Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

What Is A Rabbit Punch?

You may have heard boxers complaining about ‘rabbit punches’ after certain fights. If you are unfamiliar with what a rabbit punch is, then you’re in the right place. In this post, I’m going to discuss what a rabbit punch is, and why it is so dangerous. So what is a rabbit punch?

In short, a rabbit punch is a punch that lands on the back of the head or neck. It is an illegal strike in most combat sports due to its proximity to the brainstem, which makes it dangerous and potentially lethal. The name comes from the way hunters kill rabbits with a quick strike to the back of the head.

Let’s take a look at the rabbit punch itself and why it is so dangerous.

What Is Considered A Rabbit Punch?

So as mentioned, the name comes from what is considered the most humane way to kill a rabbit. This is done by placing the thumb on the base of the rabbit’s skull, with the fingers wrapping around the chin. When the head is snapped back, the rabbit immediately goes unconscious.

Professional boxer Prichard Colon, just after getting dropped by rabbit punches against Terrel Williams.
Professional boxer Prichard Colon, just after getting dropped by rabbit punches against Terrel Williams.

In Boxing and MMA, a rabbit punch is any punch that lands to the back of the head, which is commonly referred to as the mohawk. This is typically the area behind the ears, and ending at the point where the neck meets the shoulders.

Rabbit punches are very common in boxing due to the amount of head movement. It usually occurs when one boxer slips a punch, and is hit by their opponent to the back of the head while they were leaning down. It also occurs very commonly in the clinch.

In MMA and kickboxing, it is less common because the head movement is more subtle, due to the danger of kicks and knees. The danger in MMA is when a fighter has mounted his opponent on the ground, and they are striking from mount. Rabbit punches can be very dangerous from this position due to how vulnerable the mounted fighter is to their opponents attacks.

When the mounted fighter turns their back, they are extremely vulnerable to rabbit punches, such as seen here.

Why Are Rabbit Punches Dangerous?

Let’s talk about the dynamics of the rabbit punch and why exactly it is so dangerous. Firstly, the back of the head is a very sensitive area for several reasons. One reason is the proximity to the spinal cord, which is a major part of the Central Nervous System. Damage to the spinal cord can cause paralysis and other life-changing injuries.

However the biggest reason as to why rabbit punches are dangerous is how much damage this punch can cause to the brain stem. The brain stem is located at the base of the skull, and consists of three parts, the midbrain, pons, and medulla.

The brainstem is located at the base of the skull.
The brainstem is located at the base of the skull.

The brain stem is a critical component of motor and sensory systems, due to the fact that nerves controlling these functions pass through the brainstem. Damage to this area can cause life-changing impairment and fatal injury.

There are several cases of rabbit punches causing severe injury. The prime example is Prichard Colón during his final match, against Terrel Williams.

Throughout the fight, Terrel Williams repeatedly landed rabbit punches on Prichard Colón, something which Prichard complained about to the referee. After the fight, many fans criticized the referee for ignoring deliberate rabbit punches that Williams was hitting Prichard with.

Terrel Williams threw rabbit punches all throughout his fight with Prichard Colón.
Terrel Williams threw rabbit punches all throughout his fight with Prichard Colón.

This continued up until the end of the 9th round of the fight, after which Prichard’s corner removed his gloves, mistakenly thinking the fight was over. Shortly after, Prichard started vomiting and became incoherent.

He was taken to a nearby hospital where it was discovered that he had brain bleeding. He was put into a coma in an effort to save his life. After spending 221 days comatose, he emerged in a persistent vegetative state, which he remains in today.

Injuries to the back of the head can cause loss of consciousness that may have more noticeable symptoms later in life. For example, basketball player Jaylen Brown fell onto the back of his head after making a dunk. He immediately lost consciousness, and his body stiffened in what is known as the Fencing Response.

Jaylen Brown landed on the back of his head, causing his body to react in the fencing response, which is a trait of severe brain injury.
Jaylen Brown landed on the back of his head, causing his body to react in the fencing response, which is a trait of severe brain injury.

Aside from receiving a concussion, the fencing response notes that he received damage to the midbrain, a part of the brainstem. Just because the injury was to the back of the head, the traumatic brain injury he received was considered mild to severe, instead of a lighter, moderate injury.

Conclusion

In summary, a rabbit punch is a punch to the back of the head that can cause severe injury and in some cases, death. This is why it is an illegal strike in almost all combat sports. A rabbit punch can cause damage to the brainstem, which can impair motor and sensory functions of the body.

If you want to learn more about rules and history of combat sports, check out the Martial Arts History page. Thanks for reading!