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The Dangers of Weight Cutting

The balance between diet and dehydration. 35 minute read

The sport of Mixed Martial Arts (formerly known as ‘Cage Fighting’) is one built on the spectacle of the fight night; the crowd, the bright lights, the thrill and the agony. Fighters can regularly earn over $100,000 each fight in the top promotions, however within the combat sport, which is a mixture of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, stand up and ground based martial arts, frequent injury is to be expected. But there is a life-threatening, dark side to the sport. A second fight that almost every MMA fighter has to face. The brutal process of cutting weight.

Weight cutting is a system where MMA fighters drop from their day to day ‘walking weight’ which they are most comfortable at, to their peak physically conditioned, fight weight. They achieve this through the strenuous mixture of diet and consistent training over their fight camp; the rigorous period of combat training to become ‘fight ready’, which usually lasts between four and eight weeks. However, without doubt, the most dangerous part of weight cutting is the last 24 hours prior to the fighter stepping on the scale.

No matter the weeks of diet, the work put in; in most cases when a fighter cuts weight (with the exception of heavyweight fighters), it comes down to losing the last few pounds through losing water weight, dehydrating yourself dry. Weakening your body and risking more than just your weight.

What is weight cutting?

The brutal process of weight cutting is done so that fighters have the opportunity to rehydrate over the hours after the weigh-in and enter the cage with a weight advantage, having returned to a more natural, higher weight. The aim is to have a size advantage over your opponent, to give yourself the best chance of winning. It seems incredible that athletic men and women prepare to fight by draining themselves of much needed strength. The risk is great, with fighters frequently missing weight, in some circumstances becoming ill and in rare tragic cases, losing their life.

The leading MMA promoters, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has faced its own issues in regard to weight cutting, with high-profile, money-making fights being cancelled and events having to be reshuffled, with fighters falling ill, often the day before the event much to the disappointment of the fans, organisation and the fighters themselves.

It is however, a risk that fighters and promoters are willing to take; the financial incentives on both sides and the offer of glory that makes the sport so popular, too tempting to pass up. And so the risks have been normalised as the culture of cutting weight, hoping to step into the cage as the bigger fighter has become a key part of the sport, since the gradual introduction of weight classes in the late nineties.

But this year, weight cutting has been in the headlines again and the debate is raging. There are promoters, referees and even fighters on both sides of the discussion about weight cutting. Despite many people arguing that fighter’s need to be more disciplined, often blaming the fighters themselves for missing weight; there are some who are going against this practice, who are looking to rid the sport of what they say is unnecessary danger.

The Reality of Weight Cutting

Amateur muay-thai fighter, Jessica Lindsay, was just 18 when she collapsed the day before a fight in November last year. She had been running in a sweat suit in an effort to lose those final few pounds and make her fight weight. The temperature in her home city of Perth, Australia had peaked at 31 degrees that day and she was admitted to hospital suffering from extreme dehydration. Lindsay died four days later when the decision to turn her life support off was made by her family. Lindsay is one of the few to have lost their life to weight cutting, with the majority of injuries being life long, but not life ending.

One man who has paid the price of weight cutting is Bola Omoyele (pictured above).

Standing well over six feet, Bola matches the hulking heavyweights in height and trumps them with his muscular physique. Undoubtedly a natural athlete, he stands on the mats giving the fighters surrounding him his insight into their skills. “Well, I thought I was alright, but everyone else thought I wasn’t big enough because of the way people were cutting weight at the time […] I wasn’t deemed ‘big enough’ for my weight class.”

It’s been six months since the former Cage Warriors and Ultimate Fighter contestant fought his final fight, now having taken a coaching position at his old gym, Titan Fighter MMA in North London.

On the mats, Bola is commanding, however he speaks placidly about his career. He seems content and happily elaborates on how it unfolded. Bola had fought in MMA since 2009, fighting at Welterweight (170lbs) and Middleweight (185lbs) until an acute kidney injury, which he found no way to manage, ended his career prematurely. The kidney injury had been caused by the intense weight cutting he was putting his body through, which started when he was told to move down a weight class after a loss, despite feeling in his natural category.

The Grind

The methods used to dehydrate are extensive and range in difficulty. To shed the water weight, it starts with no water. It’s an obvious statement, but to dehydrate, the fighters can’t take on any liquids, only lose them through any way possible. Over the eighteen hours before the weigh in, the fighters will have a move around, a workout in a sweat suit, heating up faster, sweating more, losing more weight…

But the workout isn’t sustainable; not only does it take a toll on the body, but also the energy levels, which over the hours will be lost with the weight.

The next steps are to heat up even more, to continue losing sweat. This can be done through a variety of ways, but the most popular are the sauna or the excruciating hot baths. Both are followed by wrapping the fighter in towels, continuing the process as their energy decreases even more. At this point, it’s about mental strength, something MMA fighters have in abundance. Something Bola remembers all too well: “The weight cut for me was more pain, but it was temporary pain and mentally I knew it was 24 hours, after that I can drink, hydrate and feel okay.”

Speaking over the busy sounds of the gym, which is full of fighters preparing for their upcoming challenges, Bola explains: “The hardest part of the weight cut for me, I’d say was the dieting, because it took a lot of discipline.”

Dehydration before a fighter is weighed in is the conclusion to the whole process of weight cutting. When done correctly the fight camp is a period of training and dieting that allows a fighter to lose weight while still having an intake of nutrients, allowing them to train effectively. But it is the climax of this process that makes the day of dehydration so much harder. It is the first day the fighter must function without any of the much needed, energy-inducing nutrients they have survived on for the whole fight camp.

For a process that is based so heavily on accuracy, many of the techniques to diet down and dehydrate have been slowly passed on through anecdote and experience of other weight class sports, such as boxing, wrestling and martial arts.

“For most people, it’s important to work with someone who understands your physiology. Someone who understands biology and can understand how much weight for you, is realistic to lose in that 24-hour period,” says Sophie Medlin, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London.

Sophie Medlin, freelance Dietitian and Lecturer, discusses weight cutting.

“I feel that in the future dietitians and sports nutritionists could have a really key role in optimising training and performance in fighting. But at the moment a lot of it is done in house and that’s not necessarily the best course of action,” she adds.

Medlin, who also works as a freelance dietitian, discusses her background in intensive care, which has led her to working with combat sport athletes. She speaks passionately about how science can work with the human body and how fragile it can be without it.

Medlin, who airs a compassionate yet authoritative demeanour describes weight cutting as fascinating, but admits: “We don’t know as much as we should do about it.”

Medlin is an example of the introduction of dietitians and nutritionists into the sport. As the epidemic of weight cutting becomes more widely known, less trust is being put into old school techniques and more into scientific knowledge. Something Medlin believes to be a positive move for the athlete’s health.

“In an ideal world, you’d be working with a professional like a dietitian or a sports nutritionist who can help you to practice getting down to that weight category in that time period, so it’s less high pressure right before the fight.”

The Sacrifice

“When I came out the sauna, I was laying down and they put towels over me to remove some excess weight, during that moment, I felt my back cramping, it had never happened to me before, all the other times I’d done it. But this time it hurt, it was strange because I couldn’t breathe properly, I could feel my back spasm,” says Bola.

"I started getting flashbacks to the fight where the episode started, so I could feel my body starting to shut down again." Bola Omoyele

“I said to a couple of my team mates, I can feel my back, I can’t move properly, I can’t breathe. I just thought it’s getting harder, the weight cut is getting harder that was the thought of everyone on the team at the time.”

Bola fought and lost the next day. It was during the fight that he felt his body slowly shutting down. “As soon as the fight was stopped it was like relief, I couldn’t hear anything it was silence, then they rushed me backstage.”

His kidneys had abruptly shut down.

The next day, having been taken to hospital to be rehydrated, Bola was told of his acute kidney injury, the severity of the damage caused by weight cutting. Under instructions to not cut weight or fight again, Bola was forced to question the severity of his situation and the reality of not having achieved what he expected of himself.

Bola admits he didn’t take the doctor’s advice and decided to move up a weight class, from Welterweight (170lbs), back to Middleweight (185lbs), where he began his career, in the hope of avoiding retirement. However, for Bola, it wasn’t long before the effects of weight cutting caught up with him again. “I thought I’ve cracked it now, I can go to middleweight cut a few kilos, it’s less, easier,” explains Bola.

“But this time the fight went longer, it went three rounds. After the first round, again I felt okay, second round came out, I started getting flashbacks to the fight where the episode started, I could feel my body starting to shut down again. So I though wow, oh my god, only I know what’s going through my head, and I’m like oh my god what’s happening? It was happening again […] once your body gives in, there is nothing you can do, no matter who you are.”

Again, Bola found himself in hospital, his kidney’s failing to deal with the adjusted weight cut.

“This time they explained the situation, they said if you ever feel funny, dizzy or dehydrated, just come straight back here and admit yourself. With an AKI, once you damage your kidney, it will never be the same. You can live with one kidney, but once you damage it, it’s damaged […] they said I had a relapse.”

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Bola had hoped to reach the heights of the UFC, but is now a coach at Titan Fighter.

Bola took the decision to try again, this time using a nutritionist to help him diet the whole way. However, despite avoiding dehydration, his kidneys began to struggle again. In September 2017, after losing another fight, Bola retired, the damage to his kidneys too great to recover from. “The doctor said, even with the dieting, you’re still losing fluids, you’re still not at the weight your body needs to be at, especially if you’ve damaged a kidney.”

“People around me and my manager just said, listen, your mind is telling you one thing but your body is doing the other,” says Bola.

“Deep down, everyone knows how much I love the sport and when I had to retire, they were happy because they know the risks to my health.”

The dangers of weight cutting on an athlete’s body range from damage to both short and long-term health. Weight cutting can affect even the healthiest athlete within the sport, with each individual athlete being completely unique in terms of what their body can manage. One of the most worrying factors about the danger of weight cutting is there can be no signs of danger or concern, until it is too late.

The epidemic of weight cutting is affecting MMA more than any other combat sport. Within MMA, organisations are showing a reluctance to increase the depth of available weight classes to athletes, with the UFC boasting only nine weight classes. Fewer options has resulted in forcing more fighters who are deemed ‘between classes’ to decide to be bigger or smaller, and force their body into a state that isn’t naturally suitable for them. The weight classes available to athletes through high profile organisations, such as the UFC, Bellator and Cage Warriors, are minimal compared to the other major combat sport, boxing.

A comparison between boxing and MMA weight classes.

Within boxing, which offers 18 weight classes, fighters are more inclined to fight in closer weight classes without having to drop a significant amount of weight through dehydration. For boxing, dangerous weight cuts are so infrequent it is seen as a minor issue.

However, for MMA, it is the lack of weight classes and the frequent dehydration that MMA fighters are subject to, which is where the issue grows and the damage is heavily dealt. With dehydration, the most common injuries are related to passing out, cardiac arrest, seizures and complications with the kidneys. “Dehydrating yourself to an extreme mess can lead to real problems, not only with kidney damage and other things in the long term” says Medlin.

The Impact

There are a growing number within the sport who look to challenge the process of weight cutting. Some organisations and figures are continuing to keep an open dialogue, looking to further the discussion that MMA can live without weight cuts.

One MMA organisation, the Singapore based ONE Championship, notoriously shocked the sport when they introduced new weight class rules. ONE Championship took steps to remove any element of fighter dehydration almost overnight, following the weight cutting related death of fighter Yang Jian Bing in late December 2015.

ONE Championship introduced new ‘walking weight’ classes, moving every weight class up a weight. ONE’s new rules replaced a set UFC style weigh in with multiple weight checks and gravity hydration tests over the fight week, including up to three hours before the fight, removing any chance to dehydrate.

“It’s honestly the best experience any MMA fighter can have. Instead of having two fights, you’re having one fight and you can put everything into that one fight. You don’t have to worry too much about your health being at risk,” says Martin Nguyen, ONE Championship’s first two weight class champion, who has sought the benefits of the new weight rules.

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Nguyen challenges for his second belt. pic: ONE Championship

Since ONE introduced their new weight classes, Nguyen has been able to move weight with freedom, using nothing but strict dieting. Currently champion in the Lightweight (169.8lbs) and Featherweight (154.3lbs) divisions, Nguyen believes that by removing dehydration, the fights are more equal, more entertaining. “In ONE Championship, it’s pure martial artist vs. martial artist. We as fighters get to perform 100% of the time, there is no excuses, no ‘this weight cut killed me’…”

“I was thinking to myself even when I was weight cutting, is this really worth it? I used to cut 5 / 6lbs but even cutting that I felt like my heart was going through the roof. I wasn’t really me. I was like why am I doing this? Why am I putting my health at risk for a $1000 pay check?” adds Nguyen.

Recently, Nguyen challenged for a third belt, this time at Bantamweight (143.3lbs), again, using diet to move up and down over a period of time. For Nguyen, it is the consideration for a fighter’s health that ONE Championship offers that makes them the forefront of MMA organisations. “The recognition of the tragic weight cuts is out there. One Championship is already there, putting their fighters first, it’s not all about the company, it’s about the fighters and the martial arts itself.”

“One Championship is at the top of my ladder when it comes to the fighters and their health at the moment” says Nguyen.

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Nguyen captures his second belt, this time at Lightweight.
pic: ONE Championship

ONE Championship’s overhaul of weight cuts has not gone unnoticed in the MMA heartland of America with California being one of the first states to implement new rules to try and limit the level of weight cutting. This has largely been down to the influence of executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, Andy Foster, one of the most influential voices within MMA’s regulators.

Foster recently introduced a 10-point plan for events taking place in California that looks to combat the levels of dehydration that are achieved by fighters. The plan includes rules such as dehydration checks, warnings for fighters who rehydrate over 10% of their weight between the weigh in and the fight, and the introduction of new MMA weight classes (however, these are not supported by the UFC or Bellator).

Foster is quick to reference the first well known deaths in weight cutting, which happened in 1997, when three college wrestlers in the United States died within the space of six weeks due to weight cutting. “Three NCAA wrestlers died of a weight cut in 1997. Okay? We’re in 2018. It’s almost a weekly event, we have MMA every week” Foster says in a frustrated tone.

Despite the 10-point plan, Foster is restricted to the state of California, but is working hard to convince other athletic commissions, including the Western Australian commission, based in Perth, that effective preventative measures can be put in place. “The difference between ONE Championship, Bellator and the UFC, is that the UFC and Bellator are based in the United States. They need to recognise that this is a major issue.”

“Why aren’t we acting? Okay. I can only deal with California, that’s only my responsibility, that’s all I’m responsible for is California. But this commission is going to act responsibly,” says Foster.

“There is plenty of data out there that says what’s happening isn’t good and there needs to be some level of proactivity. I don’t even want to use the word proactivity… because we are really late to the party.”

The Future of Weight Cutting

As a relatively new sport, with the UFC currently in its 25th year, it can be argued that despite weight cutting being heavily ingrained in the sport, there is hope that as MMA develops, it will deal with the problems that over time make themselves apparent.

However, as time goes on and more high profile events are lost to weight-cutting related issues, the dialogue will continue, with more fans, fighters and personalities becoming involved with the discussion on both large and small scale levels.

“I just don’t want it to wait until we have a high profile sentinel event, I don’t want there to be a death at one of our commissions. In a bath tub in a hotel” says Andy Foster.

“It’s gotten to the point as a regulator, where I’m more worried about the weigh in, than I am about the fights” he adds.

Despite restrictions to his jurisdiction, Foster is confident his plan is having an impact on MMA. “Well, I think the verdict is still out on different parts of the plan, but on the whole, we’ve had multiple Bellator events and several UFC events under this plan. To my knowledge, we’ve not had any weight misses in the major organisations since the plan came into effect.”

“I would like Bellator and the UFC to maybe look into implementing something, that only a promoter could introduce with lots of incentives. But I can only suggest things. I certainly can’t regulate that as it’s a business decision. That is where it gets interesting, but that is a business decision and I’m in the health and safety industry.”

For Foster, implementing the new regulations is an initial step to fixing what he believes to be an easily solved problem. Foster’s discussions with a variety of different athletic commissions has seen him become one of the most important figures in continuing the dialogue. Putting the athlete’s health first. “The first step is definitely the 10-point plan to eventually get to somewhere like the walking weight system, that’s where I’d like to be at one day.”

With Foster representing the dialogue of weight cutting globally, it falls to people like Bola Omoyele, who can look to spread their influence on a local level and advise others of the dangers they have seen and faced first hand.

Bola Omoyele discusses weight cutting, and how he advises the fighters he coaches.

“I’m always concerned when it comes to cutting weight.”

“I’ve amassed a lot of experience from fighting. I can pass it on to the younger generation and those who are currently fighting, there is nothing better than giving back.” Bola adds.

For Bola, who never reached his full potential, he now sits in a bittersweet position. Passing on his guidance and experiences may help a fighter reach their full potential; giving him the ability to help them reach the top, but also reminding them of the price they could pay. “Nobody actually thinks about the life long damage. They can be life threatening or cause lifelong damage. I’ve got this condition now. It will never go away.”

“So that’s what people need to think about, is the prize more important than your health?”

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