Today we’re taking a look at one of the most controversial practices in MMA: weight cutting.
We’ve all seen it before—fighters sweating it out in saunas, running on treadmills, and even starving themselves, just to lose those last 5? 10? Even 20 pounds! To hit the lowest weight class their body will allow. But why do they do it? And more importantly, why doesn’t anyone in MMA try and put a stop to it?
What even is weight cutting?
Simply put, it’s when a fighter reduces their body weight before a fight in order to compete in a smaller division. The actual loss of weight can be done through a variety of methods, such as dehydration, fasting, and even the use of laxatives. There’s even stories of fighters throwing up or donating blood just to make weight.
For most athletes, however, the months and weeks leading up to a fight will be spent cutting calories and ramping up workouts. At that point in the process, no water weight is being lost that isn’t immediately getting put back in, but fighters are eating at a consistent caloric deficit for weeks (sometimes even months) to burn fat at a potentially unhealthy rapid rate. It’s the reason why many competitors in MMA “blow up” between camps. Fighters like Paddy Pimblett have even gone so far as to detail their binging tendencies, with ‘The Baddy’ reportedly going from 155 lbs up to over 200 lbs in just a few weeks after his fights. But he isn’t the only one.
Unlike simple diet management, fasting happens at the point where fighters begin limiting their foods to extremely small amounts; often having only a single meal or few snacks over a day of training. That process usually takes place only during the week of the fight and comes with plenty of its own potential health complications.
The final stage of weight cutting is the removal of excess water weight. This can take many forms, the main one being sweating. Fighters will sit in salt baths, jog in heavy clothing or plastic bags, anything to force the body to overheat to extremes and then attempt to cool itself with what little water is left. It is extremely unhealthy, can destroy kidneys, and has proven dangerous even to the point of death for numerous athletes over the years.
If sweating and salt doesn’t work all by itself, some fighters will resort to laxatives to force even more water out. Emptying any hydration from their digestive system. In most competitions that practice has been entirely banned, due to the severe risk of illness and long term injury. Fighters caught using laxatives are often treated just as harshly as performance enhancing drug users.
People do this why now?
So, with all those dangers and the agony involved in the process, why does anyone do it? The answer is simple. Fighters want every advantage they can get, and believe that size is a key one. They hope that by cutting weight, they can be bigger and stronger than their opposition.
They have good reason to feel that way too. Anyone who has competed in MMA or similar sports knows that while technique is king, size matters. The combination of size, strength and athleticism can often close the gap in a close fight, even when an opponent might be more skilled. With pay so low, and win bonuses so key to turning a profit after paying camp costs, fighters will take every chance they can get if it means putting extra food on the table for their families.
But here’s the thing—for all the advantages gained, it’s still clear that weight cutting is incredibly dangerous. Not only can it cause kidney damage, but there’s reasonable evidence that being dehydrated can make it easier to get concussed in competition, since the fluid around the brain is one of the main ways the brain stays protected from trauma. There’s potential monetary loss for fighters who miss weight too. They can lose out on a big percentage of their purse, bonus payments, and even future opportunities if promoters can’t trust them to hit their targets.
How can we fix it?
So if it’s advantageous enough that fighters won’t stop doing it on their own, and dangerous enough that it should be discouraged, why do promotions & commissions still allow weight cutting in MMA? The answer is that it’s complicated. On the one hand, fighters should have the option to manage their own destiny and compete in a lower weight class. At the same time, finding ways to actually stop weight cutting from happening have proven extremely difficult.
But, I think there is at least one solid solution: the creation of a more realistic weight class system. Instead of having fighters cut down to an arbitrary number, why not have weight classes based on the fighter’s natural weight? This would eliminate the need for dangerous weight cutting, and it would create a more fair playing field for all fighters.
In more specific terms, have fighters weigh in 2 months out from a fight. Then have them weigh in weekly until the day of their bout, with the requirement that they must stay within 5-10 percent of the agreed weight class for the entire time. It may not be functional for smaller promotions—the entire UFC roster would likely need special scales that are re-calibrated by the commission or UFC after every event to ensure that they remain accurate. As a secondary step, fighters may need to take hydration tests on fight week/weigh ins to ensure that they aren’t gaming the system.
One Championship’s solution has its flaws, but may still be the best idea currently implemented in the world of combat sports. Notably, however, it focuses almost exclusively on the hydration tests the week of the fight.
“We don’t use the term weight cutting because there is no cutting, We’ve developed a system of how we want our athletes to weigh in. The only way we can ensure they’ll actually compete at the weight they walk around at, is by hydration testing.”“We use an instrument to test the specific gravity of their urine, which tests how much solutes are in their urine,” he continued. “Obviously, the more [solutes] you have, the more dehydrated you are.” ONE Championship Vice President Rich Franklin told MMAmania.com.
That method removes a lot of legwork from promotions, commissions, and officials, but it only holds fighters up to a microscope the week of the event. Something that keeps a closer eye on competitors for a longer duration could make their system more broadly effective.
Another, easy solution that should be already in place would be that short notice fights always have to go up a weight class. Hopefully that move would also mean that fewer fights would be canceled last minute due to weight cut misses because the severe fight-week weigh-in process would be more or less gone.
Weight cutting has been a controversial topic in MMA for years, and for good reason. It’s dangerous, it’s unfair, and it’s time for a change. Let’s create a better system for all fighters. One that prioritizes their health and safety.
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