What Are Liver Shots In Combat Sports/MMA? A Beginner’s Guide


When most people think about combat sports or MMA, they usually visualize brutal punches and kicks to the head as the most effective strikes. On the other side if you ask pro fighters, most of them would tell you that nothing hurts like a well-placed shot to the liver. But what exactly is a live shot?

The liver shot is a punch, kick, or knee strike that lands under the 9th and 10th rib on the right side of the abdomen and damages the liver, the largest organ in the human body responsible for blood circulation and many other vital functions. It is a very effective strike in combat sports/MMA because it instantly causes excruciating pain, sudden paralysis, and puts the body into shutdown mode. While a lot of fighters may recover from a knockdown caused by a head strike, they rarely stand back up from a liver shot.

Keep reading this article to learn more about liver shots in combat sports, how fighters use them, and why it is so effective.

What Are Liver Shots In Combat Sports/MMA?

A liver shot is a kick, punch, or knee strike that lands right under the ribcage on the right side of the stomach and penetrates the body enough to damage the liver. It is a very popular strike in combat sports/MMA because it instantly causes unbearable sharp pain in the area. No matter how physically strong the fighter is or has a high pain tolerance, a well-placed liver shot would drop anyone down to the ground.

The exact origins of the liver shot are not clear because this strike has been a part of combat sports like boxing since ancient times. But if you look at MMA that emerged in the mid-80s, one of the fighters who popularized a liver shot was a Dutch fighter, Bas Rutten. He is a former “King of Pancrase” and UFC champion who utilized a liver shot to perfection.

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What Happens To A Body Upon Receiving A Liver Shot?

The liver is the largest organ in the human body. It is located under the 9th and 10th ribs on the right side of the abdomen and is around 3.3 lbs heavy and is responsible for:

  • Blood circulation
  • Serves as a filter that protects our bodies from toxins
  • Regulates glycogen storage
  • Produces various hormones

When a hard punch, kick or knee lands, one side of the liver gets compressed while the other side gets stretched which stimulates the longest nerve of the Autonomic Nervous System called “vagus nerve”. This causes blood pressure and heart rate to dramatically drop and the entire body would get into a survival mode. To maintain a blood flow to the brain and survive, the body would force itself into a horizontal or supine position, which is the reason why fighters collapse. Bear in mind that all of this is happening in a few seconds.

What Happens To A Fighter Upon Receiving A Hard Liver Shot?

Upon receiving a hard liver shot, most fighters would bend over and place at least one of their hands on the liver. The unbearable pain would cause them to lose balance, fall down to the ground, and in most cases, they would get into a supine position. They would lose their focus, breath, and fighters very rarely ever recover to continue fighting.

Even if they do recover enough to continue, this doesn’t mean that their liver is fully recovered. In fact, the liver would still be damaged and the only thing the opponent needs to do is to hit the same spot once again to finish the fight.

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Can A Liver Punch Be Fatal?

A liver shot is very painful and may lead to light or serious injuries, but it has not been fatal in combat sports. In theory, a hard punch, kick, or knee might rupture the liver and cause internal bleeding and death, but that is highly unlikely in combat sports.

In combat sports history, it has never happened that a fighter died due to the injuries sustained by a liver short. This strike has led to serious injuries, but there is no recorded fatality. 

According to the “American Association of Surgery for Trauma”, there are six types (grades) of liver injuries you may suffer upon receiving a hard shot. Here are the most common light injuries (Grade 1 and 2) and severe injuries (Grade 5 and 6):

  • Hematoma (less than 10cm) — Grade 1 and 2 injuries
  • Laceration (less than 1cm and without bleeding) — Grade 1 and 2 injuries
  • Injuries to the liver’s vanes that cause bleeding — Grade 5 and 6 injuries
  • Deep Laceration (severe injury)- Grade 5 and 6 injuries
  • Loss of blood supply to the liver — Grade 5 and 6 injuries

In most cases, combat sports athletes experience light liver injuries and do not need much time to recover.

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Yes, liver shots are legal in UFC and fighters regularly use this strike. Since MMA is a versatile sport where fighters are allowed to use all limbs as weapons, you can also see different types of liver shots. Most UFC fighters prefer to target the liver with a vicious roundhouse kick from the distance. They can generate a much bigger force with a kick than with a punch, a force similar to hitting someone with a baseball bat. When a kick carrying such a force hits the liver, it instantly sends the opponent down to the ground in huge pain.

The other way UFC fighters land liver shots is inside the clinch. This is notably true for fighters trained in Muay Thai who know how to get a dominant position inside the clinch and hit the liver with a knee. In most cases, they would get a double collar tie which allows them to control the head of their opponent. Then, they would break their posture and unload with a barrage of knees to the stomach. Although these knees might look soft on TV, skilled fighters know how to generate a lot of power and damage the liver.

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What Does It Feel Like To Get Punched In The Liver?

Most fighters describe this sudden pain as if the electric current starts running down through your body. The sharp pain would cause a sudden paralysis and drop you down to the ground no matter how tough you are. ​In most cases, a fighter would fall down to their knees while holding both of their hands on the liver. They would get into a horizontal or supine position to increase the blood flow, and stay in that position for another 5–10 seconds until the pain is reduced. Depending on the damage, they need around 5 minutes to fully recover.

How Do You Throw A Perfect Liver Punch?

Since the liver is located on the right side, most shots come via the left hand, leg or knee. Here are the most common ways boxers, kickboxers, and MMA fighters land a liver shot:

  • Boxing — landing a liver shot in boxing is a bit tricky because you need to close the distance first and be at close range. In most cases, boxers would set up the liver shot by feinting or landing a punch to the face first. This would force the opponent to lift their guard up to block the punch, which would leave the body open for a left hook or “shovel” hook to the liver. For instance, a boxer would throw a jab and follow with a hard cross before landing a shovel hook to the liver.
  • Kickboxing — most fighters prefer to land liver shots using roundhouse kicks from the distance. They would set up a liver shot by throwing a combo to the face like a jab-cross. Once the opponent lifts their hands and elbows to block the punches, they would blast them with a hard kick to the liver. The other way is to get a dominant clinch position from which you can land knees to the stomach.
  • MMA — is a combat sport where fighters use all limbs as weapons to throw strikes, and they fight at all ranges, including the clinch. MMA fighters can land liver shots using boxing combos, hard kicks from the distance, or knees in the clinch.

How Do You Defend Against A Liver Shot?

The key behind defending against the liver shot is to always keep your defense tight, stay focused, and give your best to read the opponent’s attacks. You should always keep your guard up, arms close to your body, extend the elbows to protect the ribcage, and tighten the abdominal muscles right before the body shot hits you.

Although this may sound simple, it’s not. Due to fatigue, most fighters tend to drop their hands or start to move their hands away from their bodies. A skilled tactician would instantly see the openings and expose every single hole in your guard.

The other way to defend against liver shots is to train your body to receive hard blows:

  • Core exercises— improve the strength of your abdominal muscles, spinal erectors, and hip flexors.
  • Train your explosive shell —the trick is to learn how to flex your stomach and breathe out quickly at the same time just before the body shot hits you. By tightening up your abdominal muscles right before the impact you may prevent the opponent’s fist from penetrating deep into your body and damaging the liver. 
  • Sparring — is the best way you can learn how to keep your guard tight, improve the strength of your midsection, roll with the punches, and learn how to block and parry.

Did Bas Rutten Create A Liver Shot?

Photo Credit: Basrutten.com

No, Bas Rutten didn’t create a liver shot. What’s more, a liver shot has been around since ancient times and boxing matches held in ancient Greece. Bas was the one who popularized liver shots in the early days of MMA during the 90s as this was his trademark weapon.

As a fighter with a strong background in Taekwondo, Rutten often used kicks to land vicious body kicks. He scored many liver shot finishes, which is the main reason why he has become synonymous with this specific technique.

Can A Punch Stop Your Heart?

Yes, a hard punch directly over the heart at the critical time during the cycle of the beat may cause disruption of heart rhythm called “Commotio cordis”. According to the studies, the fatality rate is around 65% and goes all the way up to 80% in some cases. But on the other side, sudden cardiac death caused by commotio cordis is a very rare event. Apart from boxing and combat sports in general, other sports that carry a high risk of commotio cordis are:

  • Baseball
  • American Football
  • Ice Hockey
  • Rugby
  • Fencing
  • Wrestling

Why Are Kidney Punches Illegal In Boxing?

Kidney punches or intentionally striking the lower back of your opponent is illegal and not allowed in boxing. This is because damaging kidneys with hard strikes may lead to serious, life-threatening injuries. 

But despite being illegal, you can often see boxers landing unintentional kidney punches, notably when they are in the clinch. The other situation is when one fighter suddenly turns their back and exposes their kidney to the upcoming barrage of punches. In this case, the referee would usually warn fighters to stop turning their back, and the other fighter to watch for the kidney punches.

What Is Considered A Rabbit Punch?

Rabbit punch in combat sports is an illegal strike that lands on the back of the head or top of the neck. Fighters are not allowed to throw these strikes because the back of the head is a place where our key brain and motoric functions are located. 

Just a single, well-placed blow to the back of the head could damage a spinal cord or brain, which could lead to serious injuries and be fatal. Due to the dangers it poses, rabbit punches are illegal in all combat sports/MMA, and intentionally landing one would instantly get you disqualified.

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