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Back of the Head

The Zuffa-owned shows, and most American MMA organizations, do not allow strikes to the back of the head. I'll discuss the origins of this rule later, but first I want to discuss the huge impact that 'back of the head' rules have on the likes of the UFC.

In every recent UFC event, we've seen at least two fights with one of the refs screaming 'watch the back of the head'! As their opponent squirms and turtles, the aggressor gets penalized for throwing direct strikes to the head. Why? The person on the bottom is simply using the back of his head as a shield! It allows them to tuck their neck down, shield their ears with tucked arms, and weather the storm for a while. What's left to hit? They can't strike the back of the head. The fighter on the bottom can still fight hands with you in the event of a choke attempt. It's getting bad, folks. This is intentional behaviour on the part of the fighter on the bottom, taking advantage of a loophole to cover their weakness.

Enforcement of the 'back of the head' rule is wildly different depending on which ref you get. This isn't the fault of the refs generally. Look at what they need to deal with. They are required, by most state and national athletic commissions, to defend the back of a fighter's head. The blows are coming in so fast sometimes, that it is difficult to track the legality of any given one. The ref needs to be able to make a quick judgement call: Ignore, warn, penalize, or disqualify.

Understanding where this rule came from requires us to look at the Nevada State rules, which most states respect, if not adopt:

Striking to the spine or the back of the head. No direct striking attacks are allowed to the spine or the back of the head. A direct strike is an aimed and executed attack to the area. The back of the head is considered the direct center of the head with 1’ inch of tolerance to either side.

One problem. The Nevada rules were designed for BOXING. Though some liberties were taken to adapt the Athletic Commission's rules over to MMA, many of the regulations are archaic to say the least. 'Back of the Head' was put in place to prevent 'dirty' tactics in pure boxing, like dragging the head down and then pummelling down with fists. If you can't throw blows to the back of the head, there's less of a temptation to wrestle with your boxing opponent.

However, in MMA, dirty boxing is legal. Grappling is legal, the clinch is fine as long as the action continues. And yet, oddly, bizarrely in fact, the 'back of the head' rules still apply to MMA. Now, I can understand wanting to protect the brainstem, but  enough is enough. The Commission and all of the commissions in the US need to realize that a fighter is using his 'unstrikeable ' zone as a kind of shied is just absurd. It was never intended to be a rule that stopped action in that manner. Can you imagine a fighter intentionally putting his crotch in the way of blows, in an attempt to get the dominant fighter to stop throwing punches?

So where do we go from here? Well, getting the state Commissions to develop a new, extended set of rules just for MMA would be an excellent start. I'm certain that a lot of valid, but currently illegal, tactics would get legalized if savvy commissioners took the time to review them in context. Look at the Japanese organizations... they allow sick strikes like soccer kicks to the head! I wouldn't encourage the legalization of that sort of brutality, and there are tiny rules that aren't all that important. But this situation, the 'back of the head' issue, is probably the most important one.

Even allowing the cranial strike zone to be extended might be enough. 2 inches beyond the median rather than 1. Protect the brainstem, but allow a lot more leeway with strikes along the back of the dome. This would totally change the use of guard and BJJ in mixed martial arts. I can think of at least 4 fights in the last 6 months that would have been utterly changed if this rule was more liberal. Including, oddly, the Lesnar fight.

Put bluntly, asking a striker not to hit something being pressed into their fists and into their face is a complete farce. Of course they're going to keep fighting, and they're going to pound that head, no matter what angle it's presented at. Intentionally using the back of your neck and head as a shield should be the punishable rule! Timidity is being clearly shown by this kind of activity. And yet when a penalty is assessed, the points are being taken away in the other direction, more often than not.

I'm sure more intelligent and more medically inclined individuals will eventually revisit the 'back of the head' rules. We just have to hope that they can do something about this situation. Until then, run this experiment: Count how many times a ref says 'Watch the back of the head!' during a Pay Per View. Just keep a tally. Try to differentiate between blows that were clearly intentional illegal strikes, and ones that were caused by the squirming of the bottom fighter. Then make your own call. In my opinion, a rule that so many seasoned fighters accidentally break on such a regular basis needs to be reviewed on an organizational, state, and international level.

Bill Ricardi - MMA Expert Staff Writer


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