Weight-cutting is becoming more and more of an issue in combat sports. The process, common among mixed martial artists, boxers and amateur wrestlers involves sucking as much as twenty plus pounds of water out of the body before the weigh-in and then re-hydrating afterwards, ostensibly to give the combatant an advantage in size. Proponents of weight-cutting insist that if done properly there is no risk to the body’s health, while detractors point to cases of extreme dehydration and in some cases permanent damage.
Recently, UFC veteran Marcus Davis told MMAWeekly.com a story about a particular weight-cutting experience that raised a lot of eyebrows in the MMA community. In his first fight after leaving the UFC, Davis fought for Canada’s MFC at 155 pounds. Davis said the cut “nearly killed him”, leaving him unable to speak at the weigh-ins because his throat was so coarse from dehydration and also unable to use the bathroom for several days. His body reacted so badly to the cut that he will never attempt it again.
Strikeforce heavyweight Daniel Cormier lost his chance at Olympic gold due to a weight cut gone wrong. Cormier was the captain of the USA’s freestyle wrestling team and was a serious contender to bring home a medal in the Beijing Games but experienced kidney failure due to extreme dehydration during his cut to 211 pounds. Cormier will never again attempt to cut weight due to a very real chance that it could be lethal.
Rory Markham had his own hellish weight-cutting experience which he relayed to Sam Sheridan, who penned the book “A Fighter’s Heart”. Before Markham’s fight against Dan Hardy at UFC 95, his weight cut left his body cramping so badly that one of his lungs collapsed. Sheridan said “After the knock-out [loss], he got x-rayed, and the Doc said ‘Can I X-ray your chest, it looks weird?’ and Rory said sure, and they said ‘You have a collapsed lung.’”
But for all the stories of mixed martial artists suffering to cut weight, there are those that insist the ones who have trouble are the ones who do it incorrectly. Mike Dolce experienced limited success in MMA, best known for his stint in the IFL and an appearance on season 7 of The Ultimate Fighter. But as his fighting career stalled, be became one of the sport’s most well-known nutritionists and guru of weight-cutting. Dolce’s success stories include Thiago Alves, who prior to his work with Dolce was notorious for having difficulty making 170 pounds, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
The work with Jackson prior to his fight with Rashad Evans is something Dolce is especially proud of. Dolce told MMAFighting.com “That was one where everybody – even guys on his team, his management – they wrote it off as being nearly impossible…but I was able to get him to lose forty-five pounds in eight weeks, step on the scale, feel great, then go out there and compete with Rashad [Evans] the entire time.”
Dolce, much like GSP’s trainer Firas Zahabi, decries the process of using the sauna for large weight cuts as doing more harm than good, particularly on a fighter’s mental state. “That’s when the mind games start. I know, I’ve cut thirty or forty pounds. I know what goes on behind the eyes during the weight cut process. I know how it feels to be locked in that sauna when you’re twelve pounds over and that single bead of sweat falls in slow motion. Then it hits the floor and you’re praying for the second bead of sweat to come. That is a painstaking process in a 180-degree room. Most people don’t get that or understand that.”
Indeed, the mental impact may be as severe as the physical impact. Yahoo Sports’ Maggie Hendricks shared a study done by researchers at Cal State Fullerton, which examined how weight cutting affected collegiate wrestlers. “The researchers found that wrestlers who lost 4 percent or more of their body mass had significantly higher levels of confusion on the day of the competition. There was no increased confusion for those who lost less than 4 percent of their body mass.” In a sport where impaired decision-making or confusion could lead to serious injury, is having a perceived slight weight advantage really worth the risk?
Holding the weigh-ins on the same day of the event has been suggested by some, with it’s supporters espousing the theory that fighters will attempt less severe cuts when they only have a couple of hours of recovery time before the fight. Boxing fans however still remember the story of Duk Koo Kim, who after a massive weight cut and same-day weigh-in, took a pounding over fourteen rounds from Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Without sufficient hydration, Kim’s brain slammed repeatedly against his skull and after the fight Kim collapsed into a coma from which he died four days later.
While fighters will typically use any advantage (perceived or otherwise) without regard to their safety, some athletic commissions are taking the lead. North Carolina and Massachusetts both have a double weigh-in rule, where fighters must make weight on the day before the event and weigh-in again on fight day. The second weigh-in can be no greater than 1.0625 times their previously recorded weight, which is an average of about ten pounds.
Mixed martial arts is by its nature a violent sport, it also prides itself on fighter safety. The sport has grown consistently in part because of the willingness to accept increased safety measures for the athletes involved, which once upon a time included the introduction of weight classes. Now it may be time to ask whether the sport is doing enough to protect fighters from themselves when it comes to dangerous weight cuts. Some will continue to argue that it’s merely part of the game, but would fans really notice if stricter weight controls were in place? I have yet to meet an MMA fan whose decision to buy a ticket or a pay-per-view is influenced one way or another by the amount of weight the participants have cut. The name on the marquee isn’t the “ultimate weight-cutting championship”.
If it prevents just one Davis, Cormier, or Markham incident then it may be time for athletic commissions to re-examine the process.