5.11.2009

A PreView of Things to Come Installment # 2 - Weight Classes and Weight Cutting


A short while ago, I posted the inaugural article in my original series, “A PreView of Things to Come”. The first installment dealt with sponsorships, both on regional and national levels, and my thoughts on how that aspect of MMA will develop over the next few years.

With this second entry, I am going to examine two obviously related topics – weight classes and weight cutting. Since I have never had the (dis)pleasure of cutting weight, I decided to go to the experts for some comments on methods of cutting weight, short and long term effects on the body, and general thoughts on the makeup of the MMA weight class layout. To that end, you will hear from sports medicine professional and MMA enthusiast Dr. Johnny Benjamin, professional fighter Chad “H-Bomb” Hinton, and a friend of mine who was a high school state wrestling champion and national powerlifting champion who wishes to remain anonymous so I will call him “Power”.

The majority of the article will focus on the weight-cutting side of things as opposed to weight classes, but I feel at least a cursory look at the weight class structure of MMA is a good set up to the second half. Additionally, given that my experience in following and reporting on MMA is almost entirely based on promotions in the United States, it is weight classes in U.S.-based organizations that I will discuss.

The UFC, the sport’s premier promotion, offers fighters the choice of fighting in one or more of five weight classes:

Lightweight - over 145 lbs. to 155 lbs.
Welterweight - over 155 lbs. to 170 lbs.
Middleweight - over 170 lbs. to 185 lbs.
Light Heavyweight - over 185 lbs. to 205 lbs.
Heavyweight - over 205 lbs. to 265 lbs.

However, as many people who follow the sport beyond the UFC know, other promotions (including the WEC, owned by the same parent company as the UFC) utilize more weight classes, some on the lower and some on the higher end of the spectrum.

These classes include:

Flyweight – Upper limit of 125 lbs.
Bantamweight – over 125 lbs. to 135 lbs.
Featherweight – over 135 lbs. to 145 lbs.
Super Heavyweight – Anything over 265 lbs.

The weight classes are not generally determined by the promotion but instead by the Athletic Commission of the state in which the promotion is hosting the show. However, the UFC does not stray beyond its five-class set-up except in cases of a catch-weight, which is most often used when a fighter fails to weigh in at the appropriate weight. However, the UFC will host a catch-weight fight as the main event of UFC 99 on June 13th in Cologne, Germany when Rich Franklin and Wanderlei Silva meet at a catch-weight of 195 lbs.

Many pundits have argued for the inclusion of more weight classes, not just of the ones not commonly featured in the UFC, but for a new structure of weight classes altogether, most readily comparable to the scheme used in professional boxing. In fact, a proposed resolution from the Association of Boxing Commissioners would allow a total of fourteen weight classes in MMA starting as low as 105 lbs and rising in ten pound increments until it increased to twenty and then forty between the last three classes. You can find the proposed chart on the MMA Weight Class wikipedia page (linked above).

There are numerous arguments for or against the inclusion of additional classes or for overhauling the system altogether. Ultimately, I think all of these arguments should fail, an idea further evidenced by the fact that the UFC and a number of state athletic Commissions such as Ohio and New Jersey have rejected the 14-weight class scheme.

For one, more weight classes tend to water down the divisions. Now instead of having X number of fighters in an extremely stacked Lightweight division, you’re going to have X number of fighters spread across three or possibly four different divisions that are all around lightweight. Further, more weight classes would allow for fighters to try and jump around the different classes more so that they could gain the most advantage on their opponents. Fellow FightTicker.com blogger Mike Menninger and myself were recently discussing the idea of adding more weight classes and we both agreed that regardless of how many classes there are, the vast majority of the fighters are still going to try and get their weight down to the lowest they possibly can so that they can fight in a division where they might have more strength or weight than a given opponent once they put the weight back on after the cutting process. In fact, while one of the stated reasons for a larger number of weight classes is actually safety, the addition of more weight could put a larger number of fighters at risk for weight cutting related health issues.

Think about it. For a fighter who normally cuts to 170, under the 14-class system, there is no 170 lb class, it’s either 165 lbs or 175 lbs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of guys would probably give 165 a try to see if their bodies could handle it. Just like Mike and I said, the majority of the fighters will do whatever they can to get to the lowest weight at which they could compete.

Consider a guy like Rich Franklin, who seems to have his weight cutting down to an exact science. Instead of stopping at 185 lbs he could just alter his diet a little bit more and make the drop down to 175 lbs. Then you have a guy in the 175 class who would enter the fight probably over 200 lbs. Facing a guy who may have dropped to 175 from 190, Franklin would already have a ten-pound advantage over the guy as well as likely having a generally larger frame than most guys who would fight in that class.

Beyond the issues of fighter safety, the addition of so many new classes would be a logistical nightmare. As I stated before, guys could jump back and forth to classes more easily than under the current system. Additionally, can you imagine having fourteen different champions in the UFC? Granted, the UFC does not utilize all of the weight classes available, but still – thinking about both the UFC and WEC (both owned by Zuffa), between the two organizations, there could be thirteen champs. I say thirteen because I don’t think Dana would ever let in a Super Heavyweight class. The Heavyweight division is already the shallowest division in the organization and adding an additional division for even bigger guys would only make the talent that much harder to find.

The UFC should continue to utilize the five class structure. In addition to fighter safety and logistical concerns, weight cutting is a part of the sport a fighter can train for and prepare for, and the fighters who have cultivated this skill better than others should not be penalized for it.

At the close of a recent article, FightTicker.com blogger Mark Figula recently asked the question, “Does anyone see a reason same day weigh-ins shouldn’t happen?” Figula’s article spawned an interesting discussion between a number of different FightTicker readers. Figula raised some interesting points, but since I view effective and efficient weight cutting as a fighting tool all on its own, making a fighter do same day weigh-ins would be akin, in my mind, to telling a guy like Dustin Hazelett that he is only allowed to do flying armbars, none on the ground. It would not completely hamper Hazelett’s ability to use an armbar as an effective fighting tool, but it would seriously restrict when he could use it, just as same day weigh-ins would restrict how serious fighters could effectively use one of the tools in their arsenals. It wouldn’t completely take it away, but just lessen its effectiveness.

Another suggested change would be having fighters fight at a monitored walking around weight. In this scenario, fighters would be randomly weighed throughout the year and a mathematical formula would be utilized to determine their fighting weight, something like an average of their weights catalogued throughout the year. Again, I think this would unduly burden the commissions and also the athletes. Any state that adopted this method would be required to monitor all of the athletes on their rosters more than they already do. With some states having already initiated year-round drug-testing (a measure I think is much more important), these commissions would have to provide further employees to travel around to various camps and weigh these athletes. What if an athlete fights primarily in Las Vegas but lives elsewhere, as is often the case? If the athlete had to travel to Las Vegas to for one of these additional weigh-ins, who is going to pay for that expense? I’m guessing it’s not going to be the commission. Then the fighters have even more expenses.

The times would have to be random or guys could just cut weight before these off season weigh-ins. However, with out of state athletes, if they’re given time to travel, then hypothetically they could try to quickly cut weight before the weigh-in. This could put fighters at risk because many would likely try a quick cut to have their average weight be lower.

Also, new rules would have to be made to take into consideration athletes who might be injured and cannot train so they may have put on more weight than their normal walking weight. It’s also likely that rules would not be made for fighters who just tend to walk around at a heavier weight. Take a guy like Wanderlei Silva or even Joe Stevenson – both are rumored to walk around much heavier than their fighting weights. I don’t want to penalize a guy (or girl) for walking around at a higher weight during their “off season”. Mandating more regulations like this would only put a bigger burden on the fighters. In spite of the fact that MMA is, at its core, a sport where technique can be used to overpower a heavier opponent, weight can clearly make a difference in MMA.

Everyone who is reading this can probably think of a time when two fighters both made weight in the same class but then stepped in the cage and the two looked nothing alike in relation to size. Just think of Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar. Granted, the Heavyweight class has more leeway, but still – the site of the two of them facing off at the weigh in showed two fighters of drastically different sizes and when they stepped into the Octagon the difference was even more pronounced, as it was heavily rumored that Lesnar was cutting from somewhere in the area of 280-300 lbs to make weight at 265.

However, some states have other safeguards in place. Take Ohio, for example. When I arrived at the weigh-ins for the recent ICF: Breakout event, I was told that the pro fighters were going to have to weigh in again the next day prior to the event, and that they could not have gained more than thirteen pounds from the first weigh-in or they would be penalized. However, this is thirteen pounds from their actual first-day weigh-in number, not just thirteen above the class. Take Chad Hinton who won his fight that night with the FightTicker.com KO of the Night over former UFC fighter Jeff Cox – had Hinton weighed in at 154 lbs the first day, he would have been penalized if he had weighed in at more than 167 lbs the second day. (For the record, Hinton made weight both days without a problem.)

Totally unaware of this procedure until I arrived at the weigh-ins the night before the event, I spoke to the rep from the Ohio State Athletic Commission who was there the day of the event and he said that rule had been in place for a while, and that all pro MMA fighters were subject to it across all promotions – so yes, all of the fighters who have fought in the UFC events in Columbus and Cincinnati also had to deal with that rule and weigh in both the day before the fight and the day off.

The rep from Commission also showed me these Ohio Administrative Regulations:

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3773-7-03 Weigh In Procedures

(E) When a weigh-in is conducted the day prior to the event, with the exception of the super-heavyweight class, all other contestants must weigh-in at a second weigh-in the next day scheduled by the commission within eight hours of the starting time of the event. The contestant may not be more than thirteen pounds heavier than their recorded weight from the day prior.

(F) No contestant may lose more than three pounds in less than a two-hour period. This rule applies to a second-day weigh-in also. This does not apply to light heavyweight class and above.

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Whatever your thoughts on the addition of weight classes or same day weigh-ins, I encourage you to check out Figula’s brief article and the discussion it spawned – lot of great comments from FightTicker.com members.

Weight classes would not be discussed as much as they are were it not for all the news that pops up because of weight cutting. Most recently, Cris “Cyborg” Santos failed to make weight against Hitomi Akano – failed, and failed miserably. Claiming it was due to “female problems”, Santos forfeited part of her purse and the two met at a catchweight with Santos emerging the victor by TKO in the third round. Additionally, we have all seen the stories about fighters failing to make weight, some much more notorious than others – Thiago Alves, Nick Diaz, Paulo Filho, Gina Carano, and Joe Riggs to name a few. Additionally, some who do make weight are criticized after the fact when it is realized that they tested positive for a diuretic (banned substance that aids in water loss) – again, Thiago Alves, and Donald Cerrone, to name a couple. In Cerrone’s appearance on the popular TapouT reality show he claimed that he had used it to help deal with a staph infection, and both Cerrone and Alves have gone on to enjoy successful careers, but especially in the case of Alves, people question his ability to make weight. Missing weight before his fight with Matt Hughes didn’t help his cause in spite of the fact he claimed an ankle injury had seriously cut back on his ability to do cardio before the fight.

However, it was none of these things that really made me want to write this – it was the report that Rory Markham suffered a collapsed lung due to the weight cut before his fight with Dan Hardy at UFC 95. I had heard of a number of different ill effects from weight cutting but never anything that severe.

What does weight cutting involve? Different fighters swear by their methods – everything ranging from lots of cardio to the use of sauna suits to serious reduction in calories in the days leading up to a fight even to excessive spitting.

In doing some generic google searches on "weight cutting" and after trolling some various forums, I came across a number of articles. As a disclaimer, I do not endorse or recommend any of these methods - I am just putting these few out there for informational purposes. Check out the articles here, here, and here.

For some other commentary on the issue, you can find posts here, here, and here.

(Clearly there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other articles and posts out there on the subjects, but I thought these few were representative of the whole.)

Pro fighter Chad Hinton uses methods like specific diet adjustments to achieve his fighting weight of 155 lbs. Normally walking around between 180-185 lbs, Hinton does things like cut out all sodium and sugar, boosting his water intake and restructuring his protein to carb ratio. Hinton also ups his cardio training, in his words, “120% training until I can’t get off the floor.” He stated he’s generally already at his fighting weight on weigh-in day that he’ll just eat and drink very little until time to weigh in.

Hinton leads Team Xtreme, out of Cincy MMA and Fitness, and notes that the guys on his team who have wrestled before have a general idea on weight cutting, but even the guys with no experience are eager to follow the plans to drop weight. In speaking of ill effects suffered from a weight cut, Hinton lists minor problems like nose bleeds and getting a cold or the flu, but also mentioned that he usually boosts his Vitamin C intake in the last four weeks before the fight to avoid getting stick. Hinton also mentioned that it’s definitely possible that some of his in-fight injuries came from a result of the weight cutting as well.

Hinton further noted that most of the weigh-ins he has participated in are somewhere between 24-27 hours before the fight. However, Hinton has also participated in same-day weigh ins and mentioned that it is hard to cut weight and be at 100% by fight time. He specifically mentioned one fight where he weighed in at 11:00 am and fought at noon.

When I inquired about Hinton’s views on weight cutting in general and the idea of walking around weight, Hinton stated that he thought it should be at a fighter’s discretion. He further stated, “In the end they [the fighters] are ultimately responsible for their failure or success. Most of the fighters are adults. If they’re getting pummeled while walking around and competing at 170 lbs at 13% body fat, they should consider doing the work and dropping to 155 lbs at 8% body fat.”

Speaking of the weight classes offered in the various promotions, Hinton opined that he’d like to see the UFC add bantamweights, featherweights and super heavyweights, in spite of the fact the WEC already showcases bantamweights and featherweights. He was not in favor of the 14-weight class structure but also feels that the sport is still in its infancy so things should naturally evolve as opposed to being rushed.

Hinton’s comment about wrestlers on his team already being used to the weight cutting reminded me that one of my best friends – let’s call him Power (trust me, if you knew his powerlifting record, you would call him that, too) – was a high school wrestling champion and national powerlifting champion. I vaguely remembered a few stories he had told me about weight cuts, so I contacted him to get some more details.

Power cut weight for both wrestling and powerlifting. He wrestled at 152 lbs and cut from 172-174 lbs. For powerlifting, he cut to 148.75 lbs from 165-168 lbs.

When asked about his weight cutting methods, Power mentioned that he would run if he was still over near the weigh-ins but that he mostly used the dehydration method, stopping drinking water a day or so before the weigh-in, chew cinnamon gum and spit in a bottle. During wrestling season, he would also practice in multiple layers of clothing. He did acknowledge that his weight cutting methods were generally more extreme than his teammates. To that end, Power acknowledged that he had suffered ill effects due to his weight cutting methods, but not often during the meets themselves. He specifically stated that he would not recommend his methods and mentioned some long-term ill effects he has suffered, specifically that his circulation and digestion “aren’t what they could be”, and that people who weight cut this way are setting themselves up for future renal problems.

After the weigh-ins, Power would first re-hydrate, drinking large amounts of Pedialyte, Gatorade and/or Powerade. When discussing this he made sure to mention that “after a day or so without drinking, you’d be surprised how wonderful it feels”. After re-hydrating, he would generally indulge in junk food: Chex Mix, canned cheese spread, bologna sandwiches, Milk Duds, etc. About this odd mix, he stated, “People who had an ounce of common sense ate more healthily.”

With the wrestling and powerlifting meets he participated in, he noted that there was generally an hour between the weigh-ins and the start time. He also noted that if you didn’t make weight the first time your group was called, you would have to spend more time cutting and got sent to the back of the queue, so those competitors would then have less time to recover. Power estimated that 90-95% of his wrestling teammates cut weight – more than in powerlifting, and also that the wrestlers were generally cutting more weight.

When I asked Power about his general views on weightlifting he had this to say:

“I absolutely support weight cutting as an essential part of any sport that involves weight classes. It is simply another aspect of sacrifice/competition, and it really demonstrates how much you want to be successful; how much you are willing to sacrifice. In addition to this, I actually – believe it or not – miss cutting weight. I get downright nostalgic about it, and I feel that it is an essential part of any sport with a weight class. I absolutely oppose efforts to eliminate weight cutting as I feel they reward people who simply don’t want to put forth that extra bit of effort; they encourage laziness. At the same time, certain efforts to limit weight cutting may be beneficial – I definitely support more education about healthy weight cutting. I think that efforts to eliminate weight cutting are examples of the disintegration of our collective social respect for sacrifice and arête. Sometimes excellence involves redemptive suffering.”

I agree. While I may not encourage people to practice Power’s methods of weight cutting and re-hydration, I think he has a point about sacrifice. The majority of fighters, those who truly take the sport seriously, sacrifice a great deal to get where they are at and that sacrifice should not be lessened by a competitor who did not take things as seriously as they.

Due to that, while I am not in favor of same-day weigh-ins or the idea of fighters competing at their walking weight, I am absolutely in favor of higher penalties for fighters who miss weight. Awarding a larger percentage of their total purse to their opponents and perhaps even license suspension if they miss weight so many times within a specified time frame would both be acceptable penalties. As it stands, the forfeiting of a certain percentage of a fighter’s purse is a decent sanction, but I think it lacks the deterrent factor necessary to make fighters really not want to miss weight. A regulation that would prevent the fighter from fighting at all if they were a certain number of pounds over the allowed weight sounds nice in principle, as it would have a huge deterrent factor, but this would also penalize the fighter who did make weight as they would not have a chance to compete in the fight they had been training for and likely missed out on a chance to compete for more money in the form of a win bonus or even one of the famous “Of the Night” bonuses.

However, in spite of any deterrent factor, money issue, or various weight class structures, the paramount issue is clearly fighter safety and in addition to the fact I have never had to cut weight, I also do not have a medical degree or any medical training besides general first aid and CPR. Clearly not expert in the medical field, I sought one out. FightTicker.com contributor, medical expert and MMA enthusiast Dr. Johnny Benjamin readily agreed to answer a few questions I had.

FightTicker: First, what are your views on weight cutting? Do you view it as an acceptable (or necessary evil) part of sports like MMA, or do you think competitors should be monitored throughout the year so they must compete at something more like their walking-around weight?

Dr. Johnny Benjamin: Weight cutting continues to be a reality in MMA. For obvious reasons, if on fight night one is significantly larger than their opponent they have manipulated the rules to create an advantage.

FT: One of the most popular methods of weight-cutting involves massive dehydration, through excessive cardio workouts, the use of a sauna or sauna suit and various other means – what are some of the dangers associated with these processes?

Dr. Benjamin: Massive and rapid dehydration places a significant burden on the kidneys. There have been numerous cases of athletes going into kidney failure from this very practice.

FT: What are some potential problems that could arise from improper RE-hydration?

Dr. Benjamin: Rapidly dehydrating then rehydrating the body is a potential recipe for disaster, especially in kids. Serious kidney injury and electrolyte imbalances leading to cardiac arrythmias (serious abnormal heart beats) have lead to sudden deaths in otherwise fit young athletes.

FT: Based on your extensive medical knowledge, is there one method of weight-cutting that you feel is safer than others?

Dr. Benjamin: Every fighter says “I done this millions of times” and “I know my body” just before they pass out praying that someone finds them and calls 911. Rapid weight cutting is dangerous period…just because you’ve done it before and gotten away with it does not guarantee that you will be so luck next time.

FT: A number of MMA critics have opined that there should be more weight classes in MMA, lessening the divide between the different classes (like in boxing). First, what are your thoughts on this in general? Second, what kind of difference (if any) do you think this will make?

Dr. Benjamin: MMA doesn’t need more weight classes. It just needs to adequately monitor the ones that exist. If fighters were required to step on an official scale 30 and 15 days prior to fight date and be no more than 5% and 2% respectively overweight, then you would have adequate enforcement that protected the safety of the athletes and integrity of the system.

FT: After his loss to Dan Hardy at UFC 95 in London, Rory Markham claimed that he had suffered a collapsed lung prior to the fight – a condition his camp blamed, at least in part, to a very hard weight cut. Is suffering a collapsed lung from cutting weight possible? Is it probable?

Dr. Benjamin: Without proper hydration the body loses tissue pressure called turgor and extreme potentially life-threatening organ system failures can occur.

Weight cutting is similar to riding a motorcycle. Ask anyone who’s been riding for years and they can give you a story about a crash or a near miss that they will never forget. Ask any elite level wrestler and if they are honest they have had a similar experience with weight cutting.

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So there you have it – Installment 2 in the books. Since we have a number of fighters and active competitors on the site, I would love to hear from you guys on your thoughts - what methods do you use to cut weight? Have you ever suffered any ill effects?

Until then - Thanks for coming along for the ride – again.

-PreView

(Originally posted on FightTicker.com)

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