Tragedy struck the MMA world last month in Brazil after Leandro Souza died prior to the Shoot Brazil 43 weigh-ins. The 26-year-old flyweight reportedly passed out while cutting the final two pounds and died after being transferred to a local hospital. This unfortunate death underscores an unfortunate reality of the dangers associated with extreme weight cutting in MMA and other sports tied to cutting weight.
Weight cutting is one of the largely unseen dangers in combat sports. It typically goes on behind the scenes in saunas and involves all sorts of methods (often unique to a fighter/camp) to get down to the target weight. There are right and wrong methods to doing to making a cut, with the right way being over a long period of time at a gradual pace of descent through proper dieting and increased cardio.
The wrong way, and sadly the more common way, typically means starvation, quick drastic cuts, diuretics, and extreme dehydration prior to weigh-ins. When I first started wrestling, I was never taught how to cut weight. I was simply expected to make the assigned weight and I just followed the example of the older vets on the team and other wrestlers.While that is the way that most fighters/wrestlers learn how to cut, it can often lead to the spread of bad habits if the person teaching the methods has no idea what they are talking about. In my case, I picked up bad habits early before eventually coming to grips with how damaging the methods were.
Staying at 215-pounds was never that easy for me as I often weighed around 235-240 normally but when you have a State Champion and future Senior National Champion above you, you make the cut. I would wrestle a weekend tournament and weigh 235 by the end and then have to cut to 215 by Tuesday for a dual meet. It got worse when I was preparing to go to college and was originally told I was expected to be a 197-pounds. I desperately tried to make it down before heading to school, even getting to the point where I got to 205 before my body was literally shutting down, with my kidneys and liver taking the brunt of damage. At that point, I realized I had to move up rather than slowly kill myself but of course the NJCAA removed that issue by instituting limits to cutting.
As much as people cracked jokes on Tim Means for being knocked out after slipping in the sauna, it is not uncommon to see a sauna looking like a war zone. The fact that so much of a fighter’s cut takes place away from where a commission could feasibly be, makes monitoring that much harder. When I spoke to Kenny Florian last month, someone who knows a thing or two about cutting weight, he echoed that sentiment,”It is hard to be a watch dog for every fighter out there. A lot of times these things are happening in hotel rooms, in saunas, in bathtubs, etc. So I think it is hard to keep track of everything that happens.” While it is easy to attribute those feelings to apathy, it is a realistic take on the reality of a complex situation.
Limits and other changes are badly needed in MMA to help protect fighters, most often from themselves. A certification and hydration program (like the NCAA has) would be a good start, but enforcement is one of the biggest issues in a sport that views consistent drug testing as problem. Education of fighters, and especially coaches, on the proper ways to cut weight and diet needs to be paramount in this sport but it is often an issue many like to avoid dealing with. The biggest issue comes down to enforcement, as the sports lack of a true regulating body hinders uniformity in all aspects of regulation.
MMA is plagued by a lot of issues (scoring, refereeing, drugs, etc.) many people believe are easy to regulate away but that simply is not the case, especially when it comes to weight. No matter if you raise limits or not, guys will always look to find an advantage for fear their opponent will be doing the same. Take for instance Gleison Tibau, a fighter who cuts over 30-pounds and entered the Octagon at UFC 164 weighing 181-pounds for his 155-pound fight. Could that issue be settled by having him fight at a “natural weight” or by having a weigh-in prior to the bout? Sure, but where is the support for those measures to be brought up at commission meetings going to come from?
Promoters like UFC president Dana White and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney are all for well-run commissions as long as they do not require extra effort on their part. To be fair, it is not their job to run the sport at that level but to ensure their respective companies turn out a solid product that their fans and investors can be satisfied with. Both promotions have their fighters check-in with their weights the week of the fight, which is typically reserved for the final cut, with Bellator MMA officials telling me they check daily to avoid any surprises on weigh-in days (hence why you see more catchweight bouts in Bellator). While this certainly helps, the UFC alone has seen four bouts cancelled or altered, at the last second due to issues tied to weigh-ins.
One interesting idea I heard while researching this article was the idea of having fighters meet closer to their natural weights. I spoke to a proponent of the measure, South Carolina referee and MMA trainer Blake Grice, who had this to say about the idea, “I mean think about it, you have two men that weigh 190 pounds both cutting to 170. That doesn’t make sense. Why not just have them fight at 190. I see fighters weighing in looking like walking skeletons all the time, wouldn’t it be easier to fight the next day having not tortured your body?” While it is a very logical idea, it would require some added measures such as an initial weigh-in prior to the bout in order to ensure both fighters are being truthful in their weights.
Finding ways to better control weights can do nothing but improve many aspects of the sport that some often forget are tied to weigh-ins. One of the obvious secondary effects is a fighters endurance, Tibau may brag about cutting so much weight before a fight but he noticeably struggles as a fight wears on. Even MMA weight guru Mike Dolce is sometimes guilty of having fighters cut a lot of weight very close to a fight, like Chael Sonnen cutting 20-pounds the day of UFC 148 weigh-ins, which is something no nutritionist would recommend. While it is true you get to eat and drink after weigh-ins, the taxing process is not reversed in 24-hours and you can actually do more damage if you eat too much too soon.
Another issue of hard weight cuts is that it can have a temporary and sometimes lasting effects on testosterone levels as well. Testosterone levels naturally drop during hard weight cuts due to malnourishment, making it easy to gain a prescription for TRT if you get your levels checked during this period. With testosterone’s biggest benefit coming during recovery sessions after hard training and providing an energy boost during weight cuts. By finding a way to better control weight, it could help mitigate the spread of what is an embarrassment to the legitimacy of MMA.
The reality of the weigh-in problem is that there needs to be an admission of what is a true issue in the present and the future of MMA. While there are a multitude of ways to improve weigh-in rules and procedures, it ultimately lies on the fighters and their coaches to seek out proper ways of cutting rather than using starvation, trash bags, and diuretics. The needed changes to weigh-ins are something that may never be feasible until promotions and commissions see some uniformity in procedures and education. It is easy to think that a death could not happen stateside, but multiple incidents have already happened here that thankfully were caught before they turned fatal. While change may seem distant or unfeasible now, it is not something that should be swept under the rug.
For a more on the weigh-in discussion, check out the MMA Word podcast.