What’s That Move Called? A Glossary of MMA Terms

Valerie Worthington


Princeton, New Jersey, United States

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Sport Psychology

crossfit, MMA, Glossary, mixed martial arts, strength and conditioning


After a number of years on the fringe, mixed martial arts (MMA) has more recently lodged itself firmly in the national Zeitgeist.



Even many people who don’t follow it closely seem to have heard of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) or Strikeforce, which are two of the main MMA outlets.


There seems to be something about watching two people enter an enclosed space and try to best each other, using nothing but their bodies, that speaks to something within us.


Author Sam Sheridan writes in A Fighter’s Heart, “The depths (of fighting) are about knowledge and self-knowledge, a method of examining one’s own life and motives. For most people who take it seriously, fighting is much more about the self than the other”.


And mixed martial artists who want to be successful must take it seriously, because they must become proficient in a variety of domains.


Their job is to use wrestling, judo, and grappling techniques (among others) to gain position and apply finishing holds; use boxing and Muay Thai techniques (among others) to land physical blows; or use some combination of these, with the ultimate goal of finishing the fight via tapout, knockout, referee stoppage, or judges’ decision.


A tapout occurs when an opponent is caught in a finishing hold that would otherwise result in severe injury or unconsciousness. A knockout is the same as in boxing.


A referee stoppage occurs when the referee determines that an opponent is unable to defend himself intelligently in the face of an attack. And a judges’ decision occurs when a fight goes the distance, usually three rounds that are five minutes in duration, and a panel of experts decides who won the fight according to a variety of criteria.


For viewers, all of this translates into a fun opportunity to get together with one another, root for their favorite fighter, and even yell at the TV when things aren’t going so well for their camp.


But those of us who are interested but not yet familiar with how MMA works might find that while we enjoy the spectacle, we are a bit uncertain about what exactly we are watching.


This is understandable given that MMA derives from a variety of martial arts and fighting styles, each with its own moves and terminology. Add to this the slang related to the sport of MMA itself, and sometimes you might not be sure what language the commentators, or your more knowledgeable friends, are actually speaking.


It is for these new enthusiasts that we offer the following glossary of MMA terms frequently mentioned during color commentary.


One caveat: Some of these descriptions may make MMA sound unduly violent. Yes, MMA is about inflicting physical superiority over another person.


But to quote Sam Sheridan again, “When you think about it, fighting in a ring is incredibly civilized. We’ll try to kill each other, but we agree to stop the instant the other wants to, or is hurt, we’ll shut down all the killer instincts inside us the moment we feel a tap on the leg”.



Another note: While women are starting to make inroads into MMA, practitioners are still overwhelmingly male. Thus, for the purposes of grammatical simplicity, the pronouns used in these descriptions are masculine. And now, in the words of UFC commentator Mike Goldberg, here we go!


Arm Bar: A finishing hold where a competitor puts pressure on his/her opponent’s elbow joint by attempting to bend it the way it does not naturally bend. The competitor situates himself so that the opponent’s arm is between his knees, enabling him to use his hips to intensify the pressure.


Axe Kick: A kick executed by a standing fighter, frequently against an opponent who is on the ground, also known as a downed opponent. The standing fighter raises one leg straight in the air and brings it straight down, like the motion of an axe. It is the heel that usually makes contact with the opponent.


Back Control: A position where one competitor gets behind the other and controls him by wrapping his legs around the back of his opponent and placing his heels (also known as “hooks”) inside the opponent’s thighs, while also controlling the torso and arms from the back. Having back control is considered to be very advantageous. This is because the person who is being controlled cannot defend well, especially if the person with control is on top of the other person, both people face down.


Choke: A finishing hold that cuts off the blood and/or the oxygen to a mixed martial artist’s brain. A player who does not tap to a well-executed choke will pass out. There are different kinds of chokes, some that use the forearms or biceps to put pressure on the arteries in the neck and/or the windpipe, and others that use the legs around the head and arm.


Clinch: A position where competitors try to control each other’s bodies by wrapping their arms around one another, fighting for good arm and hip position, frequently as a precursor to a takedown attempt. The clinch looks a bit like hugging, but is not affectionate.


Cross: A punch frequently used in combination with the jab and executed with the non-jabbing arm.


Dirty Boxing: A combination of wrestling and boxing techniques that enables a competitor to close the distance between himself and his opponent and execute punches and elbows from the clinch.



Elbow Strike or Elbow: A blow to the opponent’s body or head using the point of the elbow. Elbow strikes are painful, and they can also open cuts. The use of elbows is generally heavily regulated. For instance, a competitor may not raise his elbow straight in the air and bring it straight down upon his opponent. Elbows must come in at an angle.


Ground and Pound: A strategy where a competitor takes his opponent to the ground and unleashes a flurry of punches and elbows to try to finish a fight.


Guard: A grappling position where one player is on his back and has his legs around an opponent, who is either standing or kneeling. A competitor who is in someone’s guard may try to pass the guard and get to side control or the mount, both of which are more offensive positions, though the competitor may also try to land blows from the guard. A competitor who has someone in his guard wants to prevent his opponent from passing, and avoid getting punched or kicked.



Guillotine: A choke a competitor executes by positioning himself in front of his opponent, wrapping his arm around the top of the opponent’s neck and under the chin, and applying pressure on the neck and throat. The guillotine can place a lot of pressure on the neck as well as render an opponent unconscious.


Hammerfist: A punch where the competitor brings the bottom (pinky side) of his closed fist into contact with his opponent with speed and force.


Hook: A punch where the competitor cocks his arm at a 90-degree angle in front of his body, with the force coming from the side rather than straight on or from underneath. Not to be confused with “hooks,” below.


Hooks: The feet, specifically when a competitor takes an opponent’s back and has anchored his heels around his opponent’s legs. The act of getting one’s heels around one’s opponent’s legs is called “putting in the hooks.”


Jab: A straight punch.


Leg Kick: A kick a competitor lands on his opponent’s leg. Multiple leg kicks can cause accumulated damage and fatigue and disrupt an opponent’s balance.


Leg Lock: A finishing hold where a competitor isolates part of the opponent’s leg or foot to put pressure on the knee, ankle, or toes. The pressure from some leg locks such as the kneebar or the heel hook can come on quickly, and frequently by the time the recipient feels pain from these leglocks, damage has already been done to the knee joint.


Mount: A ground position where a competitor is on top of his opponent with his legs around the opponent’s body. The opponent is on his back, and the competitor is facing him, driving his hips forward to maintain pressure. People who are competing may “take the mount” or may “be mounted.” This position is very advantageous for the person on top and very dangerous for the person on the bottom.


Rear Naked Choke: A choke executed from back control where a competitor wraps one bare arm around the opponent’s neck (hence the naked) and reinforces that grip with the other arm to force a tap out.


Side Control: A position where a competitor immobilizes an opponent by lying perpendicularly across the other player, who is on his back or side, controlling the head and hips.


Spinning Back-Fist: A punch where a competitor starts out facing his opponent and then spins around quickly with one fist outstretched, using the momentum generated from the spin to put force behind the resulting contact, which occurs when the spin comes full circle.



Spinning Back-Kick: A kick executed in a manner similar to the spinning back-fist.


Sprawl: A response to a takedown attempt, where the competitor jumps back, drops his hips, and drives his weight into the opponent who is attempting to take him down.


Superman: A punch where a competitor fakes a front kick and then draws the kicking leg back quickly, while simultaneously throwing a punch with the same side fist. The force of the kick is transferred to the punch, and the supporting foot leaves the ground.


Sweep: A move where a competitor who has an opponent in the guard takes away the opponent’s balance, turns him over, and ends up on top, frequently in the mount. Sweeps are dependent upon the sweeper’s ability to remove all of the opponent’s supports on one side, by making it impossible for the opponent to “base out” with a hand or a foot.


Swing for the Fences: An expression indicating that competitors are giving it everything they’ve got in the final seconds of a round or a match. (e.g., “He’s swinging for the fences to try to get the decision.”)


Takedown: A method for getting an opponent on the ground and getting on top of him, borrowed heavily from wrestling. Competitors can “shoot in” for a takedown or attempt one from the clinch.


Tap Out: The way to submit to a finishing hold because it is on securely and the opponent is in pain or in danger of being put to sleep. Competitors who tap out literally tap the mat or the opponent to signal that they want the opponent to stop.


Triangle: A choke performed by a competitor wrapping his legs around the opponent’s head and one of his arms, bending one knee over the other ankle/shin. Named for the shape of the space between the legs, this choke can be executed from the guard or from the mount.


Uppercut: A punch the competitor executes by bringing the fist up sharply and quickly, into the face or the body of the opponent.

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