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Weight cutting: An issue of little benefit, some danger, and difficult solutions

The recent death of fighter Leandro Souza is hardly the first catastrophe caused by the practice of weight cutting. And it's likely not to be the last.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
If 10 days before a show, the UFC or any mixed martial arts promotion, sent out a memo stating they were amending every contract, and the change would be every fighter on the card is still fighting their same opponent, just moving up one weight class, it's almost funny to think of what the repercussions would be.

Most fighters at the time would already be within a few pounds of their new weigh-in weight. Some would already be at weight and a few may even be below it.

The fight week weight-cutting ordeal, which nobody enjoys, wouldn't have to happen. Fighters wouldn't be grumpy. Instead of torturing themselves to make weight, they could be studying their fight, resting their bodies, working on their timing, or promoting the card. Nobody would be drawn out at weigh-ins, since they'd be near their actual fighting weight. Nobody would get off the scale and grab some liquid because they were in a rush to put weight back on and get liquid in their body as quick as possible.

When they got into the cage for the fight, just about everyone would be a little stronger. They'd have more energy and stamina. The fighters in the main event, in particular, going five rounds, wouldn't have to worry quite as much about pacing early for fear they'll have little left at the finish. Everyone would be in a little better shape physically, and perhaps mentally, because they wouldn't have taxed their bodies so much by draining as much water as they could out of them, and then putting the water back, all a day before the fight. The fights would be better. The fighters would be happier. The spectators would get a better show.

Of course, this will never happen.

Yes, I know, from a legal standpoint this can't happen the way I suggested. But when you put it in that perspective, the entire process of heavy weight cutting does nobody any good. It happens because nobody can figure out how to keep it from happening.

Everyone does it because everyone else does it. Some are trying to get an advantage. Others are trying to negate the advantage by of their opponent. It's an endless chicken-and-egg game, whose effects are all negative, but the game will never stop. So then, when both guys do it, they are both miserable the last week, and getting nothing positive out of it.

Not only that, but the New Jersey Athletic Control Board has been studying the issue, and found the advantage of being the bigger fighter are, statistically, not anywhere close to what people think.

Anyone who has been around major MMA fights has had the experience of seeing a fighter, usually the ones who wrestled in college, suddenly 20 pounds less than they were the night before. They have that vacant look in their eyes, and you see it and think, "This guy is fighting tomorrow night? He looks like a stiff breeze will blow him over."

It's just accepted that this is a part of being a top-level fighter. The bigger the weight cut and the more you're able to put back on, the thought process is, you increase your chances of winning by being the bigger and stronger fighter. There's not just a physical edge in being the bigger guy, there's the mental edge as well.

In the early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), when hard weight cutting segments were shown, the public for the most part freaked out, enough that you don't see that kind of footage on the show anymore. It's a hard sport and guys torture their bodies in a number of different ways to get ready for a fight, this being just one of them. And a few times a year, when you hear about how the commission doctor isn't allowing a fighter to cut anymore weight, it's because at that point, there is significant fear of serious health problems if they continue.

But a few things happened in recent weeks.

The first was the death of Leandro Souza on Sept. 26, while trying to cut from 159 pounds to 126 in less than a week on a show in Brazil. It should be noted that Brazilian commissions, unlike most of their North American U.S. counterparts, don't test for diuretics, which reportedly were part of the equation in Souza's attempt to lose 23 percent of his body weight in less than a week.

A week later, UFC fighter Rodrigo Damm suffered painful kidney stones as he was trying to get rid of water weight for a fight that was to take place on Oct. 9.

Also last week, and the timing was just coincidental, Nick Lembo, the counsel for the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, publicly discussed a plan to come up with standards that would make this potentially dangerous process a little safer.

Lembo suggested an idea where, at 30 days before fight time, everyone has to weigh-in. At that point they can be no more than 10 percent above the contracted weight.

Flyweights would have to make 137.5 pounds, bantamweights 148.5, featherweights 159.5, lightweights 170.5, welterweights 187, middleweights 203.5, light heavyweights 225.5 and heavyweight 291.5. In other words, for most weight classes, they have to be about one weight class above what they fight at.

Then, at seven days before fight time, there is another weigh-in, requiring fighters to be within five percent of their contracted weight: flyweights at 131.25, bantamweights at 141.75, featherweights at 152.25, lightweights at 162.75, welterweights at 178.5, middleweights at 194.25, light heavyweights at 215.25 and heavyweights at 278.25.

This is not a random idea. The World Boxing Council (WBC) has mandated those same weigh-in regulations for all championship fights. And Lembo said since the WBC instituted this rule, back in 2007, there have been no problems.

But the mentality of weight-cutting in MMA comes more from amateur wrestling, not boxing. In that sport, the participants, as a rule, cut far more. It's why the WBC adopted those regulations with little issue, while in MMA, these same rules would have far greater resistance. Immediately, instead of the idea, gradually losing weight during camp to where the cut wouldn't even be an issue, critics would say it'll force fighters into three weight cuts instead of one.

"The so-called wrestling mentality is there (in MMA)," said Lembo. "If this was implemented tomorrow, there would be a huge outcry of concern. But in the boxing community, it was implemented and there wasn't a big outcry. You've rarely seen problems with it."

Of course the funny part of this is many wrestling programs have same day weigh-ins, as do major jiu-jitsu tournaments, and both, far more than boxing, are the base styles of a large percentage of MMA fighters.

The problem is that MMA is a striking sport, and, thus, there are medical issues going into combat less than fully rehydrated. Removing the fluid from the brain makes it far more susceptible to damage, which is what should be the biggest long-term concern in MMA. That's the big argument against same-day weigh-ins.

Perhaps an answer can be a combination of same day weigh-ins and rehydration tests at the same time. In theory, that forces fighters to weigh-in at a healthy weight and would force elimination of significant water weight cutting. But then the pressure on the commissions would be immense if a fighter makes weight, but isn't fully hydrated. They wouldn't know until a few hours before fight time. If it's a main event, unlike someone missing weight where they can reach an agreement, be fined, and still fight, this would have to outright cancel a match. If it's the wrong fight, that could be catastrophic from a business standpoint.

There are two very different issues with weight cutting. One has to do with potential health risks of cutting large amounts of weight before weigh-ins. The other has to do with the competitive advantage of putting weight back on after weigh-ins and creating significant size differentials in the fighters.

The entire idea of having weight classes is so fighters face people who are close to their own size. But while weighing within a pound or so of each other the day before would seem to eliminate size discrepancies, anyone who watches MMA has seen occasional fights where there are probably 20-pound differentials, even in lower weight classes.

"There are two people who come to mind," said Lembo. "One is Frankie Edgar, because he lives in my town. I have literally seen him, the week of a UFC fight, eat at an Italian restaurant, eating bread, soup, salad. He's not cutting any weight at all. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Gleison Tibau. He's cutting a huge amount of weight."

As part of studying this issue, New Jersey did a program where MMA fighters were weighed in before going into the cage, strictly for informational purposes. The weights were never revealed publicly, but Lembo said most fighters ranged, not unexpectedly, as between 10 and 20 pounds above what they weighed the day before.

"We found the edge wasn't what everyone thought," he said. "Just over 50 percent, actually 52 percent of the fighters who gained more weight, won the fight."

Essentially, this indicates that all the work people do in manipulating their weight to come in bigger isn't really the advantage it is purported to be, since nearly 50 percent of the time the smaller guy winning would essentially mean size was zero advantage. But nobody still wants to be 15 or more pounds less than their opponent, so if you opponent is cutting 20, the feeling is you have to get big enough naturally to cut close to that same level as well, or go in with a disadvantage.

"The fighters who cut a lot of weight hit a wall at a certain point in the fight," Lembo said. "I wouldn't recommend it if someone was fighting a five-round fight."

Lembo is also familiar, working with high school wrestling, with how that sport completely changed years ago after three college wrestlers died cutting weight in the 1997 season. The regulations involved checking body fat and hydration levels at the start of the season to figure out what is the lowest weight the person can perform at and still be healthy.

"These guys have to see a doctor at the beginning of the season, and they give you a number, a weight that goes on file, and that's the lowest weight you can wrestle at," Lembo noted.

Lembo's thoughts are to avoid a potential weight-cutting tragedy, which inevitably will happen in the U.S. if current practices go unchecked. T.J. Cook, a Strikeforce fighter, went into kidney failure from weight cutting a few years back. Part of the story of Daniel Cormier and talk of his cut to 205 are the memories of his kidneys shutting down as he was cutting a large amount of weight to make 211.5 pounds in the 2008 Olympics, and he couldn't compete. That's one of the reasons, as short as he is for the division, he's fought at heavyweight in MMA.

"What I don't like is what some people are in favor of, what Massachusetts was proposing and what Pennsylvania was in favor of and the IBF was looking at doing, and what was, you weigh in at 155, now tomorrow (the day of the fight), we'll weigh you at 2 p.m. and you can't be more than 10 percent above that weight," said Lembo. "After somebody makes weight, I want them to focus on rehydration, not to worry about their weight again. I don't want people who gain weight and then have to cut again the day of the fight."

He noted a key to pre-fight physicals is that on fight night, before the fight, fighters have to give a urine sample to test for hydration levels because they won't clear a dehydrated fighter to compete.

"Our pre-fight physicals are pretty extensive," he said. "I don't have any concerns a doctor won't pick up a dehydrated fighter before the fight. The concern is more before you get to that point. We had the tragedy in Brazil. We had a fighter in a local regional title fight who made weight, but then was hospitalized for kidney function problems. I'm not sure you can completely regulate this issue. Hopefully, with education, more trainers will be taking input from medical experts and weight cuts will be a little more scientific and a little less dangerous."

Lembo noted there are issues with any change, such as what happens in the event of a late replacement fighter who takes a fight less than 30 days beforehand. He sees this as a serious issues and would like to see more doctors involved. He feels some nutritionists, who use the bath salts and water-loaded diets, may be doing their clients more harm than good.

As far as any actual changes being made, Lembo said that is a long way away.

"I think we're very far from that point," he said.

Lembo said a report on AxsTV, which talked about his plan and called it a proposed change, wasn't the right phrase. He felt the word "proposed change" indicates something voted on by the athletic control board and something that went through a formal hearing process.

"This is just something we are studying and analyzing," he said. "Another story, on SB Nation, which said I was denying it was being talked about, I wasn't denying it, it's just something that currently isn't in place on the immediate horizon."

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