ANAHEIM, Calif. — In Andre Fili’s perfect world, he’d be a lightweight.
The Team Alpha Male standout walks around somewhere in the 160s and would much prefer making 155 pounds for lightweight than cutting all the way down to 145 for featherweight, where he has fought his whole career.
But one look at the UFC’s roster at lightweight forces Fili to make that drop time after time. It’s not that 155 is the promotion’s most loaded division; it’s the sheer mass of the athletes that has Fili hesitant to compete there.
“I’d be fighting guys like Paul Felder’s size,” said Fili, who meets Calvin Kattar at UFC 214 on Saturday night here at Honda Center. “F*ck that. I’m not fighting that. Or Barboza’s size. Like, whatever. Skill wise, I’ll fight anybody. But size wise, there’s a reason for weight classes.”
Such is the plight of an MMA fighter who doesn’t quite fit perfectly into a codified division. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in some cases. The choice is be small compared to your peers or cut down and face a daunting (and perhaps unhealthy) rapid loss of weight.
The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) has set out to combat extreme weight cutting via severe dehydration over the last several years. And the latest salvo at taking out the problem in mixed martial arts went into effect last month: a 10-point plan devised to keep fighters as close to their natural weight as possible, thereby avoiding those dangerous weight cuts.
I just made 145 for the first time under the CSAC weight cutting reform. It has been a great experience so far and will save fighters lives.— #UFC214 CyborgNation (@criscyborg) July 28, 2017
UFC 214 is the first major MMA event to run under CSAC’s new rules. For the first time, when fighters got their medicals done doctors had to approve not only their capability of fighting, but also whether or not they could make their chosen weight class. The three title fight competitors on the card had weight checks 30 days and 10 days out of the event with CSAC over FaceTime. CSAC also would not license Renan Barao, who slipped and hit his head cutting weight in 2014, to compete at bantamweight on this card.
The commission was monitoring those who had a steep cut. And Saturday all the fighters competing will weigh-in again. If they are more than 10 percent above their weight class on fight day, CSAC will strongly recommend they move up to a higher weight class for their next bout.
Friday’s weigh-ins in Cerritos, Calif., seemed to go pretty well. Everyone made weight and some fighters CSAC was tracking — like UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, who struggled to reach 205 pounds in his last fight in April — looked healthy on the scales.
“It went smoothly,” CSAC executive officer Andy Foster said. “When I knew it was gonna go smooth was when I started getting the physicals back. And the physicals were looking better than I had ever saw them. Not saying it’s fantastic, not saying it’s great. There’s certainly room for improvement. But they were better than I had seen them at a high-level MMA show before.”
Ask fighters about weight cutting and you’ll get an assortment of answers. None of them want to cut weight, but many see the necessity of it. Others would prefer the government stay out of such issues.
“For a world champion that’s never missed weight, I feel like it’s a bit unnecessary for myself,” said Tyron Woodley, who defends the UFC welterweight title against Demian Maia on Saturday. “I never went out there and performed poorly because of a weight-cutting issue. I’ve been doing it since collegiate wrestling, really since high-school wrestling. So I feel like I understand what they’re trying to do, but we’re not boxers.
“Boxers fight very close to their weight. They also spar too much. They spar three or four hard days in a row. That’s more of a health concern than I think the weight issues.”
There’s no doubt some fighters have cutting weight down to a science. Nutritionists are being used more and more, for the athletes who can afford them. Some fighters, though, don’t mind the intervention for the sake of health and safety, because, frankly, we still see a lot of weight-cutting related mishaps, even at the highest level of the UFC.
“A lot of fighters don’t know how to do it,” said Ricardo Lamas, who faces Jason Knight at UFC 214. “They do it in a very stupid way and then they’re harming their bodies and their organs and it’s not good. I think somebody definitely needs to step in. Even if we get monitored through camp. Start at camp. In college, in wrestling, before season started, we’d get fat tests, we’d get hydration tests and then they’d tell us how low we could cut to. And that was it. They should implement the same thing for fighting.”
Foster said the UFC was very supportive this week and leading up to UFC 214, especially UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky and UFC doctor Jeff Davidson. The key, though, was contacting the fighters directly and dealing with them and their respective teams. Foster said CSAC was probably “annoying” to the fighters during their training camp, but they and their coaches were very receptive.
“I didn’t deal with [the UFC] that much,” Foster said. “They’re a licensee just like the fighters are. Some people think, ‘Oh, they’re a big behemoth of a company or whatever.’ They’re a licensee. So when I need to deal with the fighters, I call the fighters directly. They’re licensees of the commission and I deal with the fighters. Remember, the fighters are independent contractors and I think that’s an important thing to remember. I’m dealing directly with them. Certainly the promoter, whether it be boxing or MMA, should be aware of certain aspects of their promotion and what we’re looking to do or not do. But beyond that, they’ve been incredibly supportive and I can’t say enough about the reception from both sides. But again, this is a fighter-commission issue and I’m dealing with individual fighters and not so much a middle-man type issue.”
Cormier’s situation, Foster said, was the the ideal one the way it worked out. Cormier notably has had weight-cutting issues in the past, including missing the Olympics when his kidneys failed. Monitoring his cut was important to CSAC and Foster was happy with how it went. Cormier said he was only 7-1/2 pounds out Thursday, which is not a big number for a man of his size, and 10 pounds away Wednesday. Cormier hit 205 on the nose Friday at weigh-ins.
“He’s the perfect example of what I had hoped it would look like,” Foster said. “He started out and I don’t have to repeat it, but he tweeted what he weighed 30 days out. I don’t know if he tweeted when he weighed 10 days out, but obviously it was less. I think he tweeted out or told you guys on Tuesday what he weighed. That shows somebody that’s coming down, like they’re supposed to be during their training camp. He was right on the money and the scale was bouncing between 204 1/2 and 205 for Daniel Cormier.”
The Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC), which oversees commissions in North America and rules over the Unified Rules of MMA, approved the use of four new weight classes — 165, 175, 195 and 225 — at its annual meeting this week. That was part of Foster’s 10-point plan and he said California will begin to use those weight classes on the lower levels, even if the UFC and Bellator don’t adopt them right away.
“I hope they do,” Brian Ortega said of the UFC bringing in the new divisions. “It gives us new options. I think a lot of fighters would feel less pressure, some who are in that line.”
Foster presented his 10-point plan to the ABC body this week, but it was not brought to a vote. His plan is to bring his findings from a year of doing it in California for the ABC to see in 2018.
“I want to come back next year after we have a little over a year of data worth from this thing, show it to people and say, ‘Look, this works,’” Foster said. “That’s only for the skeptics. I want people to adopt it right away, because it’s gonna save lives. But if they’re skeptical, I’ll come back with hard data, not just want I think and what I believe. Thoughts and beliefs don’t do a lot. Hard data shows. I’m pleased with how today went.”
California passing these rules is one thing, but other states will have to follow through for it to make a real impact. The fighters competing on this card seemed to appreciate what CSAC is trying to do, knowing that the commission does have their best interests at heart. But there is also a feeling of skepticism that it might not take hold across the board.
“I think it has to be all or nothing,” Fili said. “I think everybody has to get on board and be like, ‘F*ck weight cutting, let’s just fight what we walk around at,’ which I think would help the sport. But I think people are gonna drag their feet, kicking and screaming to doing that. People hate change, they just want to be stuck in their ways. Even if their old ways aren’t the right ways, people want to just keep doing the same shit, because it’s comfortable. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Cutting weight is the most dog shit thing in the world, but everybody is so used to doing it. They’ve got it drilled in their head, that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Even if a better way comes along, it’s gonna take a while.”