MMA fighters risk their lives to ‘make weight’

Fight promoters need to do more to protect them.

by Danny Dyer, Staff Columnist

Mixed Martial Arts have ballooned into an international phenomenon over the past decade. Whether it is the cobra-like ground gyrations of Jujutsu, the mighty body slams of Judo or the crowd-favored fist fight exchanges, MMA is finding more and more footing in the global sports community. Ultimate Fighting Championship deserves credit for this recent ascent.

The UFC has been the vehicle needed for such an intricate web of self-defense methodologies to evolve into a stadium-filing spectacle, competing with the likes of the NFL.

For all its bubbling hype, however, the sport still has quite a few shortcomings it must remedy to ensure the highest level of safety for its competitors. The biggest of these regularly unnoticed faults is the infamous pre-fight strategy known as weight cutting.

Dr. Anthony Alessi is a neurosurgeon who has been working with the Connecticut State Athletic Commission on combat sports for the last 20 years. He is featured in a video documentary on fighter Cris Justino’s YouTube channel.

“Weight cutting is trying to wring out as much water out of your system so you can get onto the scale at a low weight,” he said.

Many fans and MMA pundits claim this preparation routine allows fighters with overall larger frames to brawl at weight classes they realistically should never be in. Others point to CEO Dana White’s heartless business strategy, which demands fighters to either remain in shape or be out of a job. Regardless of the reasoning, the process itself has escalated into one of the unhealthiest pre-fight tricks in a sport that is already a large cause of concussions and brain damage.

As of late however, this tactic has materialized into the public sphere via fighter confessions and footage of the grueling practice. One of the most disturbing examples is found in a biographical documentary about Brazilian UFC fighter Cris Justino, known best by her nickname “Cyborg.”

Compulsory whimpers shrill from the former Strikeforce Champion’s throat as her team cloaks another thick blanket around her sweat-caked body in an effort to dehydrate her and cut her weight. This is only one of the several inventively unsettling ways she and her team dehydrate her body. Other methods include lengthy cardio workouts in plastic jumpsuits, extensive sessions in a sauna and, worst of all, submerging in scorching hot baths for long periods of time.

“I go inside the bath, and I pray there, and I cry,” Justino said in an interview.

Her natural weight is 175 pounds, yet the women’s weight classes in the UFC cap off at a ceiling weight of 145 pounds. The numbers alone do the talking.

All the same, the alarming truth behind this under-the-rug approach is that Justino is only one of many infusing these sorts of strategies into their fight camps.

Conor McGregor, one of the UFC’s biggest draws, illustrates the physical differences between that of a normal weight and a cut-down size from his sheer aesthetic alone. When fighting at 175 pounds, his face is a wholesome and full shape. Yet when cutting to 145, his frame is cadaverous, with veins bulging from his muscles and sunken, skeletal cheeks.

Khabib Nurmagomedov may be one of the most tragic victims of this technique. Originally booked to fight Tony Ferguson at UFC 209 for the interim lightweight belt, he was hospitalized just a day before stepping into the Octogan. He was diagnosed as being near death.

While the UFC has recently upped its efforts to monitor dangerous weight cuts, the most obvious answer is one still not being taken seriously: incorporating more weight classes to accommodate to fighters with larger figures.

Joe Rogan, MMA analyst and UFC’s long running fight commentator, is one of the most vocal advocates against this self-destructive system. “Weight cutting is the biggest problem in MMA. We need a solution where we transition towards fighters competing at their actual weight,” he wrote on Twitter.

As it is, MMA is a sport teetering back and forth between calculation and risk. It is time for notable fight promoters such as the UFC to stop pushing more chips into an already dicey gamble.