Weight Cutting: MMA’s Dangerously Dirty Dilemma

The duress and physical punishment that MMA fighters suffer inside the cage is unquestionable, what with many athletes worried about brain trauma and CTE nowadays. So why should they have to crawl to hell and back just to make it into the cage? Weight cutting is ridiculously dangerous and no one seems to care. The skeletons that stumble out onto the scale for our entertainment are tip toeing around death before they even have a chance to brawl and put their lives at risk once more. However, the sickening phenomena of weight cutting is something that can be avoided and yet haunts many fighters in the lead up to fight week. So why is weight cutting an issue and how can it be stopped?

The problem

For all those who watched the build-up to UFC 216, you will have witnessed Kevin Lee push his body to such an extent that it nearly killed him. Missing weight of course results in a monetary fine conceded to the opposition. These restrictions are in place so that the match-ups aren’t lopsided like in the early days of the UFC. However, the jump between say the 155lb division and the 170lb is such that many fighters naturally do not fit in either weight class. This subsequently forces them to either cut unnatural amounts of weight to a lower limit or fight men who are just too physically imposing.

“I was going to make the weight, even if I had to cut my foot off or something. I said it before, it damn near killed me and I had to do what I had to do. I had a job to do, I’m a professional and I’m going to come out here no matter how bad it hurts…”

— Kevin Lee, UFC 216 post-fight conference

The issue is in the spotlight at the moment because of a sickening incident that occurred at a Pancrase event in Japan where the fighter couldn’t support his own body weight when approaching the scales. Apart from boxing and Wrestling no other sport demands this type of physical punishment. Nor demands that you scrape away scraps of your body every time you compete through dehydration and starvation. As if MMA wasn’t ruthless enough!

 

The counter-argument

Why not start cutting weight earlier and walk around at a weight closer to the division boundaries? This is a systematically flawed argument that many cynics use. Many critics wave away the issue claiming that fighters who cannot make weight should fight up a weight class. This is an extremely ignorant standpoint as fighting up a weight class means competing against larger, more powerful men who can cause even more physical damage. People forget that fighting is a profession, a job and their livelihood. Of course, they will risk anything to have the slightest advantage over their opponent. As you would expect fighters are naturally competitive and will only move to a higher weight class if they genuinely cannot make the weight. The UFC need to recognise and mold the system around the fighters needs.

Dana White was extremely blasé about the issue. To his credit, he did highlight the promising new UFC institute which allows fighters’ access to nutritionists, diet control and conditioning for free. However, this is assuming that the athletes want to move their entire personal life down to Nevada. If White were more protective of his product, the fighters, he would re-evaluate the current process. By implementing the current regulations the UFC diminishes its own product. Fighters like Cris Cyborg lose years off their life every time they prepare to fight.

The Solution

There is no easy fix unfortunately. But there are different paths the UFC can take. Two of the most prominent voices in MMA Joe Rogan and Ariel Helwani stringently condemn the current weight cutting format. Both agree that a 165lb division is essential and perhaps one as well at 195lb. The other way to attack the problem would be to weigh fighters over the year. This ensures that fighters are on track to make weight in the run-up to the fight and reduces last minutes risks. This method guarantees that fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov are not forced to the point of hospitalization and save future UFC cards.

Naturally, as fans we have a selfish desire to simply see two men face off inside the octagon and their preparation is not our problem. To an extent this argument is credible as they are the product that we are paying to watch. But is it ethical to ask fighters to cut as much as 20lbs the day before the fight? Do you feel comfortable knowing that fighters are nearly dying for our pleasure? Something needs to change to save these fighters who are already putting their lives on the line for us. It’s not up to them, they have already sacrificed enough.