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John McCarthy: 'Fighters aren't truly educated in what they're doing to themselves' during weight cuts

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With weight cutting issues in the spotlight the last couple of weeks -- starting at UFC 177 when Henry Cejudo and Renan Barao both dropped out of their fights in Sacramento after bad cuts, and this week with Charles Oliveira coming in over -- solutions are being kicked around.

One person who has thought about all the inherent problems with weight cutting over the years is Big John McCarthy, the longtime official going back to the UFC’s unruly early days. McCarthy was in Sacramento when Barao passed out and hit his head during his weight cut. Barao has struggled making the 135-pound maximum for the last couple of years, and he says that sort of extreme cutting can leave a permanent mark.

McCarthy appeared on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour and talked about the increasingly more problematic routine of fighters cutting so much weight. He told Ariel Helwani that it starts having awareness of the damage a fighter is causing himself.

"I don’t think fighters are truly educated as to exactly what they are doing to themselves, and I mean doing to themselves over the long term of their life," he said. "You know, the weight thing is a huge problem in everything that it’s involved in, be it wrestling or MMA -- any time someone is losing the weight that some of these guys do, draining their body of fluids, the electrolytes, it’s a problem for everybody involved. Not just the fighter, but the promoter and the promotion itself because you have situations where fighters don’t make weight.

"You also have situations where fighters are putting themselves at risk in going into that contest. Because they’re doing everything in their power to cheat. I don’t mean cheat in a bad way, but cheat the system. The athletic commission is bringing forth a doctor, the ringside physician, to give this person a physical. They’ve had this fighter go through all these medicals already, then they’re going to bring in this ringside physician to give them this last physical to have them checked out and make sure they’re healthy for the contest, and the fighter is doing everything in their power to make sure the ringside physician doesn’t find anything. It’s not somebody going to a regular doctor. You go to a regular doctor and you tell them, ‘I hurt here, I have this pain here, I have this coughing,’ or whatever. With a fighter, the doctor says how you doing, [they say] ‘great.’ Do you have anything, ‘nope, I’m good.’ And they start lying about everything because their whole thing is to get past that ringside physician."

McCarthy also said that officials within commissions are beginning to learn some startling truths about the link between brain trauma and weight cutting.

"As a referee I don’t train fighting like I used to, I train understanding people and knowledge of what occurs," he said. "And one of the things that we’re getting into, with traumatic brain injuries and all these different things -- CTE, which is occurring -- and we’re learning a lot.

"One of the things that we’re learning is, we don’t get a lot of heavy fighters, fighters that don’t cut weight, having traumatic brain injuries. But we do have a lot of lighter fighters who cut a lot of weight. They’re the ones that end up being our problem. And a lot of it we’re learning is because of dehydration and them cutting weight. They lose water, they try and replenish the water, they try to replenish the electrolytes in their body. Everything in our body is made of water basically. And when it drains it doesn’t come back in the same form and function that it was before you drained it. It takes time. And the weight-cutting and the weigh-in process and everything is one of the things that I look at that’s going to be a huge factor in what’s going to happen in the future. I think athletic commissions starting to change it."

McCarthy noted some of the steps that have been taken over the years to increase fighter safety, going back to 1982 when the tragic boxing bout between Ray Mancini and Duk-Koo Kim took place.

"That was back in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace, and when they fought that was the same-day weigh-in," he said. "And so [after Kim died] they took away the 15 rounds, they went to 12, and they decided we’re going to do a day before weigh-ins to try and let them hydrate and stuff. But now we have people trying to cut even more weight because of it, and so there’s going to be some studies done on it that says, how is it that we can help the fighters be safe.

"And that’s really the athletic commission’s job, is to help with the safety of this. Because what the fighters are doing, and what Renan Barao’s doing, it’s unhealthy for him. It’s not only unhealthy on the night of the fight, it’s unhealthy for him later on. There’s things that occur -- kidney failure, all these different things -- that they don’t think about, that are possible based upon you depleting your body the way you are.

Asked what he thought of dual weigh-ins, as some states like North Carolina practice where a fighter weighs in once the day before, and then again the day after to make sure they don’t add too much weight, McCarthy said that ideology might be on the right track. One way or another, weight cutting is a problem that needs to be examined more closely.

"It’s not a bad idea," he said. "Like what they’re doing in amateur wrestling with hydrostatic testing as far as testing people when they’re regular and saying, ‘ok, here’s the least I’ll allow you to weigh for a fight.’ And telling them, ‘go ahead, you can probably cut more weight than that, but we’re not going to allow it. We’re not going to allow you to fight.’ And putting fighters into brackets. Letting them go in, if they want to have a certain time when they can go to a doctor and have hydrostatic redone to you, they change the actual composition of their body, and they could actually be a lighter fighter at this point, fine, let them do it the right way.

"But we’ve got to put a handle on not allowing people to freelance this in a fashion where it can absolutely affect their health and safety, both in that night of the fight, and in life."