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Referee Marc Goddard: More weight classes ‘not the answer’ to MMA’s weight-cutting issue

The UFC has not yet adopted new weight classes approved over the summer by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) and it remains unclear when — or if — the promotion will.

The topic gained new steam earlier this month at UFC 216. Kevin Lee, who was set to fight Tony Ferguson in the main event for the interim lightweight title, missed championship weight by one pound on his first attempt. He was allowed under Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) rules to weigh-in again an hour later and he hit the mark at 154.5 pounds.

Lee ended up losing the fight by third-round submission and has opened up since then about a weight cut that he says “damn near” killed him. On the day before he was supposed to step on the scale, Lee weighed 174 pounds. So, he had to cut 19 pounds in less than 24 hours — an unhealthy and dangerous practice even using the most scientific method possible.

Lee, 25, has been a proponent of additional weight classes, even before this incident. The ABC has added divisions at 165, 175, 195 and 225 pounds to the existing nine. Lee said after UFC 216 and once again Monday on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani that he would like to fight moving forward at 165 pounds.

There is skepticism from some, though, that new weight classes will truly affect MMA’s massive weight-cutting problem in a positive way. Count highly respected referee Marc Goddard among those skeptics. Goddard told Helwani on Monday that he does not believe additional divisions alone will solve the issue.

The ref referred to more divisions as simply “moving the goalposts.” In other words, if there’s a 165-pound division, there are likely current 170-pounders who will try to cut even more weight to make that, etc.

“That’s not the answer,” Goddard said. “What I meant by that is I'm not saying that an overhaul or eventually a couple more weight classes may be needed or may come — this sport is still formative, people forget that. We’re a young sport and we're learning and we're evolving along the way.”

Goddard was struck recently by a frightening video of a fighter in the Pancrase organization in Japan essentially being dragged to the scale to weigh-in. That fighter, Daniel Lima, could barely stand under his own power. He looked nearly catatonic, moving like someone whose motor skills had completely deteriorated — not like an elite MMA athlete. Yet his coaches, the doctors on site and the promotion officials allowed him to weigh-in and fight the next day.

The referee, who posted a video diatribe on the incident, said that when a fighter signs to fight at a certain weight, that is the fighter and the fighter’s team’s responsibility to reach that weight. But when fight week comes and a fighter might not be able to make those kinds of decisions during a terrible weight cut, it’s up to those around him or her to pull the plug for the fighter’s safety.

“That’s his choice and it’s choice to make it,” Goddard said. “When it comes fight week or fight day or weigh-in day, that to me it externalizes and they're possibly going to make their own decisions. It's not just gonna rest on the fighter.”

In 2015, a fighter for ONE Championship in Singapore, Yang Jian Bing, died while cutting weight and the promotion immediately moved everyone up a weight class and banned dehydration to cut weight.

No other promotion or sanctioning body has done anything that extreme. The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has addressed extreme weight cutting the most assertively, drawing up a 10-point plan to curtail the dangerous practice. That plan includes making doctors approve of weight classes, fight-day weight checks, hydration testing, sending repeat weight-miss offenders up a division, 30-day weigh-ins for high-profile bouts and more.

“What California is doing with hydration testing, too, [specific] gravity testing, it’s part of the overall plan and it’s slowly but surely coming together,” Goddard said. “Mixed martial arts, whether people like it or not, we’re still a formative sport.”

New weight classes are part of the CSAC plan, as is the early weigh-in, which has been used across the board in MMA since June 2016. More time between the weigh-in and the fight allows depleted fighters to recover before stepping into the cage, with the hope of cutting down on athletes stepping into a dangerous situation while dehydrated.

The early weigh-in has been met with some criticism, since a byproduct is more fighters have missed weight. But that has had more to do with the UFC’s own new protocols, including keeping tabs on fighters who come into the week above 8 percent of the weight class.

“If I’m gonna be somewhere for 8 a.m. in the morning, I’m gonna leave at 7 a.m.,” Goddard said. “So if I’m going to weigh-in this time, I’m gonna start my process a little earlier. The fact of the fighters saying it’s not enough time, etc., if you know you gotta be somewhere at a certain point, at a certain time on this date in the future, you plan accordingly.”

Goddard likes hydration testing and still believes gradual education is the best method to relieve the weight-cutting epidemic. One thing he does not want to see is same-day weigh-ins, a la NCAA wrestling. Goddard believes fighters will still cut weight and then walk into a cage soon after while dehydrated.

“And that’s a dangerous precedent,” he said.

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