Aljamain Sterling doesn’t want to fight at bantamweight. He does it because of the state of the sport and the circumstances surrounding it.
The UFC fighter said he’ll make 135 or 136 pounds on weigh-in day, come into the fight around 148 or 149 pounds and then be 166 pounds just two weeks later. And it isn’t like he’s out of shape at 166.
“I’m fat and happy, and I’ve still got abs,” Sterling told MMA Fighting. “It’s kind of scary. You’ve gotta imagine what kind of depletion I’m doing to my body just to get down to the proper weight class that I can compete at. [Featherweight], there’s a couple guys that are just a little too big. I’m realistic.”
Sterling is 5-foot-7 and if he moved up to featherweight he could be facing guys anywhere from three to four inches taller. The Long Island native said one of his sparring partners is 6-foot-1 and still makes the cut to 145. So while featherweight might be a more natural, healthy fit for him, he believes it’s best for his career to stay at bantamweight at this point.
That’s where new weight-cutting rules implemented by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) come in. CSAC approved a 10-point plan to combat severe dehydration in weight cutting in May and it went into effect last month.
Two provisions in the plan figure to send athletes to heavier weight divisions. During the licensing process, the physician who fills out the fighters’ medicals will be shown what the actual weight classes are in the CSAC form and be asked to determine whether or not the fighter can get down to that division in a safe way. Then, if a fighter is more than 10 percent above his or her weight class in a fight-day weight check, that fighter will be recommended to move up to the next division.
CSAC’s new initiative is already showing some teeth. Just ask Sterling. His opponent for UFC 214 on July 29 in Anaheim, Calif., Renan Barao, will not be licensed for the 135-pound weight class by the commission. Barao passed out and hit his head while cutting weight for a bantamweight title fight in California back in 2014.
“The last time Mr. Barao was over here in California, he didn’t make it to the fight,” CSAC executive officer Andy Foster told MMA Fighting last week. “I think out of an abundance of safety, we’ve focused on weight cutting, focused on addressing severe dehydration to make weight. And the last time Mr. Barao was here he didn’t make it to the fight. I talked to my doctors and we feel like this is the appropriate and safe thing to do.”
Barao’s coach Jair Lourenco told MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz this week that Barao is walking around in the 154-to-156-pound range, which means he’d be well over the 10-percent mark (148.5 for a bantamweight) that CSAC would prefer a fighter be under in order to be licensed for that weight class. That’s a fine number for one month out for a 140-pound fight, though.
“The commission wants to protect Barao’s health, and I understand that,” Lourenco said. “At first we didn’t like it, but thinking about his health, we understand it."
Sterling has verbally agreed to face Barao at the catchweight, though he has not signed the contract. He said he appreciates what CSAC is trying to do, he just wishes someone told him what was going on before the fight was so close.
“I think California is head and beyond above everybody else right now in terms of regulating guys and making sure guys are competing in the proper weight class,” Sterling said. “And just trying to make sure it’s as safe as possible. I think they’re the only ones trying to put in that emphasis.”
On Thursday, the commission held a groundbreaking 30-day weigh-in for the three title fights on the UFC 214 card: Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones, Cris Cyborg vs. Tonya Evinger and Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia. Foster would not make the weights public for those fighters, but said he was satisfied that none of those six fighters would be making too dangerous of a weight cut.
The weigh-in was conducted via FaceTime and Foster is considering another check 10 days out of the fight. The 10-point plan passed in May includes provisions for 30-day and 10-day weight checks, a la boxing’s WBC, for high-profile title fights.
Foster also told MMA Fighting that in the five MMA cards that have happened in California since the new weight rules went into effect last month, 10 fighters have been recommended to move up to a heavier division. That is no small number.
The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) medical committee will bring Foster’s 10-point plan to the ABC body later this month at the organization’s annual conference. At the least, Foster is hoping other commissions honor CSAC’s recommendations on which fighters should be fighting in higher weight divisions. That information is included in the official results of the fight, in the same section as medical suspensions, which other commissions do reciprocate.
Sterling, by letter of the law, will probably be able to continue fighting at 135 in California. One part of the new weight-cutting initiative, which became the norm in 2016, is earlier weigh-ins. Sterling says fighters are going to take advantage of more time to recover between the weigh-ins and the fight by cutting even more weight.
Sterling knows this to be true — he said he has done that himself, coming in heavier the week of fights so he can be heavier in the Octagon. With more time to recover, he believes it won’t affect his performance as much. The Long Island native said he entered the cage for fights last year at more than 150 pounds. Before, he weighed around 148 or 149, he said.
“This is what my whole complaints were when they did this early weigh-in shit,” Sterling said. “It didn’t make a lot of sense. You’re giving us more time to dehydrate and you’re giving us more time to recover. So, you want to get rid of the drastic weight cut, you’ve gotta reduce the amount of time we have to recover and guys are gonna be like, you know what? I only have three or four hours to put the weight back on? I can’t do a severe dehydration or else it’s going to severely affect my performance. I bet you’ll see everybody going up weight classes. That’s the right way to do it.”
The only answer, in Sterling’s mind, is weigh-ins just hours — or even less — before the actual fight. This has been considered by commissions and many believe it would be the most effective remedy. But the fear among regulators is that some fighters will still cut a significant amount of weight and walk into the cage dehydrated with no time to replenish, risking serious injury or death.
There’s certainly no ability to wave a magic wand and make the issue of extreme weight cutting in MMA go away overnight. But CSAC is at least making the effort, with a reasoned, doctor-backed blueprint.
No fighter actually enjoys cutting weight and if fighters know they’ll be competing against athletes of a similar size in division up from where they are now, they likely would welcome those kinds of changes.
“The weight cut is not easy for me,” Sterling said. “It’s always the absolute worst. I’ve posted videos of it. It’s a f*cking struggle. I’ve been doing it so long, so I know how to handle it mentally and I know how to do it physically. But it’s never easy.
“If I have to go up, I have to go up. If everyone is gonna go up, it just works out better. We’re fighting at a safer weight.”