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The UFC Performance Institute wants to curtail extreme weight cutting, but answers are hard to come by

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — The UFC Performance Institute published an impressive, 80-page analysis this week. It’s filled with numbers, graphs and charts, covering everything from methods to winning UFC fights to injury prevention to nutrition.

What’s not in the one-year-old Performance Institute’s study is a cure for MMA’s weight-cutting epidemic. That’s because there’s no true, fool-proof answer and still much research to be done, Performance Institute executives said Wednesday at a media day at the PI.

“What we’re trying to do is create pretty wide-sweeping cultural changes, which are gonna take time to embed,” UFC PI vice president of performance Duncan French said. “If we only ever talk about the weight cut, we’re missing what the actual issue is. … It’s like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.”

In the analysis, the UFC Performance Institute recommends that fighters come into the cage at no more than 10 percent above their contracted weight for optimal performance. The study states that fighters should not lose more than 1.5 percent of their body weight per week, because any more would result in a loss of muscle and not fat. The PI is recommending that UFC athletes lose no more than two to three pounds per week leading into their trip to the scale.

The common thread in the published analysis is that fighters should have a 52-week training camp, rather than starting back in their processes — training and weight descent — when an eight-week camp starts. The Performance Institute study warns against poor nutritional practices following a fight, which could make the next weight cut even more difficult.

Extreme weight cutting is one of the most significant issues facing MMA. Severe dehydration is debilitating to a fighter’s health and has sent athletes to the hospital. Huge weight cuts have led to an increase in fighters missing weight since the UFC began implementing a morning weigh-in two years ago. UFC president Dana White has vowed to go back to the old afternoon weigh-in because of all the misses, while fighters prefer the morning, because they have more time to rehydrate before the fight.

French said there is not yet any data that shows whether the morning or afternoon weigh-ins are better for fighter health. Nor are there any conclusions as to why the number of fighters missing weight has tripled since the morning weigh-ins began in 2016.

“We’re looking into that,” French said. “Physiologically, I’m unaware of some significant things that suggest that either is better.”

The UFC guidelines state that fighters should come into fight week within 8 percent of the contracted weight class. And the PI would like fighters to stay within 10 percent of the weight class after rehydration. French said that 79 percent of fighters who are within 8 percent of their division Tuesday have been within 10 percent of it on fight day.

There has not yet been data collected on how fighters who are over those numbers fare in fights, French said. And French would not say what percentage of fighters come in over the 8 percent on Tuesday and over the 10 percent on Saturday. There’s also no full data on fighters’ won-loss records when they come in over those numbers, he said.

A continuing study done by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) showed that nearly 30 percent of fighters are more than 20 percent above their weight class on fight day, while a Brazilian MMA Athletic Commission (CABMMA) study says about 45 percent of fighters are above that 10 percent mark on fight day.

“I’m not sure anybody likes cutting weight,” French said. “How is the culture developed to the level where people are cutting weight that is potentially more than they need to or whatever it may be? I think that’s the question.”

French said that the UFC PI does not want to see fighters five years from now cutting the same amount of weight as they are now.

“We hope not,” he said. “I would say that’s how the Performance Institute is hoping to support the executives and everybody in this process. And to understand it. What we want is parity in the fight and health and safety. Health for the athlete and going about that the best way.

“I don’t know an athlete that doesn’t want a competitive advantage, but at the same time I don’t know an athlete that doesn’t want to prepare to perform optimally. It’s just kind of a double-edged sword, obviously.”

What the UFC won’t do is tell fighters to visit the Performance Institute to find out what their minimum weight class should be scientifically. Fighters are still independent contractors, after all.

“To me, this is a great thing to come here,” said Forrest Griffin, a UFC Hall of Famer and the promotion’s vice president of performance. “It’s a privilege. We don’t want to make you. It’s like being called to the principal’s office. I want to not get into the business of, ‘Oh you have a problem, we’ll make you go.’ You come to the PI if you individually want some help. Then please, come in. There’s a great staff here to help you.”

Griffin said he is taking a more micro philosophy with fighters cutting weight — get to them one at a time.

“Every athlete that comes in, can we influence them to make better choices?” Griffin said. “I feel like we’re doing that. To me that’s more important. Start small. We’ve had 300-plus athletes come through. If we can help those 300 athletes make the right choices, do things correctly when it comes to that, then we’ve definitely made influence.”

Many fighters have said they only cut weight because they know their opponent will be. And they don’t want to move up in weight, because they know fighters in the next weight class are cutting down from even heavier. Griffin is not a fan of that rationale.

“It reminds me of back when [UFC anti-doping partner] USADA came in,” Griffin said. “Like, ‘I don’t want to dope, but I think the guy I’m fighting likes to dope, so I have to dope.’ It’s a weird reasoning. So, don’t cut the weight then. I would address the individual athlete. If you don’t want to do it, find a better weight class or walk around lighter.”

With the first publication of analysis done, the UFC Performance Institute plans on updating its data and research publicly with future versions. The next one won’t take a year to put out, French said. Like studying weight cutting, all of this is a work in progress.

The purpose of the study is to give fighters knowledge to better equip them as athletes in MMA, French and Griffin said. And that also applies to weight cutting. The UFC PI wants to continue hammering that 10 percent figure on fight day. Remain within that, they say, and that’s the best bet for peak performance.

“You know the best thing?” Griffin said. “Stay within about 10 percent of your fight weight and walk around at the weight you’re actually gonna fight at. That’s the best thing.

“We simply just inform them. The way to perform at your best, your optimal performance, is this weight on fight night.”