When you try to explain extreme weight cutting in MMA to someone who asks why the guys on TV look so much bigger than 155 pounds, you’re reminded of how laughable an enterprise it all is, and how the purveyors of Epsom salt and distiled water must be rich.
In theory, losing a ton of water weight and rehydrating 24 hours ahead of time makes sense: who wouldn’t covet competing as the bigger, stronger athlete after grazing the upper limit of your weight class for just a moment? In practice, the sheer physical depletion of cutting dozens of pounds largely nullifies the strength and size advantage, a dry brain is probably more susceptible to trauma, and cutting weight can literally kill you. Yet it persists as one of the most paranoid processes in MMA: you cut a ton of weight because your opponent’s cutting a ton of weight because you’re cutting a ton of weight because…
But now, extreme weight cutting is on the verge of becoming a relic. Last fall, the UFC's league-wide drug testing program banned IVs, compelling athletes that relied on them post-weight-cut to find new approaches. Earlier this year, the California State Athletic Commission passed measures that prevent dehydrated fighters from competing. And earlier this week, Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review-Journal outlined the new weight-cutting guidelines that the UFC plans to impose ahead of UFC 200 in July. The biggest takeaway is that fighters need to show up for fight week—meaning checking in on Tuesday for a Saturday night fight—within eight percent of the upper limit of their weight class: a 115-pounder would arrive at about 124 pounds, a 170-pounder would be no more than 184 pounds, and a heavyweight would weight 286 pounds. Failure to hit that target means more scrutiny.
"The only hard and fast rule in there, and I think it’s probably the most important thing in terms of the guidelines, is that 8 percent number," Jeff Novitzky, the UFC vice president of athlete health and performance, told Hill. "If they’re not, it’s not in the rules the fight won’t happen, but we sure are going to pay very close attention to them, including taking daily weight, daily vitals, and as it progresses, if they show signs of being dehydrated, they will be pulled from the fight."
Honestly, this is one of the best ideas to weed out drastic weight cutting in mixed martial arts, and it seems to be done in a genuine spirit of ensuring fighter safety. The eight-percent guideline is also notable for what it doesn't mean. It's not punitive: fighters that fail to meet it don't have to forfeit part of their purse or do extra chores or anything. As Novtizky implies, it doesn't mean torpedoing main events that fans (and the UFC) expect—in fact, it might prevent last-minute fiascoes like UFC 177. It's also efficient, in that the UFC can pack it up and take wherever it goes, instead of further burdening local athletic commissions.
The percentage isn’t arbitrary either. According to Dr. Robert Kenefick of the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, who worked with the UFC on its weight-cutting guidelines, the deleterious effects of dehydration start even sooner. "When you start to lose greater than 4 percent mass, it definitely impacts aerobic activity, and there’s some evidence out there to suggest also anaerobic activity like power and strength can be impacted," Kenefick told Hill. "[MMA] really takes a lot of different energy systems into account, so they’re doing very short-term one- to three-second burst-type movements, but at the same time, they’re doing round after round that are minutes long, so there is an endurance or aerobic capacity. There’s strong evidence to suggest their performance is going to be impacted."
Along with the possibility that eight-percent leeway might be too generous, there are other downsides, starting with the fact that it's another logistical burden to shoehorn into the fight week itinerary. As others have noted, it's also another expectation that furthers the case that UFC fighters are more employees than independent contractors, a distinction with huge ramifications. Even though the eight-percent guideline doesn't carry the hazards of same-day weigh-ins that have been proposed in the past, fighters could still undermine the intent of the measure by pre-cutting within the eight-percent limit. It raises questions about short-notice replacements, and it doesn’t fully account for the water- and salt-loading rituals that fighters employ ahead of cutting for weigh-in day.
But while there might be more unintended consequences once the new weight-cutting guideline is put in place this summer, the eight-percent measure is just one aspect of an entirely new outlook on weight cutting for an entirely new generation of fighters. It used to be that dropping insane amounts of weight for a fight was a normal and brag-worthy part of a toxic, macho culture that might have robbed fighters—and fans—of better fights and a safer sport. Now, dropping so much weight that you hallucinate in the sauna before stepping on the scale is becoming as weird, as dangerous, and as outdated as it sounds.
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