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Top MMA storylines of 2016: 7. Weight-cutting reform

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Miesha Tate
Miesha Tate needed to strip down with a towel in front of her to weigh-in before UFC 200 in July.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s a difference only the most avid fans would notice even today. But the MMA world changed considerably in June.

The day before UFC 199 in Los Angeles, the UFC held its weigh-ins in the morning, breaking from a long-standing tradition (and rule) of fighters weighing in closer to 24 hours before their bouts. And rather than the competitors being shuttled to the show venue, they hit the scales right in their hotel.

Earlier weigh-ins were conceived by doctors and regulators at a weight summit held by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) in December 2015. Bellator was the first to try a morning weigh-in before a February event in Kansas and did it again in April at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

conor mcgregor Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

California was able to make it a state statute soon after and the UFC tried it for the first time June 3. The promotion has done it every card since, aside from one in Australia where the timing did not work out. Bellator, Invicta FC and many other organizations have followed suit.

The idea behind an earlier weigh-in is to address a major problem in MMA: extreme dehydration to make weight. Doing a weigh-in in the morning rather than the afternoon does not stop extreme weight cutting, but it gives fighters more time to recover (and rehydrate) in between the scale and the fight.

A byproduct has also been fighters are now spending less time dehydrated. UFC fighters in the past usually had to make weight up to four hours before the weigh-in, because of travel time to the arena and waiting for the weigh-in show to begin. That’s a long time in a depleted state — backstage at television weigh-ins used to resemble a morgue.

No more. While regulators say that more changes will need to be made, the earlier weigh-in was a major step in the right direction. The greatest fear among doctors who know the sport is fighters entering the cage dehydrated. Not only does it reduce motor skills, reflexes and other attributes, it increases the risk of head injuries and knockouts. The fluid around the brain is reduced when dehydrated and takes a longer time to rehydrate than the rest of the body.

In July, the UFC also took another step toward weight-cutting reform, adding guidelines that suggest fighters check in on fight week at no more than 8 percent above their division’s weight. If a fighter is more than 8 percent over, his or her weight will be monitored throughout the week and educational courses are suggested. There is also the possibility that fighter will be made to go up in weight.

Moving up has actually proven to be an effective trend. Donald Cerrone, a former title contender at lightweight, moved to welterweight in 2016 and went 4-0 with four finishes. Conor McGregor, who began his UFC career as a featherweight and won the belt there, had success at welterweight and lightweight, winning the championship in that division as well.

Bellator 136 Photos
CSAC executive director Andy Foster has been a major proponent of weight-cutting reform.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In 2015, under its new anti-doping policy headed by USADA, the UFC banned the use of IVs to rehydrate. CSAC did the same thing this year and some other states have followed suit. There is a belief among regulators that if a fighter needs an IV to rehydrate, that fighter is cutting too much weight.

For doctors, the primary first step is to keep dehydrated fighters out of the cage. The earlier weigh-ins have aided that goal, and arguably produced better fights and performance to boot. The vast majority of athletes love the new rules.

There is more to do, though. Many fighters are still cutting 30 or 40 pounds to reach their weight class. Cris Cyborg documented her brutal weight cut, from more than 170 pounds to 140 pounds, in a documentary that was released this year.

The UFC recently added a 145-pound women’s division, which will be helpful to fighters like Cyborg (who is now facing a suspension for a USADA anti-doping violation). A 125-pound women’s division is still missing, though, and a handful of female fighters are stuck in the middle of 135 and 115 pounds, cutting an unhealthy amount to reach 115.

Additional weight classes have been brought up among regulators, but there is little support for that idea among promotions. Education — that severe weight-cutting does not help your performance (it only hinders, per studies) and being the bigger fighter does not necessarily mean you’ll be the better one — is still being enacted.

While the weight-cutting culture still lives on, things are going in the right direction. The rules installed in 2016 were a good beginning to address perhaps the biggest problem in MMA.