One of the more controversial rules in MMA has long been the 12-6 elbow. It is the only singular strike prohibited by the unified rules. Most recently, the rule was enforced at UFC Fight Night 34 when Kyung Ho Kang used them in the clinch against Shunichi Shimizu in the first round of their fight. Referee Steve Perceval stopped the action and penalized Kang two points for the infraction. On the other hand, UFC heavyweight Travis Browne has used a similar strike to finish his last two fights.
Executive director of the NJSAC Nick Lembo spoke to MMA Junkie recently about 12-6 elbows in MMA. One of the first things he addressed was the oft-told myth of the rules origin. Even UFC commentator Joe Rogan has told of the strike being banned because of karate demonstrations where a downward elbow was used to break a stack of bricks or cinder blocks. Lembo relates a different explanation:
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"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.
"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."
Lembo explained the reasoning a fighter with his head against the mat would suffer increased damage because his head would be trapped between the blow and the mat. This is what happened at The Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale when Jon Jones was disqualified for using 12-6 elbows against Matt Hamill in his sole career loss.
Referee "Big" John McCarthy detailed what exactly constitutes an illegal elbow in a way that should explain the difference between the strikes employed by Yang and Browne:
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."
So, with the strikes landed by Kang at Fight Night: Singapore, he took his elbow directly from the ceiling to the floor without any change of direction before landing on Shimizu's head. In contrast, a close look at the elbows Browne employs shows a slight change in arc at the beginning of the strike and just before impact. Those slight adjustments are what ensures he's landing a legal strike.
A question that remains is why the exact same motion used by a fighter on his back isn't a foul. McCarthy explains it simply, "the clock doesn't move." Essentially, with the 12-6 analogy it's always a clock hung on a wall, so an illegal elbow is exclusively thrown from the ceiling to the floor. For example, Anderson Silva used elbows from his back at UFC 168 in his rematch against Chris Weidman. Those elbows are legal because they're 9-3 on the clock.
In his fight against Derek Brunson at UFC Fight Night 35, middleweight Yoel Romero used a downward elbow to the body to score his third round TKO victory. The finish sparked discussion about the legality regarding the finishing blows as the rule does not distinguish between head and body blows. Referee Blake Grice gave no warning or mention about the blows before stopping the fight.