Weighing In on Cutting Weight
Last weekend, I watched the return of Anthony “Rumble” Johnson at UFC 172. Fighting at 205lbs, Rumble moved flawlessly, and earned a victory over top-ranked Phil Davis. He looked big and strong, probably weighing 220lbs in the octagon. Above all he looked healthy...
So even as Mike Goldberg stated “It’s hard to believe this man ever fought at 170lbs”. That’s right. Rumble would cut down from 220lbs to 170lbs. And 220lbs…with abs.
Most fighters in MMA fight at weight classes 20-30lbs below what they actually weigh in their daily lives. They are expected to “make weight” 24 hours before their scheduled fights. Many will associate this with success derived from being bigger, stronger and heavier than their opponent on fight night. Many fighters have seen success by moving down a weight class. For such fighters, being lean and having improved cardio with additional size are all part of the recipe for success.
However, weight cutting can be extremely dangerous, depending on the amount of weight to be cut and the time frame. There are two types of weight cuts, the first occurs several weeks before a fight and deals with losing fat and/or muscle. It is the result of a proper diet along with increased cardio, etc. The second type of weight cut involves the loss of water weight. This often occurs in the days to hours before a weigh in, during which a fighter will lose 8-15 pounds.
The Hazards of Extreme Weight Cutting
Last year a 26 year old MMA fighter, Leandro Souza died hours prior to his weigh-in during a Shooto fight in Brazil from a "stroke". Souza was apparently 2 lbs above weight and had been using diuretics, pills that increase urination. Many diuretics in MMA are considered illegal and a type of doping. In 1996, top ranked Judoka Chung See-hoon died 3 months before the Atlanta Olympics which he was favored to win. He was found dead in a sauna. In 1997, three NCAA collegiate wrestlers from different colleges died within one month of each other. The cause was felt to be hypothermia, when the body’s core temperature falls below normal. Often in extreme weight cuts, athletes wear multiple layers of clothing exercising in a hot room in order to overperspire and “sweat off” the weight. The perspiration in turn can cool the body to the point of hypothermia, at which point kidney failure or heart attacks can occur fatally.
An article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition from 2012, looked at weight cutting or rapid weight loss (RWL) in combat sports. The described psychological effects of weight cutting include reduced short term memory impairment, vigor, and self esteem as well as increased confusion, rage, fatigue, depression and isolation. RWL can cause impair both aerobic and anaerobic performance. This may be the result of dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities and/or glycogen depletion. A loss of 5% of body weight is associated with a higher risk of injury during competition.
Following the deaths of the 3 wrestlers in 1997, the NCAA was forced to take immediate action. The use of saunas and rubber impermeable suits were banned. A seven pound weight allowance was added to each class, and weigh-ins went from being scheduled 24 hours before the match to 2 hours before the match.
When Should the Weigh In Occur?
In MMA, the weigh-ins typically occur 24 hours prior to fight night. A fighter who undergoes a significant dehydrational cut may weigh 20-30 lbs more on fight night. Rehydration occurs, and if done incorrectly can lead to significant electrolyte imbalances. At the same time, asking an MMA fighter to fight within several hours of a cut, could be harmful if he is mentally sluggish as a result of dehydration, particularly where striking is a key component of MMA.
This past fall, the New Jersey State Athletic commission proposed several ideas regarding weight restrictions in MMA.
1. The fighter be weighed 30 days before the fight and be no more than 10% above contracted weight
2. The fighter be weighed in 7 days before the fight and be no more than 5% above contracted weight
This is essentially following the way boxing conducts business, as these are guidelines followed by the World Boxing Council (WBC) since 2007, with no catastrophic outcomes noted.
Interestingly, the NJ commission looked at fighters who gained 10-20 lbs between the weigh-in the day before and the night of the fight. 52% of fighters gaining weight won their fight, meaning that being heavier on fight night does not necessarily increase your odds of winning dramatically.
Safe Weight Cutting
Obviously the rational approach to safety would be to focus on the loss of fat through diet and regular cardio in the weeks to months leading up to a fight. Fighters who tend to cut only a few pounds can focus purely on fighting and not on the cut itself. The science of lean dieting has become a business itself with specialists such as Mike Dolce (The Dolce Diet) mapping out nutrition plans for a fighter's entire training camp. A fighter should really try to stay within 5-10% of their fighting weight class at all times.
The Skinny on Weight Cutting
MMA fighters will always look for a competitive edge. Weight cutting presents two issues to the sport, the first being the danger associated with poor extreme cutting practices. The second centers around the ethics of having a fighter outweigh his opponent by up to 20lbs on fight night, and the “fairness” and hazard associated with this. Although it is easy to try to model weigh-ins based on what is done in boxing and wresting, MMA is a truly unique sport and same day weigh-ins are not necessarily the answer.
Perhaps we should cheer Rumble not only for his victory over Davis, but for looking out for his own health too. Some food for thought, for now.