Monday, September 1, 2014

(Sport) Weight Cutting: The Madness of Weight Cutting in Combat Sports

There many things that are bizarre about professional combat sports from people getting paid to damage each other in the most brutal manner possible but the ludicrous, unregulated and downright dangerous weight cutting in the world of combat sport, particularly in MMA, is just crazy.

The real problem behind the weight cutting process is not really the process itself but why fighters cut weight in the first place. There are a number of reasons why a move up and down in weight happens including the fighter’s natural growth that demands a move up, better prospects for success, or a fighter gets tired of gaming the weight class system and fights at a weight he can meet without feeling like killing himself afterwards. But the most prominent of them all is to gain an advantage over opponents in a new weight class.

Lyoto Machida, one of the great technicians of the sport, made a move from light heavyweight to middleweight and quickly fought his way to a title shot against current middleweight title holder Chris Weidman which he narrowly lost. Current Welterweight king Jonny Hendriks reportedly walks around 50 pounds outside his chosen weight class at 220 which means Hendricks could easily fight at heavyweight, light-heavyweight and most likely in the near future, Middleweight if he wanted to but at welterweight, the power and strength disparity he has over his competitors at 170 is obvious.

However gaming the weight class system doesn’t always work out. B.J Penn, a former two weight UFC champion and future hall of famer, returned to the octagon after a prolonged break and got crushed by rival and former UFC champion Frankie Edgar fighting a weight class 15 pounds shy of his natural weight leaving Penn (who retired shortly after) doubting the wisdom behind his decision to cut the weight when he said “I keep going back about a lot of things ... was it even smart to go down to 145 pounds in the first place? Were you going to have the energy all sucked out, you know? I haven't been to 145 in about 18 years”[1].

Besides vanity, no one of sane mind and body would want to return to a weight they were at 18 years on a dare never mind fight against someone just as dangerous as you are. But in MMA and boxing, constant weight shifts to game the weight class system is commonplace and indeed part of the sport.

However, gaming the weight class system is a very dangerous game to play that can cost you your life as Leandro Souza tragically found out.

In a bid to cut an incredible 33 pounds in week after being drafted at short notice into a Shooto Brazil 43 flyweight bout, Leandro “feijao” Souza died of a stroke at the ripe old age of 26. Bloody elbow reported that Souza, in a desperate attempt to make weight, was taking Lasix, a diuretic and passed out in a sauna still trying to sweat away the two pounds in his way of making the weight limit[2].

While Souza tragic story can serve as a study into why fighters are often their own worst enemy, it can also serve as a study of promoters trying to fill their growing schedule and not acknowledging the human cost involved as Andre Pederneiras, head of Shooto Brazil and Nova Uniao, was quick to deny the connection between weight cutting and Souza death as he said "That could have happened to anyone," Pederneiras said. "It unfortunately happened on a day that all the fighters were losing weight. But that has nothing to do with (him cutting weight). We will wait for more exams, but (the doctors) already said that he suffered a stroke"[3].

Renan Barao, former UFC bantamweight champion, like Souza, is also a member of Nova Uniao and eerily, just like Souza, collapsed two pounds out of his target weight which prompted his team to call a doctor from the UFC and then an ambulance. Anybody with sense would want to move Barao, who is clearly a featherweight, to move up to 145 after collapsing trying to make weight but according Pederneiras, who is Barao’s coach and manager, doesn’t think so. Knowing full well Barao is big for his current weight class and present when he collapsed; Pederneiras argues “People say he should fight at featherweight. I know he’s big for 135, but we have the support of doctors and nutritionists, so I don’t see why changing divisions”[4].

Everybody, except Pederneiras, knows that the move up to featherweight is inevitable and with his recent collapse, he just might have to. Barao admitted as much in an interview with MMA Junkie last year when he said “Actually, I’m naturally the same weight as Aldo, but I cut more to make weight,” Barao said. “I think I would suffer a lot less. I sacrifice a lot by cutting. I’d be able to eat a little better and relax a little more”[5] The only thing that seems to be in the way of Barao making the move up has been his desire not square up with Jose Aldo, the current champion at featherweight and teammate of Barao at Nova Uniao who himself is considering a move up to lightweight.

In the interview, Barao also revealed why he risks his health and well-being in the first place was a decision made by his trainer Pederneira who wanted two champions in the UFC and now with Barao, without a title and down the pecking order, the move makes sense.

While Barao and his camp’s choices from his weight cutting drama onwards will be of much interest, the UFC response to the former Champion’s weight cut issues was just as interesting. Dana White, UFC president, was quick to publicly lambast Barao and his camp for missing weight and made public his intentions to deny Barao his purse for the fight as well as make him fight someone else before getting his hands  on TJ Dilliashaw[6].

It’s good to see UFC take some tough action on Barao for missing weight but it doesn’t help dispel the nagging thought that the UFC should have something in place to make sure cards aren't spoiled by poorly handled weight cuts. However the real solution is quite simple, have fighters fight at their natural weight rather than kill themselves every time fight night around the corner.

In sum, weight cutting in combat sports, particularly is crazy and only get crazier unless organizations, camps and more importantly, fighters take steps to actually fight at a weight that makes that’s healthy rather than advantageous.

[3] Ibid

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