Words

Bidding Farewell to MMA’s IV Era

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photo by Universal Images Group/Getty

Earlier this year when the UFC announced that it would be handing over all out-of-competition drug-testing duties to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the response among fighters seemed generally positive. Some complained that as non-union independent contractors they were going to be subject to standards they had no say in creating (unlike football or basketball players), but overall the sense seemed to be that, after years of failed post-fight tests, glaring PED violations, and other embarrassments, MMA was in need of an independent governing body to keep an eye on things. USADA testing felt like a great leap forward toward legitimacy.

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Flash forward a few months and the realization that the USADA will be outlawing the use of post-weigh-in intravenous rehydration as part of the new regime has marred that sense of universal good feeling. Grumbling among fighters and coaches has been growing louder and louder. Cris Cyborg, the only real threat to UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, said yesterday that the IV ban could be the final nail in the coffin of her long-wished-for weight cut to 135 pounds. And longtime lightweight contender Jorge Masvidal told MMAFighting that hearing the news confirmed his decision to move up to 170 pounds. "I lose about 18 pounds the last two days [when competing at 155] of just straight water, so for me, to take the IVs away, there’s no way I could make 55,” Masvidal said.  

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The use of IVs is part of a long tradition in combat sports. Wrestlers have been using saline IV injections (with their blend of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other electrolytes) to recover from weight cuts for decades. Mixed martial artists routinely drop 10-15 pounds of water weight in the day or two leading up to weigh-ins, and nearly all of them rely on IVs to get it back. Of course, one could always rehydrate orally, but IVs are part of the tradition, and superstition, of MMA. Some nutritionists say that the power of the IV is as much psychological as it is physical: MMA fighters believe they’re rehydrating faster and more thoroughly when they’re hooked up to an IV drip.

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UFC middleweight and former collegiate wrestler Derek Brunson blamed his sudden third-round collapse against Yoel Romero in January 2014 on bad rehydration after a 20-pound weight cut. Brunson said that a friend of a friend who claimed to have experience working with IVs missed the fighter’s veins three times after weigh-ins. Brunson eventually gave up and took to drinking gallons of water, which led to excessive urination on fight day, a lack of appetite, and eventually more dehydration. “Never forget that IV,” Brunson said later. “That’s the important thing to get the fluids back in you so that you’re able to perform.”

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In a study conducted at the University of Connecticut, athletes who had been dehydrated to -4% body mass were rehydrated either orally or via an IV for 45 minutes before exercising again. Researchers found that skin temperature, sweat rate, performance, and stress hormone response were similar between the two groups, but thirst and rating of perceived exertion were lower among those who had rehydrated orally.

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Nutritionist George Lockhart:  “If you look at all of the studies between oral rehydration and IV rehydration, if they rehydrate properly orally, they'll gain the same weight back. You can gain the same amount going the oral route as going the IV route.”

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Aware that getting rid of post-weigh-in IV rehydration was a shot across the bow of MMA tradition, the USADA announced last week that the IV ban won’t go into effect until October, giving fighters and coaches time to acclimate to a brave new world.

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During the deadly cholera pandemic of the 1830s, a Scottish doctor named Thomas Aitchison Latta become the first person on record to use an intravenous saline infusion in the treatment of human beings. Recognizing that his patients were losing an enormous amount of water from their blood, and unable to save them through the use of rectal saline infusions, Latta began treating his patients intravenously. His first patient received 330 ounces of fluid in 12 hours. Afterwards, Latta wrote her “cadaverous expression gradually gives place to appearances of returning animation, the livid hue disappears … and in forty-eight hours she smoked her pipe free from distemper.”

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USADA guidelines prohibit “any type of intravenous (IV) manipulation of the blood or blood components by physical or chemical means.” The agency is concerned that athletes will use IVs to re-infuse their own blood (autologous transfusion) or infuse the blood of another (homologous transfusion) in order to increase oxygen levels in their blood, giving them greater endurance and recovery capacity. They’re also worried about athletes using saline transfusions to mask traces of PEDs and other prohibited substances.

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One of the ways disgraced bicyclist Lance Armstrong avoided detection in his blood of the steroid Erythropoietin (EPO), which increases the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the circulatory system, was by masking it through the use of intravenous saline and plasma infusions.

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Former UFC middleweight and light-heavyweight contender Chael Sonnen hasn’t fought an MMA fight since testing positive for EPO back in June of 2014.  After losing to UFC flyweight Demetrious Johnson that same month, Ali Bagautinov tested positive for EPO and was suspended for a year by the British Columbia Athletic Commission.  And it was always rumored that many if not most of the fighters in the old Pride Fighting Championships—which ruled the MMA universe before the rebirth of the UFC in the early 2000s—were using EPO.

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In the classical Roman tale of Jason and the Argonauts, the princess Medea rejuvenates her husband’s father by cutting his throat, emptying his veins, and refilling his blood vessels with a magic potion.

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Nutritionist Mike Dolce: “If [IV use] is banned, it will be the worst possible day in MMA, because you will see a lot of very serious brain injuries as a result of that. … Someone would die because of that … I know they're trying to get rid of drugs, which I think is awesome. But, you can't risk the health of the athlete. It's just so close-minded. It's dangerous, it's dangerous.”

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That said, at least fighters will never have to worry about running out of IV saline solution. Last summer, after a particularly hard flu season, medical supply manufacturers had to ration the saline solution they were selling to hospitals, setting off a mild panic in the process. The problem, CDC officials said, is that it’s difficult to make sure saline products are sterile and safe. From start to finish it takes manufacturers about three weeks to make a single batch.

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On Monday former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion BJ Penn tweeted his support for the USADA IV ban, saying he didn’t receive a single post-weigh-in saline infusion during his entire 13-year career. “IVs are for wimps,” he wrote.

 

 

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Get Rich Quick by Mastering the Weigh-In Game

 

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