad of ways so as to bend the rule. Elbow strikes are an integral part of MMA, and attempts to ban them because of their likelihood to cause serious damage have so far been ineffective and unnecessary.

They do, however, bring us to the final category, the ugly. As any good fan of the Joe Rogan Experience knows, strikes to the back of the head are illegal and yet highly effective. The fear is that strikes to that especially vulnerable part of the human head could have extreme repercussions, possibly leading to paralysis or even death.

Strikes to the back of the head join a select group of terrifying techniques like soccer kicks and stomping an opponent on the ground that send shivers down the spine of even the most hardcore fight fans, and yet, are in some ways legal. As Rogan points out frequently, head kicks have in the past unintentionally struck the back of the head. Even more troubling is that the better the technique of the kicker, the more likely the connection to the back of the head.

And that is why these techniques are ugly. How far should commissions and promotions go to prevent strikes to the back of the head? How brutal can a technique be before we collectively decide it has no place in a mainstream sport like MMA?

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