Bryony Tyrell continues her examination of one of the most controversial and dangerous aspects of MMA as fighters continue to throw themselves in harm’s way in pursuit of making weight.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing – if only I’d done this, if only I’d done that… but by that point it’s always too late. It’s been exactly four weeks since my fight against Kate Jackson and it feels like an eternity ago. As I had quite rightly speculated, my facial features did get a significant battering leaving me with one of the most impressive black eyes I’ve seen to date. In fact it wasn’t just my face, throughout the course of the fight I took relentless elbows and punches to my face and head. Having not been subjected to ground and pound before I can actually say it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I just kept thinking “oh dear, my Mum’s watching this”.

What I can say with complete honesty is that the weight cutting ordeal is far more unpleasant than being battered in the head for 10 minutes and probably just as good for you! Having said that I was fine, apart from sporting a black eye that resembled something out of The Walking Dead of course! I did also lose my title, but to a better and more experienced fighter so I take no shame in that. I’m sure in many cases the weight cut could be a contributing factor to losing a fight, it’s a fine balancing act getting it right. I’m afraid I can’t put the blame on that for my loss though – I actually found this weight cut the easiest so far. I dieted off 2.5kgs and dehydrated 3kgs in water and, although it was horrible, it’s nowhere near as extreme as other weight cuts I’ve seen.

I also felt strong and fit in the fight which is probably the only reason I made it to the third round before succumbing to a referee stoppage… a very wise and fair decision given the swelling around my eye.

Even though I don’t cut a large amount of weight I still find it extremely unpleasant and, in all honestly, a complete farce. No one actually fights at what they weigh in at. I weighed in at 52.2kgs and went into the fight at 58kgs – that’s heavier than my walking weight! I resent going through a month of dieting which impacts on my concentration, makes me irritable and obsessive about food and zaps the enjoyment out of training, just to go into the fight heavier than I started. It’s crazy and pointless. We all have lives outside fighting and this has a hugely negative impact on not only our health, but on everything and everyone around us. On top of that, dehydration increases the likelihood of brain injury from repeated head shots like I experienced.

Following the fight comes the two week binge of any unhealthy, fatty, sugary substance that I can get my hands on – eating until I feel sick, then eating more. The pre-fight deprivation gives rise to an unstoppable craving that is not easily satisfied. With that comes the weight gain and a perpetual cycle of yoyo dieting familiar to many fighters.

image copyright Tom Lindsall

An excellent documentary about weight cutting, currently available on BBC iPlayer The Weight Cut: Extreme Weight Loss, tells the story of fighter Dean Garnett going through his weight cut for Bellator 158. It shows him dehydrating off 7kgs in less than 24hrs to ensure he hits his weight division. He alternates between a salt bath and the sauna throughout the night and at times he’s so weak he can hardly stand. Researcher, Ben Crighton, followed Dean on his weight cutting journey. Although Dean makes weight and is medically cleared to fight, blood tests taken as part of Ben’s research show that he has raised kidney and liver enzymes. This is an indicator that he is causing potential long term damage to these vital organs. After the weigh in, he rehydrates and goes into the fight at his walking weight. To people outside the sport this seems like madness, but for many fighters this is “just part of the sport” and a widely accepted practice. Currently, UK MMA has no regulatory body that ensures the safety and well-being of athletes and events are not covered by formal anti-doping procedures. There have been calls from organisations including the Association of Ringside Physicians for this to change. The following recommendations have been suggested by Ben and his team, following a study they carried out looking at weight cutting behaviours in MMA athletes:

  • Introduction of more weight classes.
  • Maximal weight gain allowance after official weigh ins.
  • Hydration testing at weigh ins.
  • Anti-doping procedures for domestic championship bouts in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
  • Coach and athlete education programs to help athletes make weight safely. (Crighton et al, 2016)

In the interests of health, no athlete should be encouraged to cut weight quickly in order to compete in a lower weight class. Even if performance is not affected it may risk long term harm to vital organs. If weight loss is necessary it should be done gradually over a number of weeks. Athletes should aim to lose fat rather than muscle, and body fat composition should not drop below 5% for men and 12% for women. Management procedures to avoid rapid weight loss have already been successfully implemented in some areas of wrestling competition following recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine (Emmerson, 2012). After the tragic loss of Yan Jian Bing as a result of extreme dehydration, the One Championship also introduced procedures to regulate weight cutting in MMA.

Many athletes, including myself, came into this sport with no knowledge that extreme weight cutting even exists. It is a taught behaviour that is drilled into us as part of the process of fighting. The more you see people around you doing it and the more you yourself do it, the more ‘normal’ it seems and it just becomes accepted as something you have to do in order to compete…but what happens when someone you know get’s hospitalised with kidney failure or, worse still, one of your training partners is found dead in the sauna? The stark reality of their needless death will hit you like a baseball bat to the face and you will wake up to the dangerous culture you’ve bought into and accepted.

No sport is worth dying for, it is not acceptable for even one person to die doing this, but still it continues. Just this weekend two fights were pulled from the UFC due to fighters not being medically fit. One of the fighters struggled to remove his T-shirt at the weigh in because he was so weak and even then he hadn’t made the weight. Just weeks before, the co-main event had to be cancelled due to one of the athletes being hospitalised for weight cutting complications. If this is happening at the top level, where fighters have a team of advisors, just imagine what’s happening on the domestic scene where these practises are largely unsupervised. Rapid weight loss meets all three of the World Anti-doping Agency’s criteria to ban a substance or method from sport – potential to enhance sports performance, potential to risk an athletes health and violation of the spirit of the sport.

The One Championship acted immediately when their fighter died. In doing so they set the ball rolling for this practice to change and created an opportunity for an improvement in the safety of MMA athletes. They have set a precedent and other promotions have a responsibility to their athletes to follow suite.

“Wrong is still wrong, even if everyone is doing it” William Penn

References: Franchini et al; (2012). Weight loss in combat sports; physiological, psychological and performance effects. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Crighton et al; (2016). Alarming weight cutting behaviours in mixed martial arts: a cause for concern and a call for action. British Medical Journal Guilherme et al; (2016). It is Time to Ban Rapid Weight Loss from Combat Sports. Journal of Sports Medicine

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