This past weekend, TJ Waldburger's UFC Fight Night 61 welterweight bout against Wendell Oliveira fell apart at the last second when Waldburger fainted while cutting weight and smacked his head inside a Brazilian elevator. Waldburger's mishap is eerily reminiscent to the weight cutting incident that doomed former UFC champion Renan Barao last year, and in general, the two situations are far from isolated incidents -- botched weight cuts have been a reluctant tag-team partner of MMA's for as long as the sport has existed.
Coincidentally, less than 24 hours after Waldburger fell victim to the practice, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) published a memo decrying the dangers of cutting weight and rapid dehydration. The memo, sent by CSAC executive director Andy Foster, claimed that that "39% of MMA fighters were entering competition in a dehydrated state," putting athletes at risk for "decreased performance, hormonal imbalance, decreased nutrition, and increased injury risk."
Foster elaborated on the subject on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.
"Something that's not talked about, that I think is done by a lot more people than performance enhancing drugs, is the drastic weight cutting that you see," he said. "That's just on display at every weigh-in, where you see a fighter walk up, they barely can walk because they've cut so much weight, and the trainer will be there holding a bottle of Pedialyte or Gatorade. And that's problematic.
"It's dangerous and it's not MMA specific. It happens in boxing, and it happens in kickboxing. It's ingrained in our sport -- everybody's gotta make weight."
Before he was the overseer of California combat sports, Foster was a relatively successful professional fighter, amassing a 9-2 MMA record from 2004 to 2007 before transitioning to the bureaucratic side of the game. His experience is noteworthy because it gives Foster an insight matched by few of the policy-makers in combat sports, yet even he failed to fully realize the dangers of excessive weight cutting until making the transition across the political line.
"I think the first thing that we do is we have to educate the fighters and the camps," Foster said. "I know I didn't know how dangerous this was until I attended an Association of Boxing Commissions seminar in New Orleans several years ago.
"Here in California I've sort of seen it more and more. It seems like it's gotten worse. One of our commissioners, Dr. Lemons, a neurosurgeon, he's very close to this topic and he said ‘this is the most dangerous thing in combat sports right now, this drastic dehydration then rapid rehydration.' We did a study here at CSAC where we had one fighter, I believe he weighed 171 on Friday, he was 201 on the very next day. That's too much. That's too much. You see stats like that often from many of the shows that we regulate, and that's too much."
Within the CSAC's memo, Foster outlined an assortment of "life-threatening problems" that can arise with any extreme weight cut, including vision trouble, heart illness, and decreased kidney function. Fatalities are also a very real outcome because of a general lack of knowledge regarding ‘best practice' procedures among regional circles, as evidenced by the 2013 death of Leandro Souza in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Still, the impossible question persists: what's a viable solution?
One option is the addition of fight night weigh-ins, with a limit placed on allowable weight gained during the rehydration process.
"It's something that we were looking at," Foster said. "It's one of the many ideas that we had. I think another one of the ideas [the commissioners] and I have talked about, the NCAA does that minimal fighting weight caliper test for their athletes, for the wrestlers. Basically, if you want to compete, you have your body fat and your height and weight, they analyze it and it does this kind of formula that's been developed by people a lot smarter than me. It will take all these different considerations in and it will give you the lowest weight that you can safely compete at based on your body composition.
"So you might be 170 right now, you could probably get down to 153 without getting into dangerous territory for your body. So therefore in MMA, your weight class would be '55. That's the lowest you could go. But that's something that we've thought about. We're just talking at this point. The first step is educating, but that's something that we're certainly looking at because I think determining what everyone's minimum fighting weight should be would prohibit fighters from going down into weight classes that they can't safely maintain. They might make it once, but it's dangerous, and to continue to try to do this is not healthy."
For now, and for the immediate future, weight cutting will likely remain a problem without an easy answer. But as long as the conversation stays at the forefront of the sport, Foster believes a solution can ultimately be reached that would, if not eliminate strenuous weight cuts entirely, at least make the process safer for fighters who may not otherwise have the resources to do so themselves.
"Look, I think education is powerful," Foster said. "Once people read this and understand just how dangerous this is -- I had no idea until I did the ABC conference and learned about this. I mean, I thought it was certainly unhealthy, but I had no idea it was that dangerous. It's not only dangerous, and certainly that's the primary focus, but it's bad for the public because you lose fights. You can potentially lose fights. It's not good for everybody. I mean, we lost the (Gennady) Golovkin title fight. We still got the fight, but Marco Antonio Rubio was overweight for his title fight against Golovkin last year, so it's not just in MMA that's it's a problem. It's boxing also.
"We're certainly talking about it, both as a commission in California, and I'm talking with other commissions about it -- but it's how do we properly address this? Because this is a problem. It's not a talked-about problem. Everybody talks about performance enhancing drugs and that's certainly a problem also, but this is also a problem."