What is a Rabbit Punch in Boxing/MMA? Easily Explained


No matter if you are into combat sports or not, you have likely heard about the infamous rabbit punches.  We can hear fighters and referees complaining about them in just about every boxing or MMA event. But in case you are not familiar with what is the rabbit punch, stay with us as I will explain it to you in a very simple way. 

A rabbit punch is a blow that lands on the back of the head or top of the neck. It is illegal because back of the head is a place where our key motoric and brain functions are located. A single rabbit punch can cause serious spinal cord and brain injury that could be fatal in some cases. 

Keep reading this article to find out more about Rabbit punches, and what makes them dangerous.

What is a Rabbit Punch in Boxing or MMA?

A rabbit punch is a strike that lands right on the back of the head, base of the skull or top of the neck. In this day and age, this type of punches are illegal in just about every fighting sport due to the danger it poses. 

But despite being illegal, rabbit punches are a common thing and you can see them in every boxing or MMA event. In most cases, rabbit punches land without intention and by accident due to the nature of the sport.

For instance, head movement plays a big role in boxing. Boxers move their head up and down, left and right all the time to slip and dodge punches. But by doing so, they are exposing the back of their head, which they can’t protect the same as the face or side of the head. So even if the opponent is aiming for the face, the punch might land behind the ears on the back of the head. In most cases, this happens during the clinch or other close-range exchanges.

In MMA, on the other side, there are fewer rabbit punches since it is a more versatile sport than boxing. Fighters can strike using punches, kicks, elbows, knees, and also fight on the ground. Ground fighting is, in fact, a place where most rabbit punches land in MMA, notably when one fighter is in a mount position.

Mount Position
Photo by Matthew Walsh

Once they pass the guard and get the full mount, MMA fighters would start raining down punches to score a finish. The danger of rabbit punches increases when the fighter on the bottom turns their back and exposes the back of their head to the barrage of punches coming from the top. The bottom fighter has to do this as a part of the procedure to escape. They will stop protecting the back of the head and start using their hands to escape from a position, which is the moment when most rabbit punches land.

Why it’s called Rabbit Punch?

The name “Rabbit punch” comes from hunting where it is a method hunters use to end a rabbit’s life without ruining the rabbit’s fur. They do this by striking the back of the rabbit’s skull with a club to break its spinal cord. Or they grab the rabbit by the neck with one hand, put the palm of your other hand right below the chin, and press it straight back until the neck breaks. It is often seen as the quickest and most human way you can end a rabbit’s life.

We are not sure about who was the first person to use this term in combat sports, but, it has been around for many years. It is mostly used by boxing commentators and other experts while the world of MMA stills hasn’t adopted this term in total.

Why is Rabbit Punch illegal in MMA and Boxing?

Rabbit punch is illegal in most fighting sports because it can lead to serious spine and brain injuries. Back of the head is a place where our spinal cord is located, which is an integral part of the human Central Nervous System. Being hit hard can damage the spinal cord and cause paralysis or other spinal injuries. Just a single strike to this area can cause disability. That’s how sensitive this area is.

And it’s not just the spine injuries, rabbit punch leads to brain injuries as well. The brain stem, located at the base of the skull, is a key part of motor and sensory systems. It also regulates our cardiac functions like heart and breathing rate. This part of the brain is so sensitive that a punch to this area can cause fatal injuries.

Back of the head is more sensitive than other parts like face or side of the head. This is the main reason why rabbit punches are dangerous and illegal in fighting sports. In a match, the referee is responsible to warn fighters to avoid striking this area, or even disqualify them from a match if needed.

What are the penalties for throwing Rabbit Punches in Boxing and MMA?

Rabbit punches are illegal and it’s up to the referee to take the action. How the referee is going to deal with it depends on various factors like:

  • Was the punch intentional or not?
  • How hard the rabbit punch was?
  • Can a hurt fighter continue or not?
  • Damage done

In most cases, the referee would issue a serious warning by yelling “watch the back of the head!” They might even pause the fight to make it clear to a fighter that he/she needs to stop striking back of the head.

If the fighter repeats the foul, the referee would deduct a point. In some cases, the referee might even deduct up to two points without issuing a single warning. This happens when the blow was clearly intentional and aimed to hurt the fighter. If the opponent can’t continue after a rabbit punch, the referee will disqualify the fighter who threw the punch.

Are all Rabbit Punches illegal?

No, there are cases, notably in boxing, where landing rabbit punches won’t get you in trouble. Here is one scenario where rabbit punches are not illegal.

Let’s say a boxer starts throwing a barrage of punches, trying to knock the opponent out. If at that moment, the opponent turns their back and receives a strike to the back of the head, it would not be a foul. A fighter who is striking is not at fault because he/she is clearly aiming for the face. It is the opponent’s fault for turning their back and exposing the back of the head to the barrage of punches.

This is why boxers should never turn their back to the opponent, no matter what happens. In the end, punches to the face are far less dangerous than the ones to the back of the head.

Has Anyone Died due to Rabbit Punches?

There is no evidence or report suggesting that a fighter has died due to rabbit punches in a boxing or MMA match. But there were fights, notably in boxing, in which strikes to the back of the head might have contributed to the loss of lives or serious injuries. One such fight was a boxing match between Terrell Williams and Prichard Colon that took place in 2015.

During the fight, Williams landed repeated rabbit punches. In the 7th round, he blasted Colon with a hard rabbit punch that sent him down to the canvas. The referee deducted the point from Williams since the blow was intentional and aimed to hurt Colon. The fight continued and two rounds later, Williams would knock Colon down with another rabbit punch. But this time, the referee took no action. In the end, Colon got disqualified after the ninth round due to the bizarre incident when the members of his corner took his gloves off thinking the match was over.

Shortly after the fight, Colon started to feel dizzy and weak in the dressing room. He started vomiting and was soon rushed to the “Fairfax Inova Hospital” where he underwent surgery due to the bleeding on the left side of his brain. Colon spent 221 days in a coma and now is in a vegetative state.

Related Questions

Are throat punches legal in MMA/Boxing?

Direct punches to the throat are illegal in both boxing and MMA. But due to the nature of fighting sports, throat punches often land without intention. This is notably true in MMA where fighters wear small 4 OZ open finger gloves where the risk of throat strikes is much higher.

Unlike in boxing, MMA fighters can fight in the clinch and on the ground. These close-range exchanges are usually when we can see fighters landing throat strikes without any intention. In fact, the risk of throat punches gets really high when the fight hits the ground. This is because it’s really hard to aim your punches while grappling at the same time. Due to the rapid change of positions and the opponent trying to escape, some punches may land on a throat.

But we have to point up that not a single UFC fight got stopped due to a throat strike.

Can you fake a kick in boxing?

There’s not a rule in boxing that stops you from faking a kick as long as the kick does not land on the opponent. Of course, you are not allowed to strike the opponent with any type of kick. But using kicks as a faint to fool the opponent or set up a combo is legal, though we must say that boxers rarely do this. You will never see high-profile boxers faking kicks.

The benefits of faking kicks in boxing might be to distract the opponent. Some boxers would lift their leg up like they are about to throw a kick, and then strike the opponent with a jab or a hook instead. But on the other side, faking kicks has more than a few cons as it disrupts your balance. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s much easier to score a knockdown when you catch the opponent off balance. And in boxing, being knocked down means you lose a point in that round, so faking leg kicks does not make a lot of sense.

What Punches are illegal in Boxing?

Boxing rules are very simple and easy to understand. Boxers can use only their hands to punch above the waist, and they are not allowed to:

  • Strike with their shoulder, legs, elbow, forearm, or head.
  • Hit the opponent with the backfist, inside of the glove, or with an open glove.
  • Throw rabbit punches to the back of the head or neck.
  • Hit the opponent on the break from the clinch. Once the referee breaks the clinch, each fighter must take a full step back before continuing.

Violating these rules may force the referee to issue a warning, deduct a point, or even disqualify the boxer from a match.

What Strikes are Illegal in MMA?

MMA is a versatile sport in which athletes fight in the standup, grapple and fight on the ground. In some way, they use all limbs as weapons to strike on the feet, or submit the opponent using various chokes and joint locks. But if we stick with the Unified Rules of MMA, more than a few strikes are illegal in MMA like:

  • Strikes to the back of the head, neck, groin or throat 
  • Soccer kicking the downed opponent
  • Striking the head of a grounded opponent with a knee
  • Landing the elbow strike from straight up to straight down (infamous 12–6 elbow rule)
  • Stomping the grounded opponent
  • Fighters are not allowed to headbutt the opponent

When it comes to penalties, MMA is very much like boxing. The referee can issue a warning, deduct a point or disqualify the fighter from a match. This really depends on a type of foul, how bad it was, and whether the hurt fighter can continue or not.

MMA referees would usually issue a warning for light eye pokes and strikes to the groin area, or back of the head. In most cases, they deduct a point for repeated fouls or if a foul directly affected the outcome of the match. Most disqualifications come due to fighters landing knees to the grounded opponent.

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