A Weighty Issue

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Ever since I got into mixed martial arts, it’s been evident that cutting weight is one of the most debated, troublesome and in many ways controversial subjects around the sport. Questions abound as to whether weight divisions are necessary, exactly how unprofessional it is to miss weight, the health and moral implications of cutting weight and the best way to go about it.

I’m no competitive fighter and my sporting experience is in fields where weight cutting for any reason other than not being a fatass wasn’t an issue, so I’ve had to learn a lot about weight cutting to understand more about this sport that has fascinated me for so long.

Lets break down this weightiest of issues…

1. Why are weight classes necessary?

While fans of a certain age have fond memories for the Openweight bouts and tournaments that characterised the heyday of Japanese MMA (in fact, it’s not so long ago at all since DREAM last ran a Super Hulk Tournament) it’s been a huge part of the development of MMA as a credible, mainstream accessible sport that weight classes have been introduced.

Basically weight classes exist so that competitors face opposition of an approximately similar mass on fight night, so we don’t have great disparities in size between fighters.
This is important in combat sports (as opposed to team sports where different roles suit people of different builds or individual sports like tennis) as size is indelibly linked to strength and the ability to inflict, or take damage.

As well as appealing to a sense of fair play, this is also a safety concern as a fighter who weighs close to three hundred pounds would probably kill a fighter at half that weight if they slammed them or landed a clean right cross.

While certain martial arts ideals state that size is unimportant, when two fighters of equal technical ability face off with a marked size difference, physics comes into play and the results are unlikely to be fun for the smaller man.

So, for aesthetic, safety and it has to be said marketing reasons (Openweight gives you ONE world champion, like a pro wrestling heavyweight champion. Multiple weight divisions gives you more belts to promote) weight classes are important in mixed martial arts.

It’s worth saying that MMA has fewer weight classes than boxing, with eleven recognised weight classes between 105lbs and 265lbs+ while boxing utilises seventeen weight classes over a similar range. If its good enough for ‘the sweet science’ and with most weight classes having been established since the 1800s, then it’s good enough for MMA.

Of course, individual bouts can be contested under a pre-arranged ‘catch weight’ limit, often used when fighters are transitioning between weight classes or two champions from different classes are engaging in a super fight but what matters is that the weight has been arranged beforehand.

2. Why cut weight?

So we have weight classes to ensure that fighters are competing against similarly sized opposition. As professional weigh-ins occur the day before an event, this allows a window for fighters to artificially lighten themselves by dropping their water-weight (as well as any other excess weight) and then rehydrating between the weigh in and the fight.

Why would you put yourself through this? Well, as we’ve established an advantage in physical size usually implies an advantage in reach, strength and in theory weight. If a fighter can enter the cage with an advantage in reach, strength and weighing more than their opponent of equal skill, then they will have a significantly improved chance of winning thanks to nothing but physics.

Of course, everybody knows this and as such everybody does it. It has become a case of rather than choosing to cut weight to gain an advantage, fighters HAVE to cut weight or else they will be at a significant disadvantage when facing fighters who have cut from a heavier ‘walking around’ weight.

The one notable exception in recent years has been Frankie Edgar who won the UFC Lightweight belt despite being of a size which would more usually be associated with a Featherweight. Edgar was to a degree forced into this course as when he started his UFC career, the promotion did not offer a lighter class than the 155lb division. Edgar’s smaller size did give him a mobility advantage over his larger opponents but also contributed to the significant damage he took in both title fights against Gray Maynard and eventually in dropping the belt to the equally athletic, but naturally much larger Benson Henderson.

Basically, professional fighters are compelled to cut weight in order to be the same size as their opponents.

3. Why is it unprofessional to miss weight?

When a fighter agrees to a fight, they also agree that the contest will be at a set weight and that they will make that weight for the official weigh in the day before the card. As we’ve established, weight classes are there as a safety measure and a way to ensure a level playing field.

As such, a credible promotion (or athletic commission) will not allow a fight to go ahead if one fighter is significantly overweight, as its clear they are larger than their opponent or haven’t gone through the same dehydration regime either of which conveys a competitive advantage.

So, coming in overweight puts your fight into danger, and this can leave a promoter short of a drawing match with no time to find a replacement. Such a result costs the promoter and your opponent both money and hassle, and is often seen as being disrespectful.

If a fighter is significantly overweight, the fight will often be called off, but if they can weigh in close (usually within 10lbs at the absolute most) to the proscribed weight, a catch weight can be agreed with their opponent and the regulator, with the overweight fighter usually giving up a portion of their purse (25% is usual) to their opponent.

Missing weight basically amounts to a breach of contract, is considered disrespectful to your opponent and the promoter and can have financial implications for all concerned. It is inferred that either you tried to drop more weight than you reasonably could in order to gain a competitive advantage or that you didn’t conduct your weight cut properly. Either way, the end result is unprofessional in the extreme.

Of course, it is possible to miss weight for other reasons that are understandable, such as your cut causing a serious health condition which leads us to our next issue.

4. What are the health implications of cutting weight?

Professional MMA fighters regularly cut upwards of 10% of their body mass to make weight for a fight. That’s equivalent to your average woman dropping more than a dress size in a few weeks and then putting it back on overnight. Now, how often do we actually see that?

Cutting weight almost always involves starving your body of water in the days before weigh-in, often involves operating at a nutritional deficit for weeks (although this is not necessary, it is common) and all the while training for an incredibly intense athletic competition.

Fighters often talk of being grumpy during their weight cut (think your girlfriend in the week before her sister’s wedding, but with added testosterone) but this is a small thing when taken against the potential damage done to their kidneys, their heart, their brain and virtually every major system in your body.

Your body is around 60% water for good reason, it needs that water to operate and depriving it of H2O leads to kidney failure, heart attacks, seizures and all sorts of nasty issues.

Now, it’s one thing to drop weight, but entirely another to then rehydrate overnight and then go on a ‘cheat food’ binge for a few days after your fight. That kind of yo-yoing weight is going to play even more havoc than the act of cutting alone would do.

Weight cutting is known to have killed college wrestlers (college wrestling being the root of most weight cutting techniques used in MMA) and its not something I want to see happen in the sport I love.

5. What are the best ways to cut weight?

As I said at the top, I’m no fighter and if I’m perfectly honest, I’m carrying a little more weight than would be ideal. However, as someone who isn’t stupid and who’s first concern is for athlete’s long term health, rather than conventions which have developed because ‘everybody does it’ and ‘it’s the way to win’ I have to say, I’m uncomfortable with some of the weight cuts I see in MMA and some of the methods used, such as extreme dehydration, saunas, the replacement of meals with sports drinks etc.

If your sister was doing that, you’d be having a word about eating disorders and body dismorphia. Just because the end aim is athletic in nature doesn’t make it right.

There are weight cut plans which focus on healthy, balanced diets and structured workouts, the most notable being the various Dolce Diet plans, and I have to say I’ve read some of Mike’s books and found them sensible and some of the recipes delicious, even though I’ve never yet marshalled the self discipline to actually stick to the plan.

Of course, such plans are unlikely to have the insane results that some weight cutting regimes might aim for, but these are the types of thing we’d like to discourage.

6. So What’s To Be Done?

It’s clear that you can’t ban weight cutting, as there is no enforceable way to check if fighters are doing it or not and the promise of competitive advantage will always tempt folks to try and fight smaller opponents.

Nonetheless, I believe it’s incumbent on MMA as a community to try and curb the culture of cutting significant fractions of your weight for fights. A fighter dying because of their cut, or getting brain damaged because they took a shot while dehydrated is not news that any of us want to see.

There have been many suggestions as to what might be done. The first suggestion is usually for same-day weigh ins, removing the window for fighters to rehydrate and theoretically disincentivising then from cutting below a natural competitive weight.

However, given human nature, I’d expect to see guys continue to try and cut, resulting (if successful) in their entering the cage dehydrated and undernourished. That is only going to end in a beating or serious injury. Scratch that idea.

My preferred idea would be that we have the usual day-before weigh ins where a fighter has to make their agreed weight limit but we also have weigh ins on the way to the cage, or in the afternoon immediately before the fight where fighters have to make 110% of their weight limit (so 159.5lbs for Featherweight, 225.5lbs for Light Heavyweight etc.) allowing them to cut some weight but not a theoretically harmful amount.

If a fighter misses weight on fight day, if their weight is within 115% of the weight limit then the match can go ahead with a 25% purse deduction to their opponent, but if they weigh more than that, then they would not be allowed to fight and they would not be paid show money for a breach of contract.

Another suggestion, championed by MMAJunkie’s Dr Johnny Benjamin is for fighters to be regularly weighed by regulatory officials, at their gyms, fight weekends, events like fight conferences etc. and to have them only able to compete in weight classes within a percentage of their average weight over time. This would all but eliminate weight cutting.

The debate will run on and on, but until there exists such a thing as a unified MMA oversight body or such practises are voluntarily adopted by the UFC (who, as the preeminent promotion in the world have the clout to effect broad scale change almost at will) any change would likely be limited to individual promotions and/or authorities.

Such change would meet massive resistance from the kind of people who tend to argue that ‘it’s always been this way’ but in my view, it’s better to act BEFORE a tragedy, than be all knowing in the aftermath of some fighter being put in a coma because they took a shot when dehydrated or a high profile fighter suffering massive kidney failure due to their cut.

Of course, such changes in weight regulations would cause massive disruption, with the likelihood that most professional fighters would be compelled to ‘move up’ a weight class or more. This would play havoc with title lineages etc. but surely it’s worth it to safeguard the long term health of the fighters we enjoy watching so much?

It’s also worth considering that fighters who are properly hydrated and have been able to concentrate on technique and conditioning tend to be a bit brighter eyed and sprightly on their feet than those who’ve been concentrating on a significant cut so clamping down on excessive weight cuts could well have the effect of making MMA more fun to watch AND safer at the same time.

In any case, that’s how I see it and I don’t pretend to be an expert. What do you think?

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One thought on “A Weighty Issue

  1. I do think this needs to be looked at seriously..
    It’s not healthy behaviour nor is it actually healthy for them.
    Some of the behaviour I’ve seen during weight cuts is reminisant of eating disorders.

    It’s one thing to loose like 10-15 lbs during the span of a full camp(aren’t those usually 2 months?) but to cut it during the last 24-48 gours pre fight.. kind of insane.

    Nah.. I’d rather they made steps to have guys fight closer to their actual weight.
    I see that would bring better fights as they have a full tank of gas as it were.

    I think most deaths in combat sports are related to lack of hydration in the head to protect the brain. (just my theory)

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