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Depriving your body of much-needed nutrients is never a good idea for a professional athlete; simultaneously dehydrating yourself is even worse; and being expected to compete at an optimal level while being near such a state is laughable. When these conditions are paired with the inherent dangers of mixed martial arts, weight cutting is akin to playing with fire.
This reality was on display prior to UFC 216. At the official weigh-in, lightweight Kevin Lee stepped on the scale looking like a depleted and unhealthy version of himself, only to find out he had not met the 155-pound threshold necessary to qualify for his interim title shot against Tony Ferguson. The Nevada Athletic Commission gave him an extra hour to make the weight, and he did so successfully. Meanwhile, Nik Lentz was scheduled to fight former Bellator MMA lightweight champion Will Brooks on the undercard, only to have the negative effects of a bad weight cut prevent him from even making it to the scale. That resulted in the cancellation of one of the event’s more intriguing style matchups.
These are far from isolated incidents. With every event on a busy MMA schedule, we almost expect that there will be at least one fighter struggling to make the contracted weight while appearing on the scale diminished and clearly worn out. Issues surrounding weight cuts have become a plague on the Ultimate Fighting Championship slate. Several notable fights have been scrapped at the last minute, and UFC 216 was the unexpected product of some of these cancellations. The co-main event -- a flyweight championship fight between Demetrious Johnson and Ray Borg -- was moved from its original slot four weeks ago after the challenger, known for his own difficult weight cuts, withdrew days before UFC 215. Ironically, that promoted the previously postponed Amanda Nunes-Valentina Shevchenko women’s bantamweight title fight to the main event. The interim lightweight title was initially going to be contested between Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov, until an ill-timed hospitalization scrapped their proposed UFC 209 showdown.
When Lee and Ferguson squared off in Las Vegas, the former started strong and dominated the closing minute of the first round with mounted ground-and-pound. As the second round started, he was beginning to show signs of fatigue. Although it should be noted that Ferguson put on an incredible performance, it is hard to separate the weight cut from the action in the cage. None of this mentions the noticeable staph infection boil on Lee’s chest.
The process of dehydration and starvation associated with cutting weight wreaks havoc on the immune system. Hence the vague “medical issues” cited for many last-minute withdrawals.
When all is said and done, these incidents rob everybody involved. The fighters themselves are robbed of good health -- something they jeopardize whenever they set foot in a cage; the promotion is robbed of millions of dollars of marketing spent on fights that are either postponed or never happen at all; and the fans are robbed of the best product featuring the best athletes competing against one another under the best conditions.
MMA’s not-so-distant past is littered with fights that either didn’t happen or didn’t happen in their purest form. We’ve seen Kelvin Gastelum struggle against Tyron Woodley after one of his several botched weight cuts in what could have been an instant classic from two of the best welterweights on the planet. Former welterweight champion Johnny Hendricks, much like Gastelum, has been forced to compete at 185 pounds due to repeatedly destroying his body, this following the cancellation of his own fight with Woodley. Anthony Pettis forfeited a chance to win a featherweight title after a terrible weight cut ahead of his bout with Max Holloway at UFC 206. We saw a middling Anthony Johnson drain himself to make 170 pounds, only to fail repeatedly and find greater success after settling into his light heavyweight frame.
The truly ironic part about weight cutting is that it is meant to give a size advantage to a combatant. However, now that everybody cuts weight at the highest levels, fighters are close to the same size beforehand and are about the same size once they rehydrate. Essentially, no advantage is gained, which means fighters are depleting themselves for little to no return on the physical investment. Hours before Lee made his walk to the Octagon on Saturday, Daniel Lima came in two pounds overweight for his fight with Daichi Kitakata at Pancrase 290. In a grotesque display of negligence, Lima needed assistance while walking to the scale and was unable to stand up straight under his own power. The fight took place as scheduled, with Lima dropping a decision that ended a seven-fight winning streak.
Imagine the product we could be witnessing with less emphasis on extreme weight cutting. The weigh-in regulations that started at UFC 199 in 2016 have been widely credited for the increase in exciting fights. By simply giving fighters longer to rehydrate and recover, the product improved. It’s possible that more steps in that direction could have a similar impact.
UFC President Dana White’s dismissive response when asked about adding additional weight classes was far from encouraging for those looking for healthier ways for fighters to compete. However, it’s up to the fighters and their teams to approach the weight demands of the sport in a responsible fashion, whether that includes moving up in weight, managing weight between contracted bouts or simply not eating tiramisu. When a rational and balanced approach is met, all parties involved will be better off for it.