Difference Between KO and TKO in MMA

Difference Between KO and TKO in MMA

In 2021, 170 UFC matches have ended in either KO or TKO. However, these two outcomes might be confusing as both are listed as “finishes” and there are many people thinking KO and TKO actually have the same meaning. What is the difference between KO and TKO in MMA?

A “TKO” means “Technical Knockout”. It is declared when a fighter is still in the fight and conscious, but is no longer defending well or does not have the ability to defend well enough which forces the referee to stop the fight to protect their health. The match could also be ruled TKO if the ringside physician or fighter’s corner decides it is no longer safe for the fighter to continue. “KO” means a “knockout” and it happens when a fighter receives a single hard blow, and in most cases, falls down unconscious.

Keep reading this article to learn more about the differences between a KO and TKO.

What is the difference between KO and TKO in MMA?

The main difference is that in a TKO, a fighter gets overwhelmed by the attack and is no longer capable of intelligently defending themselves against the upcoming barrage of punches while in a KO, fighters usually fall down to the ground unconscious upon receiving a hard kick or punch to the head. Here is a detailed explanation of both.

which is better to score tko or ko

What is a TKO in MMA?

A Technical Knockout, or TKO, occurs when a fighter is hurt to the point where they no longer have the ability to intelligently defend themselves and avoid big damage. When a fighter is hurt and keeps absorbing big shots, the referee will spot their inability to escape out of the bad position, stop the fight to save them from further punishment, and declare a TKO.

Here are some of the different TKO scenarios in MMA:

  • Ground and pound TKO

There are many scenarios in which a match can end in a TKO. The most common one is when one fighter gets into a very dominant position, such as full or back mount. They would “trap” the opponent and use this position to start raining down hard blows in order to finish the fight. Initially, the fighter on the bottom would try to block these strikes, and maybe try to grapple their way out, and this is where most matches get stopped.

While trying to escape out of the bad position, they must stop using their hands to protect their head, and focus on grappling their way out. This leaves their head and face exposed, and often leads to them absorbing even more damage and getting seriously hurt. The referee would spot their inability to escape, and save them from further punishment.

  • TKO on the feet

There are also scenarios where a TKO might happen while the hurt fighter is still standing. Some fighters are too tough for their own good and simply won’t fall down to the ground no matter how many times they get hit.

But despite standing with their eyes open, these fighters are actually badly hurt and do not have the ability to fight back. Or in other words, they might be “out” on their feet.

The referee would give them every chance to recover and will keep the action as long as the hurt fighter is fighting back. But as soon as they spot the danger and see that the fighter is not defending well, they would step in to stop the fight.

  • Doctor’s stoppage

A fight can end via TKO if one of the fighters sustains a bad injury that compromises their ability to fight and defend. The most common ones are:

  • deep cuts (severe bleeding)
  • eye injuries
  • broken leg/arm
  • dislocated shoulder

When the injury occurs, the referee would pause the fight, and ask the ringside doctor to come in and examine the condition. If a doctor determines a fighter can’t continue, the referee would stop the fight and declare a TKO.

  • Corner stoppage

In another scenario, a fighter’s corner might decide to throw in the towel and save their fighter from sustaining further punishment.

  • Tap out to strikes (only in UFC)

When a UFC fighter gets overwhelmed with strikes and decides to “tap out”, the fight will be ruled a TKO. In other promotions, this would be considered a submission.

What is a KO in MMA?

Knockout, or KO, occurs when a fighter receives a hard blow to the head and goes unconscious. Since there is no 10 count like in boxing, the moment an MMA fighter loses consciousness, the referee would step in to stop the fight.

In most cases, a fighter would receive a hard kick or punch to the head and the referee would declare a KO. But there are various other scenarios where the fight can be declared KO.

For instance, a fighter might receive a hard kick or punch to the liver, which would cause temporary paralysis. A fighter would instantly crumble down to the canvas in serious pain, without the ability to recover. Though the fighter is conscious, a single kick is a direct cause of the stoppage which is why the finish will be ruled as a KO.

There are also other examples where a fighter might execute a powerful slam and score a KO. The impact could be powerful enough to instantly knock the opponent out. The best example of this was when Jessica Andrade slammed and knocked out Rose Namajunas at UFC 237 in 2019.

KO vs. TKO – Which One is Better to Score?

Most MMA fighters would be satisfied with getting either of these two finishes. Whether it’s a KO or TKO, the key goal of every MMA fighter who steps into the cage to compete is to finish their opponent.

But on the other side, no one could argue against the fact that there is a difference between KO and TKO when it comes to how it impacts your career. Scoring four TKOs in a row is not valued the same as four KOs in the eyes of the fans, as well as the promotion you are fighting for. Here is a list of reasons why KOs are better:

Easier to sell a fight – MMA fans love fighters who have the ability to shut anyone’s lights with a single punch. This makes them exciting to watch as you know that there is a big chance you are going to see this fighter ending a match in a brutal fashion. Thus, fighters who score a lot of KOs tend to sell more pay-per-view buys and bring more value to the company they fight for.

Faster progress – MMA fighters who score a lot of KOs tend to rise much faster than the ones who often win decisions and TKOs. These fighters bring more value and it is in the interest of the promotion to “push” these fighters to the top as fast as possible. In the UFC for example, a fighter on a four-fight KO streak might already enter the top 15 rankings. If those wins were TKOs and decisions, they would have probably been ranked much lower.

Brings you more fame – no one could deny that fighters who often knock their opponents out are among the most popular. Every fan loves vicious KOs, and as long as you a giving it to them, the promotion would do anything in their power to make you a global superstar.

TKO or KO – Which One Causes More Damage?

Both KO and TKO can cause minor or serious injuries and have a negative impact on your health in the long run. In some cases, TKO could be as damaging as a vicious one-punch knockout, or maybe even more dangerous. Here is why.

TKOs are tricky because, in most cases, it’s up to the referee to decide whether you are defending well enough or not. In some way, your life is in the referees’ hands and they are the ones who need to make a subjective decision to stop the match and protect your health. But in the case of a late stoppage, you might absorb far more strikes than you should have had.

There are referees who would let a fighter, trapped in a bad position, for instance, absorb 20 or 30 punches and elbows before stepping in. This cumulative damage could be very dangerous and lead to serious brain injuries, and even be lethal.

However, being knocked out cold with a single powerful punch or a kick to the head is often far more dangerous. Upon receiving a hard blow to the head, the brain would slam into the walls of the skull, and your brain cells would start dying from the force of the impact. The brain would shut down to protect itself which results in you losing consciousness. Suffering one, or multiple KOs increases the chance of developing serious brain damage such as CTE.

The final answer is: yes, KOs are more dangerous, and being knocked out five times is far worse than being finished via TKO the same number of times. But, there are also scenarios, often caused by late stoppages, where TKOs are equally dangerous.

One thing is for sure, neither KO nor TKO is good for your health.

Is Throwing in the Towel a TKO?

Yes, when a fighter’s corner makes a decision to throw in the towel to stop the fight, the match would be listed as a “TKO” finish. No matter if the two fighters battled on the ground or on the feet the moment the towel flew into the cage, the match would end as a technical knockout.

Though this does not happen that often, the corner has the right to stop the fight, and they can do this at any moment during the match. In most cases, the members of the corner are coaches and friends who know their fighters, and their abilities the best. Thus, they might see something that the referee is not seeing and save their fighter from sustaining further damage.

Some fighters are too tough for their own good and would keep on fighting no matter what. It is up to their coaches to protect their fighters, and throw in the towel.

Is the TKO and KO in MMA the Same as in Boxing?

TKOs and KOs are very much the same in boxing and in MMA, or in other words, have the same meaning. The only major difference is the fact that Boxing has a 10-count, which is the rule that changes the way the referee is stopping the match.


In MMA, the referee has the right to stop the fight whenever they think one of the fighters is not defending well enough and is suffering big damage.

In boxing, the referee also has the right to make the same decision. But, TKO can also happen when a fighter gets knocked down, manages to get back to their feet, but is not able to fully recover. They might be on wobbly legs or are unable to respond to the referees’ questions and requests.


In MMA, a KO is declared when a fighter gets knocked out unconscious with a hard kick or punch to the head.  Or gets finished with a kick/punch to the liver.

KOs in boxing are very similar and often occur when a fighter receives a hard blow and goes unconscious. But there are also other scenarios where a fighter might get knocked down while still being conscious. The referee would start a 10-count, and the hurt boxer might try to get back up. But if they fall back again while trying to get up the referee would declare a KO.

What are the other finishes besides TKO and KO?

Knocking the opponent out or getting a technical knockout is the most common way of finishing an MMA match, but not the only one. Here is a brief explanation of the other ways MMA fighters can finish the match:

  • Submission – is the third most common finish in MMA. It happens when a fighter gets trapped into a choke hold such as guillotine, or a joint lock like an armbar or kimura. Due to the loss of breathing or pain, a fighter is forced to either tap out, or risk going unconscious or suffering an injury.
  • Disqualification (DQ) – occurs, in most cases, when a fighter lands an illegal blow, and the hurt fighter can no longer continue.
  • No Contest (NC) – occurs when the fight gets stopped outside the fighters’ control. It usually happens when one of the fighters lands an accidental illegal strike, or due to a clash of heads. If the hurt fighter no longer has the ability to continue, the match would be declared No Contest.
  • Decision – each MMA event includes three judges sitting beside the cage and scoring the match using a 10-point must system. If the fight goes to full distance, the judges would sum up the scores and declare one of five types of decisions: unanimous decision, split decision, unanimous draw, split draw, and majority draw.

Want to learn more about No Contest? If so, check out this recent article on my site.

Final thoughts on KO vs. TKO in MMA

MMA is a complex sport where a match could end in many different ways, with TKO and KO being the most common. When you take a closer look at these two outcomes, the only major difference is the damage taken by the fighter.

In a TKO, fighters are badly hurt, but still conscious enough to keep on fighting and it is up to the referee to decide whether they have taken too much damage or not. In some cases, the referee might stop the fight after a couple of hard blows. But in other, they might let them take huge damage, and even suffer injuries, before they decide to step in.

KOs are more brutal, dangerous, and in the eyes of the fans, a more thrilling outcome that can easily result in long-term brain damage.

Images by jamie.lovelock from flickr
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