“What’s up with that asparagus?” I ask, gesturing at the bunch lying on the dresser, bound together by a purple rubber band and one hundred percent the last thing you’d expect to see in a fighter’s hotel room. It’s Thursday night, two days before UFC 159 in Newark, N.J. – where Alan Belcher will meet Michael Bisping in the co-main event – and a day before Belcher has to step on the official scale and weigh in at 186 pounds. “Asparagus is a natural diuretic,” Belcher says to me in his easy Southern twang. From a nearby laptop, country music courtesy of Pandora and a station called the “The Zac Brown Band”. Sitting, lying and standing about are the UFC fighter’s coaches, teammates and friends. All are prepared to go with Belcher on this journey of self-inflicted torture where the worst-case scenario is he fails to shed the necessary pounds and New Jersey State Athletic Control Board declares the fight is off and the best-case scenario is he wishes he were dead. “Plus, asparagus makes you poop,” says Belcher. Right now, he’s 202 pounds.
As Dante would say if he took up that job as tour guide, welcome to the Ninth Circle of Hell.
It was back at UFC 12 in 1997 when the organization and the sport – such as it was – started giving a shit about weight classes, and since then that new wrinkle has been the bane of many a fighter’s existence. But if you want to step into the cage with an edge in strength, size, muscle mass or whatever, cutting weight is just one of those things you have to do, a fact of MMA life and about as fun as roadwork or situps while a trainer assaults you with a medicine ball.
“Get ready with the timer,” Belcher says to LaMart, and the two make their way into the bathroom, which has been turned into a sort of steamroom. I follow, and watch as Belcher gingerly climbs into the tub. It’s full of water so hot, some would say it’s scalding. The man who beat the piss out of Brazilian leglock master Rousimar Palharaes just takes it slow and winces. Soon he’s got as much of his body submerged as possible. Soon LaMart is covering him with wet towels, and putting one behind his neck to support his head.
Very little is said other than instructions on how to regulate the water temperature (“A little hotter. Turn the handle all the way. Ah! It fucking burns! Turn it back!”) and where to have the water go (“Turn the shower head so it goes on my feet. Ah! My toes!”). At Belcher’s request, LaMart reads off how much time has elapsed as dictated by the timer on his iPhone. Two and a half minutes. Five. Then ten. “Let me go another minute,” and LaMart nods his head in response. Sixty seconds later, Belcher climbs out of the tub.
You can gauge how far along Belcher is by how fast he’s able to move. He’s spry now. In a short while he’ll move like the elderly.
Back in the room and Belcher lies down on some towels spread out on the floor. LaMart helps him dry off, and for ten minutes the fighter is still.
In the 14 or so years since weight classes were introduced, the sport’s athletes have learned how best to get pounds off, stealing the cherished techniques of wrestlers and boxers and refining them with whatever pearls of wisdom nutritionists could provide. What started off as a dark voodoo of starvation is now more of science than ever, and fighters are doing practice cuts to acclimate their bodies and maintaining lower weights weeks or months out to minimize the stress on their bodies.
Belcher himself has been doing this for years. He knows what he’s doing, knows all too well what to expect.
Ten minutes are up and it’s back to the bathroom and the tub. The mood is surprisingly less somber, something I attribute to the inherit comedy of a situation where dudes have to devote so much attention to what is essentially a grown man taking a bath. After Belcher is covered in towels and the water is regulated, LaMart plays YouTube videos of some foul-mouthed weight lifter going off on a rant. “You sayin’ I’m not a weight lifter? Motherfucker, I been lifting weights for 32 motherfuckin’ years…” LaMart chuckles. Belcher smiles from under the wet towels.
Back in the room, and Belcher is sprawled out the floor. Back in the tub. His movements are slower, hindered by a draining lethargy that isn’t so much exhaustion as an unnatural siphoning off of his energy. Another coach takes LaMart’s place, applying an ice pack to Belcher’s head.
Back in the room, and Belcher’s on the floor. “How you feeling?” asks one his aforementioned pals, veteran fighter Rich Clementi.
“Hot,” is the reply.
To pass the time Clementi and I reminisce about the fights of his I covered in New Jersey, like his 2005 tilt against Daisuke Hanazawa that wrecked his knee, and his 2006 destruction of Brian Dunn. When the evening began, Belcher had planned on doing only three ten-minute rounds of tub torture, but he feels good enough to do another, so it’s back again.
And then it’s over – the first session, the first leg of the journey down to the middleweight limit. It’s a process that will last all the way up to the moment he climbs the stage before the gathered thousands and listens for commission official Nick Lembo to read off his weight. But I’m not along for the whole trip, I’m just there for a glimpse. I ask Belcher how he’s feeling, repeating Clementi’s question from before. I can tell from his rebounding energy level that he’s not doing too bad.
Still, near-scalding baths and eating and drinking not nearly enough. Any way you cut it, it’s hell.