The strange story of MMA's most misunderstood illegal elbow strike (2023)

The strange story of MMA's most misunderstood illegal elbow strike (1)

Ben Fowlkes

January 13, 2014 4:00 pm ET

The strange story of MMA's most misunderstood illegal elbow strike (2)You go back and watch how Travis Browne throws those elbows, and you realize that nothing about them is accidental.

From the way he leans his torso just off center to the way he arcs his strikes with a slight bend at the bottom, everything about his knockout of Josh Barnett at UFC 168 (and his KO of Gabriel Gonzaga before that) suggests that Browne is a man who knows exactly what the unified rules of MMA say – and what they don’t – about downward elbow strikes.

The fact that not everyone watching is as well-versed on the rule, that might explain why some wondered later whether Browne had gotten away with a fight-ending foul.

“Everyone’s got this idea that you can’t use that elbow,” veteran referee John McCarthy told MMAjunkie. “Everything Travis Browne did was legal. All of it.”

It was a Twitter Mailbag question that first got me thinking about it:

@benfowlkesMMA am I the only one that believes Travis Brownes elbows to Barnett and Gonzaga are essentially 12-6? #tmb

— Paul Geddes (@P_Ged_) January 5, 2014

The use of the word “essentially” really got me thinking, so I went and looked at the unified rules. If you check the version that’s available on the website and in PDF form from, you’ll see that the phrase “12-to-6 elbow” doesn’t appear anywhere. Instead, the list of official fouls merely bans “striking downward using the point of the elbow.”

Which, depending on how strictly you want to interpret the word “downward,” is pretty much exactly what Browne did, both to Barnett at UFC 168 and to Gonzaga at the TUF 17 Finale. His elbow starts up high, travels downward with bad intentions, meeting the skull of his opponent with the point of his elbow.

So wait, why wasn’t that a foul, exactly? I called Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer (who, the very next day, would announce his resignation from the post) for an explanation.


“Downward means downward in the most conservative reading,” said Kizer, who pointed out that on the Nevada commission’s website the rule is explained in greater detail, including the language about the 12 to 6 o’clock trajectory. “From Day One here, and I know in other places, that’s how it’s always been explained.”

Or, as McCarthy put it, “It’s just that one stupid elbow you can’t do, straight up and straight down. If it’s not exactly that, it’s legal.”

Here’s where the alert reader might be wondering if it’s not actually very difficult to throw a truly illegal elbow in MMA competition. It has to travel straight down from the ceiling to the floor in one smooth, perfect line, with no arc whatsoever. Leaning your body off to one side and throwing the elbow from, say, 11 to five? Perfectly legal. Throwing it straight up and down, but bending the trajectory ever so slightly just before the point of the elbow finds its target? Also legal.

You can even legally use the same exact elbowing motion from other positions on the mat since, as McCarthy explained, “The clock does not move” –even if the fighters do.

It’s so weirdly specific that it makes you wonder why we even have the rule. After all, if it only applies when the offending fighter is throwing the elbow in a perfect perpendicular line with the floor, most situations would render that illegal or ineffective anyway. There’s already a rule against hitting the back of the head or the spine, so why do we need one that outlaws only a perfectly straight elbow from one position, while allowing every other variation on it from just about any other position?

Depending on who you ask, the rule sprang from either a legitimate medical concern or too much late-night ESPN2 viewing. The popular version of the story, retold by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan every once in a while, is that the various state athletic commission representatives who wrote the unified rules added this one in after seeing traditional martial arts experts breaking all manner of serious objects with downward elbows. Clearly, any strike that could shatter a cinder block was too lethal for MMA, so they banned it. So the story goes.

That, according to Kizer, is a bit of “revisionist history.”

Nick Lembo, counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, played a major role in writing the unified rules of MMA. The way he remembers it, several doctors raised a concern about this type of elbow strike, and in two specific situations.

“One, the primary reason, was concern about a fighter on his back and another fighter dropping a straight elbow down to the orbital area,” Lembo said.

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If that happened, Lembo said, the doctors were concerned that the head of the downed opponent would have nowhere to go in order to cushion the blow. In the opinion of several medical experts consulted by the New Jersey commission and representatives from other state commissions, such as Nevada and Ohio, “an elbow coming straight down while your head was against the floor would cause a significant amount of injuries,” Lembo said.

“The secondary reason was if you had fighters who were mismatched in height, and you had the taller fighter coming straight down with an elbow on the shorter fighter, to the spine region,” Lembo added. “But that’s a secondary reason.”

It wasn’t until later that he heard the alternate explanation involving shattered ice blocks at karate demos, Lembo said, “but I never heard that at the time.”

“That’s how I recall it too,” said Kizer. “And I can tell you, when we did our first sort of revisitation [of the unified rules] with the [Association of Boxing Commissions] committee that Nick chaired and I was a part of back in 2006 or 2007, we looked at that one.”

Since the concern seemed to be limited to a very specific situation, Kizer said, they considered amending the rule so that it only outlawed downward elbow strikes to the head of a downed opponent.

“To my surprise, every doctor that I checked with and Nick checked with and every other member of the committee checked with, they all said, ‘No, that’s the bigger concern, the head of a downed opponent, but it’s not the only concern,’” said Kizer. “… I was surprised at that. I thought it would be kind of a happy medium. I was quite surprised that it was unanimous and it was vehement. So I let it go.”

McCarthy, who was an experienced martial artist and MMA referee even back then, wasn’t so conciliatory.

“This was one that I was arguing about forever,” McCarthy said. “Nick Lembo, he was the one writing it, and he wasn’t a big MMA guy at the time, and he wrote it poorly. What I remember is they were actually talking about someone having a rear mount and, like a lot of Brazilians used to do at the time, coming straight up and down with this elbow to the back of the neck and the head. The problem was, protecting the back of the head and neck with a rule was already in there, so you don’t need this. You can’t do that anyway. It got to the point where I got them to say, so you’re saying that the only thing the fighter can’t do is bring the elbow straight up and straight down in that manner?”

This, McCarthy said, is where the 12-to-6 language first came from. It was an attempt to specify the precise path of the only elbow strike that would be illegal based on its trajectory alone, regardless of where it landed.

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“I said, ‘If you have a fighter go from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock in a straight line, that’s an illegal elbow?’” McCarthy said. “[They said] yes. ‘But if you have go from nine o’clock to three o’clock in the same fashion, it’s legal?’ Yes. If he goes from 11 o’clock to five o’clock, that’s legal. The way things go, when I started teaching the rule to other people I would just say, ‘You cannot go from 12 o’clock to six o’clock.’ Any other alteration of the blow makes it legal. Any elbow strike that has an arc makes it legal. Even if your hand starts straight up, but you bring it down and it has an arc near the bottom, it makes it legal.”

The specificity of the rule caused misunderstandings along the way, McCarthy said. For instance, there was the time he clarified the rule for former UFC lightweight Joe Stevenson before a quarterfinal bout on the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Stevenson wanted to know if he could throw the elbow parallel with the floor while on the top position in side control. It’s the same motion as the downward elbow, but if the clock stays stationary, it’s technically a nine-to-three elbow rather than 12-to-6.

“I told him that’s fine, that’s legal,” McCarthy said. “He gets to the semis and comes up to me and says, ‘John, I got a problem. Herb Dean says I can’t throw the elbows you said I could throw.’”

When McCarthy talked it out with Dean, he said, a reasonable question came up. Why doesn’t the clock move along with the fighters? Why isn’t 12-to-6 considered in relation to where the fighter throwing the elbow is at the time he’s throwing it?

“Herb said, ‘Yeah, but if you put the clock on the ceiling it’s 12-to-6,’” McCarthy recalled. “The clock does not move. It doesn’t move. We don’t see clocks on ceilings or on the floor.”

Maybe that’s why we also don’t see the rule violated very often, with the notable exception of Jon Jones’ disqualification loss for using the technique against Matt Hamill in Las Vegas in 2009. As Kizer pointed out, Jones seemed close to finishing Hamill with legal strikes, so the illegal ones were likely not malicious, but rather the result of a temporary mental lapse.

“Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes,” Kizer said. “You saw the damage that it did to Matt, so there is some reasoning behind the rule.”

Whether that reasoning is sound and the rule itself necessary in a sport that allows all manner of violence from other appendages and in other positions? That too depends on who you ask.

For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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(Pictured: Travis Browne)



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