Simon Head: Why weight cutting remains the biggest danger in MMA

With the sport becoming more professional with each passing year, it’s time the issue of weight cutting is addressed and eradicated from mixed martial arts...

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This past weekend we saw another uncomfortable scene at a weigh-in as an athlete struggled to step up onto the scale to make weight ahead of a mixed martial arts contest.

Weigh-ins are an integral part of combat sports, and were introduced as a way of increasing safety for athletes by matching fighters against opponents of an equivalent or similar size and weight.

But in the sport of mixed martial arts in particular, the weigh-ins appear to have become too much of a factor in the outcome – or even the actual running – of individual bouts.

We don’t see or hear of boxers missing weight too often, so why is it such an issue in MMA?

WRESTLING ISN’T MMA

The practice of weight cutting comes from the the sport of wrestling, where amateur wrestlers often endure tough weight cuts to make their allotted weight classes. In wrestling, size and strength is crucial to success, and wrestlers in college often use weight-cutting by dehydration as a quick, effective method of making weight.

When former collegiate wrestlers started transitioning to MMA, they brought their weight-cutting practices with them and it showed in their fights. The wrestlers looked much bigger and stronger than their opponents and that, coupled with their elite-level skillset inside the cage, meant there was a time when wrestlers started to dominate inside the octagon.

Soon, other athletes started to take notice and weight-cutting became more commonplace.

THE BIG ISSUE

Cutting weight by dehydration for wrestling is one thing, but doing it for mixed martial arts is another thing altogether.

The practice is the same, but the risk to mixed martial artists is much, much higher. In short, wrestlers don’t get hit in the head. And a dehydrated fighter is at greater risk of concussion due to the reduced amount of water in their body (and around their brain).

Also, there is a limit to how much an athlete can cut, and that limit could fluctuate depending on a plethora of biological and physiological factors. For example, UFC women’s strawweight fighter Cynthia Calvillo put her tough weight cut at the weekend down to being on her period. Thankfully, she recovered strongly after looking decidedly wobbly on the scale and went on to put on a fight-winning performance in Argentina. But we’ve often seen fighters look like shadows of their former selves after enduring hard weight cuts.

We’ve seen situations around the world where fighters are dragged to the scale, barely able to stand, then medically “cleared” to fight the very next day. We’ve seen fighters hospitalised after their internal organs failed during weight-cutting complications. We’ve seen footage of fighters collapsing during weight cuts . And, tragically, we’ve had stories of fighters who have died as a result of weight cuts gone wrong.

COULD NEW WEIGHT CLASSES HELP?

Some people have called for more weight classes. They could help, but they certainly aren’t the solution to the problem.

The one benefit of introducing additional selected divisions would be to create a smaller, more consistent gap between weight classes. From flyweight to lightweight, there is a gap of 10lbs between divisions. Then, from lightweight to middleweight, that gap increases to 15lbs and, from middleweight to light-heavyweight, the gap increases to 20lbs.

Bridging the gap between lightweight and welterweight, where the bulk of fighters tend to compete, certainly seems a valid idea. The addition of a 165lb division and moving the 170lb division up to 175lbs seems to make a lot of sense, but UFC president Dana White has seemed against the idea whenever it has been mentioned. A similar argument can be made for the addition of a 195lb class to bridge the cap between middleweight and light-heavyweight, though the talent pool in the higher weights isn’t as deep.

Having smaller gaps between divisions could be a two-edged sword, however. While athletes know moving up to their more natural weight may mean they’re not making a massive jump up in weight, others may see the smaller drop to the division below as an opportunity to use weight cutting to fight with an even bigger size advantage in an even lighter weight class.

THE ‘ONE’ SOLUTION

One potential solution, which is used by Asian MMA promotion ONE Championship, is to ban weight cutting by dehydration. Athletes are assigned a weight class based on their size and walking around weight, and have their weight and urine checked throughout fight week by ONE medical staff.

There are no official weigh-ins, as such, so fighters don’t have to drop weight to hit a mark on one specific date. Instead, they are told to remain within an allowable range while also staying hydrated.

It would be a major change for an American promotion to adopt, and an organisation may have additional regulatory hurdles to clear, as they will require full buy-in from state athletic commissions, who oversee weigh-in proceedings at boxing and mixed martial arts events in the United States.

IT’S DOWN TO THE RULEMAKERS

Ultimately, two groups of people can help fix the situation and make the sport significantly safer for athletes: the fighters themselves and the organisations they fight for.

Many fighters are coming to the realisation that they can actually compete at a higher level of performance by not forcing themselves to go through a punishing weight cut. Some have opted to move up a weight class and are experiencing the benefits. But for those who feel they have weight cutting under control, it’s a big ask to get them to move up a division when they feel they can comfortably handle the pre-fight dehydration and rehydration process.

Some fighters believe they have weight cutting under control and see it as a genuine, legal, edge over their opponents.

And in a sport where every advantage is crucial in the journey to the top that’s a tough thing to give up, especially when most fighters have contracts that pay 50% of their fight purse to “show” and 50% to win.

Fighters can make voluntary changes, but for real change to happen it has to be done through the rule book, and that requires buy-in from the organisations and a change in approach from state athletic commissions.

The sport of MMA has transformed into a fully-regulated contact sport with an excellent record in fighter safety. But the one area of the sport that remains in the dark ages is its approach to weigh-ins. It’s high time that organisations and commissions more stringently regulate the methods that get the fighters to the scale, rather than just the weigh-ins themselves.

With the sport becoming more professional with each passing year, it’s time the issue of weight cutting is addressed and eradicated from mixed martial arts before we end up with a preventable tragedy on our hands.

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