It's not what you think.
Managing weight is a huge part of a fighter's life. For high level fighters with a little money and sophisticated training and nutrition programs, there is an insane amount of attention and effort put into getting a fighter to his division's max allowable weight on Friday night.
The issue that fans should have with weight divisions and the requisite cutting is not that it is unhealthy or unfair - it's that the weight class system adds a constraint into training that de-optimizes skill and athletic ability. Sprinters, defensive ends, decathletes, tennis players - weight for these athletes is about optimizing performance. Ray Lewis weighs 250 lbs because that weight gives him the best combination of power, agility, endurance, and speed, and importantly - maintainability: he needs to have the time and energy to develop the skills and techniques required for a professional football player. He doesn't drop pounds to be a safety or gain them to be on the line because his body and mind make success as a linebacker much easier - allowing him to refine his skills and reach level of superiority that he'd never reach miscast at another position.
Time spent by MMA athletes fretting and working to meet these arbitrary limits takes time away from technique and skill development, opponent study, and physical training. So on fight night, not only do we see fighters fighting at non-ideal weights, not only do we see them fighting just 27 hours after a drastic, multi-day manipulation of their diet and exercise routine, we see them fighting below their peak potential. The Jon Jones and GSP we see on Saturday nights are not the best that they have to offer, and this is bad for fans and bad for the UFC.
Is there a better way?
- No weight divisions - not happening, creates worse problems.
- Same day weighing - won't stop cutting
- Weigh "day before" and "day of" and restrict the size of the difference - I still see heavy strategizing and planning occurring with this method. You want to take weight out of the equation entirely - the system should facilitate fighters coming into the cage at the weight that maximizes their fighting ability.
They best I can come up with would be a statistic that incorporates attributes like shoulder-to-fingertip reach, wrist and ankle circumference, shoulder width, ribcage length and width, and maybe a measure of total skeletal bone weight (is this even possible to measure?). These are physical attributes that you can't change that are semi-accurate indicators of your size potential. Tack some multipliers on those babies and add them up and create some new divisions. Fighters have no choice what division they are in - it's decided from the moment they get the physical exam. Then they just become the best fighters they can be. (I think there would still be some game theory at play here - fighters looking at the top of their division and tailoring their training towards a body-type that "beats GSP", for instance.)
What do you think? Am I overstating how much cutting alters the fighter we see in the cage? Better ideas for matching up like-sized fighters?