Mixed martial arts is one of the most gruelling and physically demanding sports in the world.
The mental toughness and bravery it takes to step inside a cage with another person who’s goal is to either knock you unconscious or make you submit is immeasurable. One of the most frightening aspects of the sport happens well before the athletes step inside the octagon. The process they call “weight-cutting” is when a fighter completely deprives their body of all food and drink several days before their fight. This means dehydrating yourself, often to the brink of hospitalisation, in a bid to temporarily shrink in size and compete at the lowest weight class possible. It is quickly becoming one of the biggest problems in the sport today; we’re going to look at why it’s happening and what we can do to combat the issue.
Why Do It?
There are many reasons for an MMA athlete to cut weight. A fighter looks for any minor edge over the competition; the opportunity to have the size, reach and length advantage over your opponent is one most cannot turn down. For example, a fighter could shed 30 pounds in the days leading up to a bout and have 24 hours to rehydrate themselves before stepping into the cage; they’ll weigh-in on Friday at the 186lb UFC middleweight limit, yet weigh up to a whopping 216 pounds during the fight itself – which would technically make them a heavyweight!
How Do They Do It?
The main goal of cutting weight is to completely rid your body of as much extra weight as possible. Since around 60 percent of your body is actually just water, it seems that the most sensible way to lose those extra pounds would be to completely dehydrate your body to the brink of death. Okay, maybe not the “most” sensible way – but it sure is effective.
The main activities to effectively cut weight include sitting in boiling hot saunas for hours on end, wearing sauna suits while working out, and in some extreme cases, laxatives and diuretics are used to remove every last ounce of liquid your body is trying to hold onto. If, like me, you think that absolutely none of the above sounds even remotely healthy for you, you would be correct.
What Are The Side Effects?
Losing extreme amounts of weight in short periods of time can have devastating short and long-term effects on the body. In the short-term, weight-cutting can elevate your heart-rate, blood pressure, and can increase the risk of injuring yourself before the fight. It can also greatly decrease your stamina and affect your athletic ability if you do not rehydrate yourself correctly afterwards.
In the long-term, however, the consequences are much deadlier. Severe dehydration can cause lasting damage to the major organs, such as your heart, liver and kidneys. In the absolute worst cases, the effects can be fatal. In 2015, 21-year-old Yang Jian Bing was scheduled to compete for ONE Fighting Championship; he passed away the day of the fight due to cardiopulmonary failure – or in simple terms – heart failure due to weight-cutting.
This, unfortunately, was not the first incident like this and unless the powers-at-be devise a plan to kerb and monitor the techniques used to cut weight, it will not be the last. SO..
How Can We Stop It?
One of the main factors we need to look at is the lack of weight divisions in the UFC and MMA in general. For instance, the gap between the UFC’s middleweight and light heavyweight divisions is a huge 20 pounds. This may not sound like a lot, but when you think about how an athlete can weigh up to 30 pounds heavier in the cage on Saturday than they did at the scales on Friday, you may risk giving up a vast advantage to your opponent if you don’t cut weight.
If you look at Boxing where they have a weight division every four or five pounds, the need to severely dehydrate does not exist; therefore, it very rarely happens. If you watch a Boxing weigh-in and an MMA weigh-in you will notice the vast difference in the different athletes’ physique and body language. Boxers, for the most part, will look full-faced, healthy, hydrated; an MMA fighter will look sucked-in, boney and in some cases, deathly ill.
I don’t feel there are any quick fixes to the extreme measures taken. It is one deeply embedded in the roots of mixed martial arts, and one that is plaguing the sport we love. One thing is for certain, though: until it is regulated and closely monitored, we are sure to witness even more tragic incidents in the future.