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Rafael Dos Anjos’s near-death experience presents disturbing truth about MMA

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Former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos’s harrowing tales of life-threatening weight cuts shine the spotlight on MMA’s most dangerous and avoidable problem.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Dos Anjos vs Alvarez Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The day before the prizefight, the lightweight champion of the world doesn’t have the strength to stand.

He sits on the edge of a bathtub filled with Epsom salt and hot water, his body feeble and head cloudy. When the dizziness dies down enough for him to feel confident in his ability to move, he sits up and then collapses, his body going limp, his head nearly crashing against the faucet. For months he’d trained his body to perform at the peak of its abilities, and the day before the fight he’s whittling it down to a dehydrated shell, devoid of the most basic energies. He’s locked in a morbid race against time, a roll of the dice to see what he becomes first: a 155-lb. man or a ghost of himself.

Rafael Dos Anjos would go on to faint more than once during his weight cut ahead of a July title defense against Eddie Alvarez, as he revealed in a recent interview with ESPN. He’d wake up after minutes spent in a state of unresponsiveness and see the conflicted concern in his coaches’ eyes as he asked them what happened.

“I could have died that day,” Dos Anjos recalled.

He succeeded in making the lightweight limit, hitting 155 lbs. just as his team reconciled with their next stop being the hospital rather than the weigh-ins. The following night he was stopped by Eddie Alvarez in the first round, his legs betraying him when the challenger’s first big right hand landed. With a champion’s heart he never went down, his body slumped helplessly against the cage, his brain not fully rehydrated as it rattled around the walls of his skull. He’d went down the day prior though, not in a packed arena of roaring fans but on the edge of a bathtub in a nondescript hotel room.

It’s a common belief that fighters cut massive amounts of weight to gain an advantage over their opponents, but that sentiment is often untrue. On fight night Dos Anjos and Alvarez were roughly the same size, both having rehydrated to the best of their abilities after similarly straining weight cuts. So what purpose then does the dangerous cut serve? If both men live their everyday lives at a weight of roughly 180 lbs., why do they both drain themselves to such an unrealistic and unmanageable weight days before engaging in the most demanding of physical tasks?

Weight cutting in MMA represents the most frustrating example of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the classic piece of game theory, two prisoners are presented with the option to either betray the other or remain silent. If both remain silent, they’ll be given a minor punishment. If one betrays the other while the other refuses to talk, the one who talks is set free while the other is jailed. If each prisoner betrays the other, they’ll both be punished severely. It is in the best interest of the prisoner to remain silent, but therein lies the paradox: the prisoner cannot trust that the other will make the right choice, and therefore they often betray each other out of a misplaced sense of self-preservation. In MMA, a fighter suffers through the dangerous struggle of cutting weight not to cheat the system, but because he knows that his opponents are doing the same thing.

Dos Anjos will never know what impact the brutal weight cut had on his performance. Perhaps Alvarez’s bomb of a right hand would have rattled his brain even at its sharpest and healthiest, or maybe those hours spent in a state of physical decay had rendered him unfit to take such a punch a day later.

While new policies have been put in place that address dangerous weight cutting, the UFC has yet to take rigorous action to prevent it. (ONE Championship, a Singapore-based promotion, unveiled a strict weight management policy after a 21-year-old fighter died during a weight cut). For fighters like Dos Anjos, the realization that he needed to make a change came only after back-to-back life-threatening weight cuts, which yielded nothing but concussive damage and lost glory.

It’s an unavoidable truth that fighters risk losing a piece of themselves in the cage, as Dos Anjos may have as his legs buckled under Alvarez’s relentless barrage of punches, or months later when he lost a five-round war to Tony Ferguson. But there’s a piece of themselves they too often lose willingly, away from the bright lights of triumph and glory, in the smoldering saunas and silent hotel rooms.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Dos Anjos vs Cerrone Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In his last fight before the nightmarish Alvarez bout, Dos Anjos steamrolled Donald Cerrone in under two minutes. “Cowboy”, riding a nine-fight win streak since a previous loss to Dos Anjos, crumbled after taking a liver shot in the rematch’s opening minutes and never recovered.

With his brief interest in winning the lightweight title extinguished, and two losses to the current champion on his record, it looked like Donald Cerrone had hit his ceiling and cemented his role in the sport: an impossibly active action-fighter that would remain a mainstay in the lightweight division even if he never reached the championship level.

Instead, Cerrone kissed the lightweight division goodbye and took a bout at 170 lbs. The pressure of expectation was lifted from his shoulders, but so was the pressure of the grueling weight cut: “Cowboy” walks around not much heavier than the welterweight limit, and stepping on the scales on Friday mornings has become little more than an afterthought. Cerrone isn’t hunched over a bathtub the night before weigh-ins, dazed and drained. He’s more likely drinking beer.

Not only has Cerrone not been outmatched by his new, larger opponents, he’s flourished in the bigger division. Undefeated at welterweight, with all victories coming by way of stoppage, it took “Cowboy” just one year to earn a top-five ranking at 170 lbs.

Cerrone’s not alone: there’s a promising trend developing of fighters finding success when unburdened by drastic weight cutting. Kelvin Gastelum, infamous for his failures to make 170 lbs. reliably, has won impressively at middleweight. As has the young Robert Whittaker, who has built himself into a contender since leaving the welterweight division.

Dos Anjos left his fight with Cerrone as the champion, while “Cowboy” licked his wounds and cursed his worst performance to date. But in the end, that night led to a year of punishment and hardship for the Brazilian champion, while the failed challenger grew into the best version of himself.

Losses often teach more than wins, as the old cliche goes. Dos Anjos now too heads to welterweight, bidding farewell to the nights spent destroying himself from within. Perhaps he’ll be outsized against the bigger competition, maybe he’ll never climb the rankings like Cerrone, the man he’d already bested twice over. But he’ll likely never wake up on a bathroom floor again, wondering how close to death he’d have to come to beat himself down to a needless number.

Unfortunately in MMA, positive change often comes months or years too late, when the fighter has endured such physical punishment that the only road left is the one he should have followed from the start. As Dos Anjos leaves the lightweight division, one cannot help but wonder how big a piece of himself he leaves behind with it.