Weight classes exist for a reason.
Typically, in combat sports, we hear this phrase invoked when a little fighter gets smoked by a bigger one. Light heavyweight Fabio Maldonado’s famous durability fails spectacularly just 30 seconds into a scrap with heavyweight Stipe Miocic — “ah, well, you know: weight classes exist for a reason.”
The aphorism takes on a new shade of irony in the context of modern MMA.
Frankie Edgar has long been lauded for successfully holding onto a title in a division in which most of the challengers were larger than him. From 2010 to 2012, The Answer was the UFC’s king of the lightweights. Edgar is five-foot-six, with a 68-inch wingspan, and famously cut no weight to make the 155-pound championship limit. Among his opponents in those days were Jim Miller (5’8”), Gray Maynard (5’8”), and BJ Penn (5’9”).
For years, people were saying that Edgar should’ve been fighting down at 145. When he lost his title to the five-foot-nine Benson Henderson, he finally did it. A quite literally larger change was already occurring around him. His first featherweight opponent was Charles Oliveira (now a lightweight, albeit begrudgingly), who stands five-foot-ten with a 74-inch reach. Down a weight class, and Edgar was immediately fighting a foe larger than any he had ever faced at 155.
More recently, he has battled Jeremy Stephens (5’8½”, formerly a lightweight), Yair Rodriguez (5’10½”), and Brian Ortega (5’8”). All bigger men, on par with the likes of Gray Maynard and BJ Penn — both of whom are now featherweights, themselves.
The solution, at least according to the same kinds of people who were begging Edgar to drop to featherweight back in the day, is obvious: just drop to bantamweight!
A fighter whose speed and cardio at lightweight were attributed to the fact that he didn’t cut weight, now must consider the option of competing a full 20 pounds below the division in which he was a champion just seven years ago, because his opponents are simply too big, and getting bigger.
Weight classes exist for a reason, but it’s hard to imagine that this is it.
Leaving Your Chin on the Scale
Weight cutting is bad for you. There is no doubt about that. Fighters dehydrate themselves to lose weight one day before a fight. On the healthier end of the spectrum, that means shedding no more than 10 pounds of water. Even that can and likely will have a degenerative impact on the athlete’s body. Followers of the sport will know, however, that MMA fighters — and those in the UFC, in particular — regularly drop well over 10 pounds in preparation for a contest.
Heat exhaustion, stroke, and kidney failure are among the symptoms associated with hard weight cuts. Some fighters suffer seizures, like Uriah Hall did last year. Some, like Renan Barao, get woozy and knock themselves unconscious in the bath. Others outside the UFC, like Leandro Souza, Yang Jian Bing, Jessica Lindsay, and Dennis Munson Jr, have died.
These must seem like far-off concerns to your average fighter, who sees almost every one of his compatriots and competitors engaging frequently in the harmful practice without obvious injury. No one ever expects to die until it’s too late.
A practical, sport-specific perspective might be more appealing, which behooves me to point out: cutting weight makes you a whole lot easier to knock out.
On Saturday, January 19th, TJ Dillashaw faced Henry Cejudo, for about 30 seconds. The UFC bantamweight champion, Dillashaw shed an ten extra pounds to challenge for Cejudo’s flyweight belt. Ten pounds, that is, more than the weight he usually cuts. Cejudo claims to have weighed 146 pounds the night of the fight — that’s 21 pounds over the flyweight limit. Dillashaw, who was reported to have weighed 149.5 pounds in the cage for his fight with Cody Garbrandt, started this fight week at 138 pounds, and likely weighed at least 140 in the cage, if we can judge by his physical appearance in comparison to the ghoulish figure we saw prior to the weigh-in (Author’s Note: Dillashaw said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show that he weighed in the “high 140s” in the cage on the 19th).
Dillashaw is half an inch taller than Frankie Edgar, and likely walks around outside of camp weighing north of 155 pounds. That he managed to hit the scale last Friday at 124.6 — more than 30 pounds below his supposed healthy weight — isn’t impressive so much as it is shocking. No matter how “meticuously executed” the cut was, it was far from healthy, which is a steep cost to pay for a promised victory that evaporated just 32 seconds into the first round.
Cutting weight isn’t just bad for your kidneys. It slows a fighter’s reaction time, and has an adverse effect on his chin. Dillashaw has never been the most durable fighter in the world. He was staggered by Raphael Assuncao, Renan Barao, and Cody Garbrandt, who also sat him down hard in their first fight. Not since 2011, however, has Dillashaw been knocked out, due in large part to his much improved striking. Still no defensive maestro, Dillashaw nonetheless understands how to take a punch better than he did when John Dodson finished him seven years ago.
That didn’t matter last weekend. A right hand behind the ear robbed Dillashaw of his equilibrium. There was no instinctively savvy defense, as when TJ found himself floored by Garbrandt. He just started scrambling wildly for a leg, until an uppercut on the chin threatened to shut his lights off forced him to stand, right into the path of the left hook that finished it.
Cejudo is not feather-fisted, but he’s no Cody Garbrandt or John Lineker. He is fast, certainly, and an increasingly accurate and persistent power puncher, but his only prior knockout of note came over a notoriously chinny (and aging) Wilson Reis.
Did the weight cut drain the strength from Dillashaw’s jaw? More studies are needed, but anecdotal evidence suggests an inverse correlation between dehydration and durability.
Robert Whittaker was chinned by Stephen Thompson at welterweight, but has survived ferocious knockout punchers like Clint Hester, Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, and Yoel Romero since moving up to middleweight. Thiago Santos was something of a glass cannon at middleweight, being knocked out by the likes of Vicente Luque (now a welterweight) and David Branch (just six of 22 wins via knockout), but just last month he survived a brutal back-and-forth war with light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa (15 of 17 wins via knockout) and came out on top. Clay Guida’s age has something to do with it, but there is no missing the fact that he was never knocked out at lightweight, whereas during his stint at featherweight he was starched by Chad Mendes, dropped into a submission by Dennis Bermudez, and rendered undeniably unconscious by Brian Ortega.
There is no concrete way of proving that Dillashaw’s drastic weight reduction was partly responsible for his humiliating defeat, but MMA math still has some power to it. When a man takes Cody Garbrandt’s best shots in two consecutive fights only to be dropped by a flyweight, you start asking questions.
The purpose of cutting weight is to gain a size advantage over the competition. Of course, with almost every fighter on the roster cutting lots and lots of weight, real size advantages are hard to come by. Most fighters content themselves with the knowledge that, after cutting, they will be approximately the same size as the average opponent in their weight class.
Fighters accept the health risks associated with weight cutting when they choose to fight, even knowing that they could conceivably be fighting the same opponents at a weight one or two divisions above, if only both men could agree not to cut weight.
The tragedy of this prisoner’s dilemma can’t help but turn a little darkly comic when we consider that, not only are the vast majority of fighters not gaining a size advantage, but the cut is also making them worse at fighting.
The weight cut seems to have an adverse effect on the durability of a fighter’s chin. It can also hurt his stamina which, since conditioning and durability are closely linked, makes it less likely that he will recover after having his chin checked. What’s more, the cut hurts reaction time, a problem which is exacerbated when fighters like Dillashaw choose to drop weight in order to take on an opponent who is already faster than those to which they are accustomed.
Why is MMA like this?
A Culture of Cutting
Not only do MMA fighters cut a lot of weight on average, they also cut considerably more weight than their boxing counterparts.
For years, HBO posted unofficial fight-night weights on their Boxing After Dark broadcasts. So we know that welterweight boxers routinely hit the scale at about 10 pounds below the weight at which they will enter the ring the next day. There are some notable exceptions, of course. Jarret Hurd reportedly drops some 15 pounds to make 154, and Canelo Alvarez has been known to grow up to 20 pounds between the weigh-in and the fight. For the most part, however, weight cutting in boxing remains mostly manageable, at least in comparison to MMA.
Many mixed martial artists seem to devote as much time to dropping weight as they do to honing their skills. Johny Hendricks attempted to cut 26 pounds in 72 hours ahead of a matchup with Tyron Woodley at UFC 192, and ended up with a litany of medical issues that landed him in the hospital. His cuts were so routinely stressful, that he even missed weight after moving up to middleweight.
Before the run at light heavyweight that made him a contender and two-time title challenger, Anthony Johnson was a welterweight, barely. Cutting from well over 200 pounds, Johnson missed the 170 pound limit twice before he was persuaded to join the ranks of the middleweights, where, just like Johny Hendricks, he missed weight again after doctors were forced to rehydrate him shortly before the fight. Johnson was cut from the UFC, and missed the middleweight limit a second time at Titan FC 22.
John Lineker missed weight a staggering four times over the course of his eight-fight UFC flyweight career, and again after moving to bantamweight, though he has managed to make 135 successfully ever since.
Conor McGregor. Yoel Romero. The list goes on.
Perhaps the reason that MMA fighters value size so much more than boxers is that they feel the benefits more pointedly. A weight cut can affect a fighter’s chin, and it can leave him vulnerable to lighter, quicker foes. But the added size comes in very handy when grappling, as any sumo wrestler would tell you. Even strikers benefit from a few extra pounds when they face a wrestler determined to take them down.
One of my pet theories is that MMA owes at least some of its weight cutting culture to wrestling. Today, MMA is one of the few forms of professional athletic competition to which wrestlers can apply their skills. Indeed, wrestling may be the single most important skillset in any mixed martial artist’s arsenal. As such, the sport — and especially the UFC, where weight cutting is more emphasized than anywhere else — is full of wrestlers.
Wrestlers are well known for their brutal weight cuts. Like MMA fighters and rikishi, they recognize the value of size and mass when it comes to grappling. In 1997, the NCAA Wrestling Committee implemented sweeping changes after Jeff Reese, a junior at the University of Michigan, collapsed in the midst of a grueling 17-pound weight cut, and died.
Deaths related to weight cutting have decreased since the introduction of same-day weigh-ins, hydration tests, and body-fat requirements, but they have not gone away entirely. The thought of death and injury is still far from the minds of many wrestlers, who know that their chances of victory improve with each additional pound they can retain.
Many of MMA’s most egregious weight cutters are, in fact, lifelong wrestlers. The aforementioned, Hendricks, Johnson, and Romero were all wrestlers before they began their MMA careers.
But MMA is not like wrestling. Size is not everything, when there are punches being thrown. Indeed, as we have already discussed, the weight cut makes it more likely that a fighter will be hit, more likely that he will be hurt, and less likely that he will recover afterward.
Yet the practice persists, to the point that Frankie Edgar, who was lightweight champion in 2012, is now smaller than many bantamweights.
Struggling to Solve the Problem
Addressing the problem of weight cutting is a sensitive and difficult issue.
Last year, the Association of Boxing Commissions approved a new proposal in an effort to ameliorate the issue within the squared circle. As of January 2019, title competitors will be forced to weigh in a second time the day of the fight, to ensure that they do not gain more than 10% of the contracted weight. Titles will be stripped for violations, and official rankings impacted by repeat offenses.
Since 2017, the California State Athletic Commission has been recording the weights of MMA fighters (competing in California) on the day of the fight. Their newly instituted guidelines, like those of the ABC, stipulate that fighters should not gain more than 10% of their body mass after hitting the scale. Unsurprisingly, plenty of fighters have.
At UFC 227, 18 of 24 fighters gained more than ten percent of their weight back between the scale and the cage. Two of them weighed enough on fight night to compete two divisions up. Even those within the ten percent limit were typically rehydrating to the tune of 15 pounds or more.
With powers limited to the fights which take place in their state, the commission has only been able to recommend that fighters in violation of the limit move up a weight class. Still, the change has brought some much-needed transparency to the weight-cutting process.
Unfortunately, the statistics also show exactly why so many fighters are cutting so much. Seven of the 11 fighters who gained back more weight than their opponents went on to win their fights. As harmful as a weight cut can be in the long-term, and as deleterious as its effects might be on reaction time, durability, and conditioning, MMA fighters still see the benefits in the cage.
Most of the time.
Weight classes exist for a reason. That reason is to ensure that fighters of more or less the same size as their opponents, in the spirit of fairness.
Today, in the UFC, some semblance of fairness has been achieved. There is still plenty of variance, owing to the general weirdness of the human body. For the most part, however, there is a lot of parity between the tallest and shortest sets of fighters in any given division.
The tragic irony, of course, is that this even-playing field is only achieved because virtually everyone is cutting lots and lots of weight. If TJ Dillashaw, who so unfortunately made 125 for his fight with Cejudo, stopped dehydrating himself for his fights, he would be a lightweight. Khabib Nurmagomedov, the lightweight champ, would be a middleweight. And if Frankie Edgar quit the cut, he would be a lightweight again.
I can’t say what the best solution could be. Same-day weights like those recorded by the CSAC are a step in the right direction. Mandating that official weigh-ins occur on the day of a fight would likewise force change, though it might also compel many fighters to simply compete without fully rehydrating.
The only evident truth is simply this: weight cutting sucks. When everyone does it, it comes so close to helping no one — and undoubtedly hurts everyone — that any fight fan with a conscience should have a hard time accepting the practice. At the very least, I hope this piece has forced the reader to think about the trauma associated. Public pressure can indeed effect systemic change.
If it doesn’t, we will have to wait for a high-profile death, in the Octagon itself, for fighters and promoters to take notice.
For an analytical look at the techniques and strategies used in the Octagon, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicating to the finer points of face-punching.