Politics, More Than Health, Behind Double Weigh-Ins

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Massachusetts State Athletic Commission staff met yesterday in a meeting in which one of the major topics of discussion was the "double weigh-in."  From the meeting agenda here are the points that were set to be discussed:

3.  "Double weigh- in" issues

      A.  Is the practice of "cutting" weight safe?

      B.  If so, is there a maximum amount of weight that one can generally safely cut?

      C.  Are there health risks associated with cutting weight and putting weight back on in a short period of time (i.e.- between a weigh in and a fight)?

      D.  Any recommendations relative to the best way to address this issue (e.g.- double weigh ins)?

This, of course, revolves around the new trend in athletic commissions to institute double weigh-ins with a "maximum gained weight" allowance.  In the state of Massachusetts a fighter is to weigh no more than 1.0625 times his contracted weight at the time of his bout.  So for MMA that means a fighter contracted at 155 pounds would be able to weigh no more than roughly 164.5 come fight night, 170 pounders roughly 180.5, and so on.

I've written in the past about the dangers of significant dehydration on the brain and its ability to absorb damage, so I can understand the concern over fighter safety when it comes to this topic.  However, I have plenty of concerns with same-day weigh-ins simply leading to fighters being overly dehydrated on the night of their fight as the fighter mindset is one of "fight at the lowest weight you can."

The MSAC actually did a smart thing and reached out to members of the very experienced New Jersey State Athletic Control Board for their informed opinions on the double weigh-in.  I have been given copies of two of the letters sent out by respected and experienced NJSACB members.  Due to their length I'll shorten them down to just highlight specific points.

First in a letter dated April 21, 2010 NJSACB's Nick Lembo said the following (excerpts from the larger letter):

I have been with the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board since 1995. New Jersey has been regulating mixed martial arts on the professional level since February 2000 and since December 2005 at the amateur level. Last year, New Jersey hosted 45 mixed martial arts events with an average of fourteen bouts on each card. I have also been involved with various committees within the Association of Boxing Commissions involving mixed martial arts.

In summary, at this juncture, I am not in favor of the practice of "double weigh-ins" or same day weigh-ins".

...

In theory, the concept that contestants will properly cut weight because of the added weigh-in or same day weigh-in is a nice concept. In practice, I fear that a high enough percentage of contestants will not change their weight cutting habits. Thus, we will have even less hydrated contestants in the ring or cage at greater health risks.

...

While the NCAA wrestling model and the ASCM guidelines recommend weigh-ins as close to the contest start as possible, they ignore the stark realities of many mixed martial artists and other combative sport athletes. This athlete is sitting in a sauna in a rubber suit, exercising in a rubber suit and possibly taking diuretics or fat burning pills while cutting 10 or more pounds in the 48 hours prior to the weigh-in. This weight loss is water, not fat or muscle.

...

A fighter should not have to worry about getting to another weigh-in. He or she should not have to repeatedly keep checking their weight after drinking some beverages or consuming food and make ongoing decisions as to how much more they can consume. They should rest their bodies and prepare mentally for the contest.

...

Most commissions who perform 2nd or same day weigh-ins do so on the morning of the event. This is due to the fact that you have to allow time and re-hydration for a fighter who has to cut after the 2nd weigh-in and so all parties involved can finalize the card and move on to other responsibilities and obligations. If the goal is to ensure that a 155 limit fighter is 155 when they enter the cage or ring, how is this accomplished? What proof is there that the fighter may not gain several pounds after the 2nd or same day weigh-in?

Mr. Lembo goes on to make recommendations that include increasing fighter and trainer education.  A big point in the discussion is the idea that all commissions should be working together with a unified set of rules as well as an organized effort between all state commissions to "educate proper weight loss techniques, dangers of dehydration and improper cutting, and selecting a proper weight class."  He even goes on to explain to the Massachusetts commission about the fact that there is no real proof that a less skilled fighter gains a significant increase in his winning probability from being "bigger" on the night of the fight.

The second letter (dated April 22, 2010) was from Dr. Sherry Wulkan, a NJSACB ringside physician.  Here are some excerpts from her letter to the MSAC:

I have acted as a ringside physician for the past 15 years, covering both professional and amateur boxing, the finals of the Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden, muay thai boxing, kick boxing and mixed martial arts events, and am a licensed physician for both the New York State Athletic Control Board and a lead Mixed Martial Arts Physician for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. I had recently been asked, and accepted, an advisory and supervisory position for the Texas State Athletic Commission for the the Pacquiao - Clottey event at Dallas Cowboys' football stadium. I am currently the medical chair of the ABC Mixed Martial Arts MMA Rules Committee, and have acted for the past 10 years as team physician for the Serra-Longo MMA Competition Team. I have also performed pre licensing medicals for several championship caliber professional mixed martial artists. Having spoken with hundreds, possibly thousands of combat athletes over the years about weight cutting and weight management, I must respectuflly say, that at the present time, I am not in favor of either the two day weigh-in policy or a same day policy.

...

While in theory, the concept of same day weigh-ins or two day weigh-ins seem logical and theoretically correct, current weight cutting practices by most combat athletes could conceivably heighten the medical risks to these athletes rather than diminish them.

Dr. Wulkan goes on to give pages of medical information about the dangers of dehydration to fighters as well as the amount of time that it takes the body to properly redistribute liquids.  The most important passage from the remaining portion of the letter may be the following:

It takes time for the body to redistribute fluids to the right compartment, even when using IVs. (IVs are medicines; different compositions are used for different reasons, depending for example on the age and body type, amount of fluid loss and pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes. I recently had discussions with several elite athletes who practice IV hydration and was appalled that they did not know how many bags of fluid to use and when to use what fluid. Too much fluid given too quickly can make a fighter feel stiff and sluggish). Replacement of 2-3% body weight can take 24-48 hours. Replacement of depleted carbohydrates can take up to 72 hours. Under the two day weigh-in system, a fighter who usually walks around at approximately 190-195 lbs, but who fights at 170lb (two elite fighters with whom I have worked fit this category), would only be allowed to replete aproximately 10 lb of body weight prior to the next day weigh-in. They would therefore, by definition, have to be both dehydrated and carbohydrate depleted at the time of the second weigh-in. After that weigh-in, they would have only a few hours to replete their stores, and would either enter the competition even further behind in carbohydrates and fluids thant ehy should be, or very sluggish and stiff.

Some of the short term risks of dehydration (and carbohydrate depletion) may include:

Increased risk for brain injuries such as concussion and contusions (brain bruises) and possibly subdural and epidural hematomas (bleeding caused by ripped blood vessels).

Basically, again, the idea is that the mindset of many fighters is one where they are more likely to still make their cuts and remain dehydrated until the second day weigh-in than they are to decide to move up to the next weight class.  This is especially true when weight classes are distanced as far apart as they are in MMA.

Now this is the part where things get even more interesting.  Massachusetts still went ahead and kept the second weigh-in in place.  Here is the wording on the rule:

2.  Except as otherwise provided by 523 CMR 9.05(3), at the time of the scheduled match, no unarmed combatant's weight shall exceed 1.0625 times their maximum contract weight. 

An unarmed combatant whose weight exceeds the maximum amount may, at the discretion of the Commission, be allowed to lose up to 2 pounds of their existing weight, or shall forfeit the contest and/or be subject to further penalties and sanctions, including, but not limited to, forfeiture of their purse, a fine, suspension, and/or revocation of their license.  This subsequent weigh in shall be conducted at the venue of the event, prior to the commencement of the event, as directed by the Commission.  Each fighter, or their designee, may be present to witness the weigh in of their opponent.

3.  The unarmed combatants scheduled to compete against one another may mutually agree to waive the provisions of 523 CMR 9.05(2).  Such agreement must be evidenced by a provision in the respective bout agreements and initialed by the unarmed combatants.  The provision shall also provide notice to the unarmed combatant that there will be no restriction as to the amount of weight that their opponent may put on after the initial weigh in and before the scheduled match.

A couple things jump out here.

1) 1.0625 is a very specific number.  One could only assume that this comes from medical research, correct?  Wrong.  I have asked around for the medical reasoning for the number and have been met with responses of "there is none." So I was left to assume that the number came in the most political of ways, a group of men sitting in a room throwing out numbers and arguing to the fourth decimal point.  When I asked one experienced athletic commission member if this was the case they replied "You are closer than you could imagine."

2) "The unarmed combatants scheduled to compete against one another may mutually agree to waive the provisions of 523 CMR 9.05(2).  Such agreement must be evidenced by a provision in the respective bout agreements and initialed by the unarmed combatants."  Yes, that means exactly what it says.  This rule, which was put in place under the reasoning of protecting the fighters, can be waived by the fighters.

What is the point of the rule if the very men who would most want to ignore it are allowed to?  Is what is most important here fighter safety?  Or the illusion of fighter safety?

3) Okay, so just because a fighter can waive does not mean that he will waive.  Right?  To date, every single fighter with the opportunity to waive, has waived.

I don't mean to suggest that there is no need for changes in the sport to look out for the health and safety of fighters, but weigh-ins the same day as a fight only serve to do more harm than good.  Both Mr. Lembo and Dr. Wulkan both bring up the following technique as something to explore in the future (taken from Dr. Wulkan's letter):

One idea currently being utilized by the World Boxing Council for proper weight management is the 30 day, 7 day and one day prior - to fight weigh in technique. The percentage of weight lost is set for each weigh-in., thereby regulating a less rapid weight cut, and more likely, a diminution, at least in part, of total body fat as opposed to solely fluid and electrolyte losses.

It's not perfect, especially with the severely distanced weight classes in MMA and the need for guidelines for late minute replacements, but it is a much more effective method for ensuring safe body weight cuts rather than cuts based almost entirely on last minute dehydration.

Really what it comes down to is that same-day weigh-ins are dangerous and having provisions that allow fighters to ignore them entirely makes them pointless as well.  It would be fantastic to see all athletic commissions get on the same page to create a united front and take strides that focus on fighter safety, not commission image.

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