This is a guest editorial by Rosi Sexton, top 10 pound-for-pound women's MMA fighter and osteopath responding to the debacle that ensued at UFC 142 when middleweight Anthony Johnson couldn't make 185lbs to face Vitor Belfort.
Weight cutting is a frequent topic of obsession for fighters and debate amongst fans. Some have argued that it amounts to cheating. Others point out that when done badly, it can be one of the most dangerous aspects of MMA. Dehydration can result in heat stroke, kidney failure or heart arrhythmias. Although there's very little research on this subject, it's possible that fighters quite commonly dehydrate themselves to a level that affects kidney function. And when it goes badly wrong, it can kill you.
Fighters also know that at the top level, fights are rarely scratched over weight issues. Perhaps this makes some more willing to take greater risks with their weight cuts, knowing that they can negotiate if they fail to hit the target. Sometimes towards the end of a tough cut, taking a 20% pay cut may start to seem like a small price to pay in order to avoid having to drop those extra few pounds, especially when there's a significantly larger win bonus at stake. Missing weight is frowned upon, but fans can be quick to forgive a popular fighter after an impressive win.
What can be done? It's often suggested that weigh-ins should be held just before the fight, so that fighters wouldn't have time to rehydrate and put weight back on. Fighters would no longer gain an advantage by cutting weight, and so the practice would die out. At least that's the theory.
In my opinion (and experience), many fighters would still cut weight for same day weigh-ins. A fighter whose diet doesn't go to plan, and is over the limit on the day will inevitably end up dehydrating to make the required weight, even if he knows it will hurt his performance. Weight cuts might get smaller, but this would be replaced by fighters competing while still dehydrated. This carries its own risks, and should certainly be avoided (and is why Belfort's stipulation that Johnson be re-weighed on fight day would probably not have been accepted by most US athletic commissions).
Another suggestion is that officials measure each fighter's hydration level at the weigh-in, with there being a minimum acceptable standard that fighters are not allowed to drop below. The problem here lies with the business reality of MMA. Nobody - promoters, fighters and fans alike - wants to see a fight fall through. For all the talk about fighter safety, pulling a fighter from a card because he's just a little too dehydrated when he steps on the scales is unlikely to be
something the industry can accept.
It's a problem without easy answers. So far, I have yet to see a practical solution that I'm convinced would eliminate extreme weight cutting. Until then, fighters at all levels need to educate themselves about the process and the risks involved, and take personal responsibility for getting it right, safely.
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