Weighing In — The Problem with Weight Cutting

MMA Athletes

Is there an argument to be made that weight cutting harms the sport more than it helps?

Making weight. It’s a reality that most professional mixed martial artists face when it comes to fight time. You hear them talk about it; you see them train for it. Everyone wants that extra edge over their opponent as the stakes get progressively higher with every fight.

Watching the fighters train in the sweat suits, sit in the sauna and even going through the Lew Polley School of rubbing various chemicals on yourself and sitting in a bath, in order to vacate the last possible ounce of moisture from their body has become a normal thing to do when watching training videos.

It’s become commonplace. No one questions it.

But we definitely should. We should be asking why these fighters continue to risk their long term health for this practice. We should be asking why it is so acceptable to make a mockery of the weight divisions that have been established for fighter safety and to ensure a fair fight.

Fighters should compete in their own weight divisions, and to clarify what I mean by that, I mean their own natural weight divisions. No weight cutting, no killing themselves in the sauna or depriving themselves of food and water days before a fight. They should simply be competing at their own, natural fighting weight.

We venture into the farcical when Dana White can ask Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson how much he weighs on the night of his Welterweight (170 lb) fight with Dan ‘The Outlaw’ Hardy at Ultimate Fight Night 24, and gets an answer of “around 195″.

What is the point in weight classes at all if a fighter is allowed to fight a full two divisions below where they actually weigh after training camp (bear in mind fighters do not usually fully replenish their weight by fight time unless the cut is quite small)?

Johnson’s case isn’t the only example that could have been given. Western MMA in general has been plagued by fighters missing weight, under-performing and short-changing paying fans.

Names like Thiago Alves “who cuts from the 200 lb region to (sometimes unsuccessfully) make the 170 limit, and Jake Shields “using the excuse of having to cut 20 lbs in the last two days before his lacklustre UFC debut against Martin Kampmann, also spring to mind. The latter case even drawing the scorn of UFC President Dana White at the post fight press conference and former resulting in a threat of expulsion from the Welterweight division if further incidents happen.

The practice of weight cutting is prevalent throughout all of Western MMA and in my opinion continues to have a negative impact on the sport.

How often will we hear commentators notice the size difference between two fighters supposedly in the same division?

How often will we hear the same excuses about ‘the cut’ from losing or under-performing fighters?

Picture this:

UFC President Dana White issues a statement to the press that applies to both Zuffa owned organisations.

“From this day forward, all weigh-ins for any UFC or Strikeforce event will occur on the afternoon of the event being held.”

I believe that upon the hypothetical release of this statement, if all MMA journalists closed their eyes tightly and listened really closely, that they would hear 80-90% of the UFC and Strikeforce rosters simultaneously urinating on themselves a little.

So many fighters rely so heavily on cutting weight as a way of (fighting) life that I truly believe that they would tremble at the thought of that aspect of fighting being taken away. Many of these fighters, specifically those who have come through the American amateur wrestling programmes, consider it fundamental to their fight strategies.

What would happen if they were forced to contest fights without cutting any weight?

Before anyone who is in favour of weight cutting comes in and criticises me for my stance, consider the question:

Is it so terrible to want martial arts contests to be won or lost based on the skills and heart of the combatants, and not how much weight they can cut?

I don’t believe it is. In fact, I don’t believe it would actually alter the landscape of any division in MMA’s top companies much at all.

If all fighters are cutting weight anyway, then simply stopping them doing so would result in most of them moving up into the same divisions as each other. So you would get the same matchups, without the fighters being hampered by weight issues and they would then be able to dedicate 100% to actually training their technique. Right now the whole system is counter-productive; with everyone playing the same game a real advantage isn’t there to be had.

It would certainly separate the proverbial men from the boys in terms of who is actually at the top of the sport based on skill as opposed to lost moisture.

Careers would be longer as a result, the strain on their bodies would be decreased and the absence of spectre of the scales would mean fully focused and prepared fighters.

On top of the practicalities of it, a philosophical argument can be made. This is after all martial arts, and we can refer to the ideology of the East to ask questions about the conduct of an increasing number of practitioners worldwide.

What does it prove to beat a man smaller than you? Is there any honour in it?

Is the real honour not found in fighting men the same size or even larger than you are?

Of course, try telling that to a man trying to pay bills and support a family by fighting professionally. You most likely wouldn’t receive a positive reaction from all beside the staunchest advocates of the bushido code of martial arts.

This is why we are even seeing fighters from the East begin the process of cutting weight now, in order to stay competitive at the world level. Even the likes of Kazushi Sakuraba, the legendary Japanese who was famous for punching (and wrestling) above his weight, has accepted that in order to find men his own size, he actually needs to cut down a division.

The main thing that the promoters of MMA can do is to make it easier for fighters to compete in the way that is befitting of a martial arts contest: honourably, with no shortcuts or cheap tricks.

This isn’t wrestling, boxing, nor is it any other sport. This is Mixed Martial Arts. These fighters should be expected to conform to a higher standard, one that is steeped in the centuries-old history of the disciplines in which they train every day. That will be what distinguishes real martial artists from ‘cage fighters’ or ‘ultimate fighters’. That attitude will elevate the sport and foster the right mentality within the youngsters being exposed to it and who will become the fighters and fans of the future.


-Adil Qazi

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