By Christopher Kirk
There are many similarities and differences between the varied combat sports: some use strikes, some don’t; some aim to get points by controlling the opponent or pinning them; some attempt to manipulate joints to bring about a submission; and one does all of the above. The common thread that runs through all combat sports, however, is weight cutting. The ritual of reducing a fighter’s weight to ensure they are big enough to compete physically in their bout is as old as organised combat sport itself. So ingrained is the notion of making weight that it is now part of the pomp and ceremony of both MMA and boxing, forming a key part of both sport’s promotional activities. Recent times, however, have seen rising concerns about the practice, with governing and sanctioning bodies working with researchers and fight teams to better understand the outcomes of regular weight cutting on performers. So how does weight cutting affect MMA athletes, and to what extent is it used in our sport?
Research led by Dr Oliver Barley at Edith Cowan University (see Table 1) found that MMA fighters not only cut more weight than athletes in other related combat sports, but they cut more in the 24 hours before weigh-in through a process called ‘rapid weight loss’. Alarmingly, even the most amount of weight cut by athletes in the other sports is not as great as the amount regularly cut in MMA. The reason for the final 24 hours of a weight cut being called ‘rapid’ weight loss is because of the dehydration methods used in this time-period which are designed to ensure a lot of weight is lost quickly. 76% of MMA fighters reported using saunas to cut weight, compared to only 36-51% of fighters in other combat sports. Use of sweat suits is also more common in MMA with 63% of fighters using these, with 16-50% use in the other sports. The only combat sport that reported a greater use of sweat suits than MMA was wrestling with 83% of these athletes using this method. Importantly though, wrestlers appear to use this method to cut far less weight than MMA fighters, suggesting far less dehydration before competition. Roughly half also reported restricting eating, either skipping 1-2 meals per day or fasting the entire day. In addition to being dehydrated, this food restriction potentially leaves MMA athletes susceptible to eating disorders in the long term and low energy availability in the short term.
|Table 1 – Comparison of weight cutting in MMA and related combat sports|
|Sport||Weight usually cut (kg)||Weight cut in 24Hrs before weigh-in (kg)||Weight regained post-competition (kg)||Most weight cut (kg)|
|BJJ||4.2 ± 2.6||1.4 ± 1.4||3.2 ± 2.3||6.7 ± 4.6|
|Boxing||5.3 ± 2.9||1.8 ± 2.1||4 ± 2.5||8.5 ± 4.8|
|Judo||3.8 ± 2.1||1.5 ± 1.1||3.1 ± 2||8.1 ± 8.2|
|Muay Thai||5.9 ± 3.5||2 ± 1.2||4.6 ± 3||6.9 ± 3.5|
|Wrestling||4.4 ± 3.7||2.3 ± 1.5||4.4 ± 2.4||7.1 ± 4.2|
|MMA||9.8 ± 7.9||3.4 ± 1.9||7.8 ± 3.7||10.4 ± 4.2|
So, we can see that weight cutting in MMA is common practice and more extreme than in related sports. But do we know what effects this might have on the athlete’s health? Dr Andreas Kasper of Liverpool John Moores University studied a professional MMA fighter during their full training camp, tracking their weight loss and physiological responses to the methods used. Over 8 weeks, this fighter lost 17kg, with 7kg being lost in a rapid fashion 36 hours before weigh in. This caused a severe reduction in their testosterone production with a sharp increase in cortisol, suggesting their body was consuming muscle mass for energy – not ideal the day prior to elite sports performance. This fighter also experienced a large increase in both urea and creatinine in their blood, indicative of kidney malfunction, in addition to an extremely high blood sodium content. These findings would give cause to enter the fighter into a hospital bed rather than a professional MMA bout. It’s highly unlikely that this is an isolated incident either, with 43% of athletes at a UK MMA event found to be severely dehydrated prior to competition with their hydration and weight loss readings similar to those reported in weight cutting fatalities in collegiate wrestling in the 1990’s. Tellingly, it was these tragic events that led to widespread rule and culture changes within that sport. In MMA we currently have two fighter deaths formally linked to weight cutting in medical case reports, but Erik Magraken’s website (link below) includes a continuously updated list of fights cancelled due to weight cutting as well as of numerous fighter deaths where an extreme amount of weight cutting occurred.
A final, vital point to make in this article is that this practice does not seem to lead to better results in competition. Earlier this year my colleagues (Dr Carl Langan-Evans and Professor James Morton) and I published a study using California State Athletic Commission data which showed that there is no difference between winners or losers in terms of the amount of weight regained or how much they weighed when they stepped into the cage. This data also showed that fighters at featherweight and below actually enter the cage weighing close to 2 divisions heavier than their official weight. Athletes at lightweight and above competed weighing at close to the limit of 1 full division heavier. This not only calls into question the legitimacy of weight divisions in the first place, but also suggests that if all fighters reduced the amount of weight they cut by roughly half, they would still be facing the same opponents, just without the damaging effects of an extreme weight cut in the days before the bout. Grant Brechney and team of Charles Stuart University found a similar result in Australia, only this time the bout losers actually cut more weight than the bout winners.
In summary, we can see that weight cutting in MMA is far more severe than in related combat sports, likely causing a great deal of harm to the athletes and probably not providing any real performance advantage. Importantly for IMMAF members, we currently do not know how extreme weight cutting is amongst amateur fighters during tournaments, nor do we fully understand the effects of multiple weigh ins during a single week of competition. As a sport and as a community it is vital that we work to change the culture of MMA to better control the severity of weight cutting, starting with the amateur ranks through to the professionals. This will enable our athletes to perform to a higher standard, with longer careers and – most importantly – healthier lives during their time as athletes and after retirement. Only through a concerted joint effort between IMMAF, coaches, fighters and researchers can we make these changes for the good of all involved.
Chris is a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology at Sheffield Hallam University and a PhD Researcher at Liverpool John Moores University. He specialises in the physiological effects of combat sport training and performance, and how to best prepare combat sport athletes for competition, with his main focus being MMA.
Barley, O. R., Chapman, D. W. & Abbiss, C. R. (2018). Weight Loss Strategies in Combat Sports and Concerning Habits in Mixed Martial Arts. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 1–24.
Brechney, G. C., Chia, E. & Moreland, A. T. (2019). Weight-cutting implications for competition outcomes in mixed martial arts cage fighting. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
Kasper, A. M., Crighton, B., Langan-Evans, C., Riley, P., Sharma, A., Close, G. L. & Morton, J. P. (2018). Case Study: Extreme Weight Making Causes Relative Energy Deficiency, Dehydration and Acute Kidney Injury in a Male Mixed Martial Arts Athlete. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 1–20.
Kirk, C., Langan-Evans, C. & Morton, J. (2020). Worth the weight? Post weigh-in rapid weight gain is not related to winning or losing in professional mixed martial arts. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 30(5). doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2019-0347
Magraken, E. (2014). Documenting the tolls of extreme weight cuts in MMA (updated regularly). Retrieved 28–6, 2018, from http://combatsportslaw. com/2014/09/03/yes-athletes-have-been-hurt-from-weight-cutting-in-mma/
Matthews, J. J. & Nicholas, C. (2017). Extreme rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain observed in UK mixed martial arts athletes preparing for competition. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 27(2), 122–129.
Murugappan, K. R., Cocchi, M. N., Bose, S., Neves, S. E., Cook, C. H., Sarge, T., … Leibowitz, A. (2018). Case study: Fatal exertional rhabdomyolysis possibly related to drastic weight cutting. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 28(4), 1–16.