Someone’s Finally Doing Something About MMA’s Weight-Cutting Epidemic

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

For two decades now parents and politicians and other professional and part-time hand-wringers have been warning us about the dangers of mixed martial arts, but it turns out all that time they were howling about the wrong dangers. MMA, we know now, will not distort the minds of our children or fill the streets with tattoo-covered killers or drag our society back to the dark days of the gladiators. Even most of the injuries fighters incur during the course of a fight are reparable—some blood spilled here, a broken hand there—and the ones that aren’t are no worse than those incurred during the course of a football game: that is, no worse than what we as a society have agreed we will tolerate.

No, the real terror of MMA—the thing we should have been worrying about all along instead of wasting our time with societal doomsday predictions and other bugbears—happens before the fighters start punching and kicking each other, before they even step into the cage. The real danger comes when they’re sucking all the liquids out of their bodies 48 hours before a fight in an absurd attempt to gain an advantage over an opponent who is doing the exact same thing. In a sport where men and women willingly throw themselves into each other’s fists and knees for a little money and some glory, the only true absurdity is the weight-cut. And now, at last, it appears someone is trying to do something about it.

Two weeks ago, the Executive Sub-Committee of the Arkansas State Legislature, acting on the recommendation of the state athletic commission, passed temporary legislation to reduce and regulate dramatic weight-cuts among amateur boxers and mixed martial artists. Under the new rule, fighters will have to weigh in twice, once the day before their fight, as usual, then a second time on the day of the event. If the second weigh-in shows a fighter has put on more than 7.5% of his or her body weight from the day before, or if that fighter has gained sufficient weight to move up more than one weight class, the fight will be cancelled. The emergency rule became effective August 12 and will last for 120 days, giving the athletic commission time to determine the scientific value of the proposed changes and hear the less-than-scientific input of the public.

These regulations mark the first time a state has passed legislation tackling the issue of radical weight-cutting. And not a moment too soon. A 60-day study conducted by the Arkansas State Athletic Commission earlier this year showed rampant weight-cutting and dehydrating occurring throughout the state’s amateur fighting circuit, resulting in “imminent peril to the public’s health, safety, and welfare.” According to the study’s findings, nearly 50 percent of the more than 60 fighters the commission tracked in January and February had gained 15 pounds between day-before weigh-ins and fight days.

According to Michael Kelly, our in-house Fight Doctor, these massive fluxes in fluid can lead to all kinds of anatomical nastiness, including decreases in muscle function and strength, dramatic drops in endurance, depleted kidney function, slower mental function, heart palpitations, even cardiac arrest. And things get particularly dodgy for fighters when you consider that brain mass will shrink as a result of dehydration, like a sponge without water, making it even more vulnerable to trauma. “[W]hen you go into the ring, you don’t have that fully hydrated, the brain becomes more pliable and able to shift more, so it can knock around in the skull, making it more vulnerable to a concussion or a knockout,” Kelly says.

In their report to the legislative sub-committee, the Arkansas athletic commission highlighted several examples of the dangers of excessive, unregulated weight-cutting. On July 18 in Fort Smith, Ark., six fighters on an MMA card had to be transported to the hospital either as a result of dehydration or suspected dehydration. In April 2013 a fighter died in a sauna while cutting 33 pounds in one week, and in January 2010 a professional fighter from Arkansas died from complications related to dehydration.

In other words, with these new regulations it appears that MMA is once again crawling out of one of its dark ages and into something like the light, like it did when it agreed to rules and regulations in the late 90s, when it humanized its fighters on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in the mid-2000s, and when it finally starting getting real about drug testing late last year. From here on out it’ll be nothing but science and rationalism and good American common sense for MMA, as far as the eye can see!


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