Mixed martial arts has a massive and lethal problem with Extreme Weight Cutting. Progressive state athletic commissions like California and Arkansas are taking steps to address the issue. However, SACs do not have the power that a promotion does.
Most elite pro fighters cut 10-25 pounds of water to make weight for a fight. But complete rehydration is not always possible in 24 hours. A 2013 study found that 39% of fighters stepped into the cage with some degree of dehydration. This furthers the danger of cutting beyond damage to the kidneys. The brain sits encased in a protective wall of fluid. When dehydrated, that wall lessens, increasing danger to the brain.
Early this year ONE Championship recently took a revolutionary step, following the death of a contracted fighter who was cutting. ONE has ended extreme weight cutting.
Along with increased education for athletes on proper weight-cutting techniques and rehydration methods during fight weeks and at athlete summits, the UFC has introduced a system of data collection and athlete monitoring of weight and vital signs that will enable the organization to create a database to track and analyze information on each fighter.
There is also a stipulation that all fighters, beginning the week of UFC 200, must be within 8 percent of their target weight when they check in for fight week, which generally occurs on a Tuesday before a Saturday fight.
“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,” said Jeff Novitzky, the UFC vice president of athlete health and performance. “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.”
Novitzky said fighters are generally coming in under that number already, especially since an IV ban went into effect in October. In the past, fighters knew they could rehydrate with the use of an IV immediately after weigh-ins. That practice was banned as part of the UFC’s anti-doping policy, but Novitzky said it also has impacted weight cutting.
“It had a very surprising side effect in that it helped curtail extreme weight cuts,” he said. “You also see a whole bunch of fighters employing the services of nutritionists, so they are being smart about managing their weight. And the UFC is trying to provide as much as we can for the fighters that can’t afford a nutritionist. We’ve consulted with experts who have told us, ‘Hey, here’s the optimal things you want to be eating or drinking 24 hours before your fight, after the weigh in.’ So we provide that for the fighters.”
That’s in the form of a selection of drinks and food available to fighters after weigh-ins that were selected in consultation with the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.
There is also now a fight-night room where athletes can pick up approved snacks and beverages. It was approved by the Nevada Athletic Commission for UFC 196 in March, and each of the jurisdictions that has hosted events since then have followed suit.
“That’s a brand new thing the fighters are just loving,” Novitzky said. “To my understanding, that had never been done. The only thing previously that was allowed in the locker room was sealed bottled water. Again, talking with experts and people in other sports, there was no other sport where an athlete wouldn’t be allowed to consume beverages and eat things leading right up to the competition.”
Novitzky knows no matter how much education and scientific data is provided, athletes aren’t likely to change their ways unless they see a competitive benefit.
“Most of these athletes believe they’re bulletproof,” he said. “But when eyes open and ears really perk up is when you start talking about performance. You can say, ‘Hey, look, not only is it not good for you, but if you do it this way with these extreme, rapid weight cuts, your performance is going to suffer.’
“The anecdotes that I get after fight nights are all based on that where you hear, ‘Wow, you’re right. I really did feel better, had more energy, felt like I had more legs.’ It’s very encouraging to hear that.”