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Click Debate: Is it time for the UFC to do more about extreme weight cutting?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It was early July. A UFC pay-per-view main event had just been dashed at the 11th hour due to, in part, issues relating to weight cutting.

I asked UFC president Dana White at the UFC 213 post-fight press conference what could be done about this ever-present issue in mixed martial arts.

“Weight cutting has always been a problem and it always will be,” White said.

White is right in one sense and off base in another. Weight cutting will likely always exist to some extent in MMA. But it doesn’t have to continue being a huge problem — and that’s exactly what it has become. It’s the most pressing obstacle facing the sport today.

Amanda Nunes dropped out of UFC 213 on the same day she was supposed to fight Valentina Shevchenko back in July. Nunes was able to make the weight and hit her mark on the scale successfully. But on fight day, she was too ill to compete.

Nunes has issues with sinusitis and was not feeling well heading into the week. But the process of weight cutting — which is essentially sucking all the water out of the body to make an artificial weight the day before a fight — didn’t allow her to recover from being sick.

What was the first thing a doctor told you when you were a kid and had a cold or the flu? Drink plenty of fluids. No one cutting weight can do that and the traumatic process puts a serious strain on the body, exacerbating the illness.

A very similar thing happened to Ray Borg before UFC 215 last month. On the night before Borg was supposed to weigh in to face Demetrious Johnson, the UFC pulled the plug on the fight. Borg was sick coming into the week and it just wouldn’t have been safe for him to try and cut weight. UFC doctors and officials did the right thing before Borg could do damage to his body.

If Borg didn’t have to shed about 10 percent (probably more) of his body weight in a short span before the fight, would he have been able to recover from the illness in time for fight day? It’s certainly a possibility.

Last weekend, seven months after Khabib Nurmagomedov had to be hospitalized while weight cutting, nixing his UFC 209 main event against Tony Ferguson, Ferguson almost lost another opponent to a weight cut.

Kevin Lee just narrowly made the two-hour window to weigh in the day before UFC 216. He came in one pound over the championship maximum at 156 pounds. Nevada Athletic Commission regulations allowed him one more hour to make the weight and he did, looking skeletal, at 154.5. One day earlier, Lee said he weighed 174 pounds. We all found out the night of UFC 216 that Lee was also battling staph infection all week. He lost to Ferguson, after running out of gas, by submission in the third round.

Nurmagomedov spoke of feeling like he was near death before UFC 209. Lee said he nearly killed himself before UFC 216.

Notice the key word in that above sentence: before. Fighters are literally risking their lives just to get to the fight. The actual practice of unarmed combat is dangerous enough. What is it that we’re doing here, where the lead up to the fight is more dangerous than the actual fight? When will this end? Or will it take something tragic to happen before someone steps in?

Athletic commissions regulate mixed martial arts and, on paper, it would be incumbent on them to do more about extreme weight cutting. The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has been a leader in this regard, passing a 10-point plan back in May to combat severe dehydration in weight cutting. But one state is not enough and the plan lacks teeth unless other regulatory bodies follow suit.

That is where the UFC needs to step in. The UFC holds all the cards, it is the undisputed leader in the sport and no other organization holds more power and leverage. The world leader in MMA needs to either put pressure on commissions to make changes, in the vein of what CSAC is doing, or start implementing new strategies itself.

Last year, when CSAC pioneered an earlier weigh-in to give fighters more time to recover between the weight cut and the fight, the UFC championed that change and it has become the standard now all over the world.

It’s time to be proactive, not reactive following some kind of terrible tragedy, like what happened in ONE Championship two years ago when a fighter died while cutting weight. Even removing the health and safety aspect for a minute, weight cutting is hurting the UFC’s business with multiple main events this year being scrapped in the hours and days before the scheduled bout. Trying to fix this seems to be a no-brainer on multiple fronts.

The UFC is doing more now than it has ever done before. The UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas has a dedicated nutritionist and team available to all fighters for free and they are beginning to address weight cutting by collecting data. UFC vice president of health and athlete performance Jeff Novitzky and UFC Performance Institute execs James Kimball and Forrest Griffin are doing good work in addressing severe dehydration and extreme weight cutting.

Since last year, the UFC has asked fighters to come into fight week no more than 8 percent above the target weight. But there is no penalty if they don’t, they just get monitored throughout the days leading to the fight.

That has led to more fights being pulled during fight week than ever before. In one sense, that’s good. The UFC is pulling the plug on fighters trying to cut while being so far out of the target weight. But it’s also bad, because the promotion is losing advertised fights and fighters are losing opponents (and pay checks) after spending money on a training camp.

Fight week is probably too late to be addressing weight-cutting issues. There needs to be something year-round. A good first step is adding at least a few of the weight classes the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) approved over the summer. Installing divisions at 165 pounds and 175 pounds would not hurt the UFC in the least — it could actually be a boon.

New weight classes are not the only answer, though. When critics say that smaller middleweights would then try to cut to 175, they might be right. Other measures need to be taken to supplement the new weight classes.

One of the big keys of CSAC’s plan is licensing by weight class. Every fighter has to renew his or her commission license every year. When fighters get their medical exams done, they are weighed. At that point the doctor examines them and is asked whether that fighter can make his or her preferred weight class in a healthy manner. CSAC’s medical forms even have a handy chart showing doctors what the weight classes are and what weight is 10 percent above those classes. That 10-percent mark is what ringside physicians have penciled in as the line between an unsafe weight cut and one that isn’t as bad on the body.

Some have suggested random weight checks, much in the same way USADA does year-round, random drug-testing for the UFC. That could be something worth examining, but it’s worth noting that fighters are independent contractors and that would be further encroachment on their privacy.

There is no one solution and maybe White is not totally wrong when he says there will always be some issue with weight cutting in MMA. But just because we probably can’t get rid of 100 percent of dangerous weight cuts doesn’t mean something shouldn’t be done to address them.

As it was when MMA was searching for sanctioning and regulation in the United States after years in the dark ages, the onus is on the UFC. No commission has as much power as White’s organization, which can throw its weight (and money) around to make change.

The UFC went to war with performance-enhancing drug use in the sport when it brought USADA on as its anti-doping partner — at great financial expense. Weight cutting is as much of a problem now as PEDs ever were.

It’s time to put the days where fighters are bringing themselves close to death just to step into a cage and compete in the rear-view mirror. One can only hope that extreme weight cutting becomes a relic of the past in a short time, something we look back on, shake our heads and say, “Why was something that dangerous and counterintuitive so pervasive in the sport?”