The dangers of weight-cutting in MMA: do we need an outright ban?

Published 05 July 2018 | Authored by: Jacob Debets

After UFC Fight Night 130, a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event that took place on 27 May 2018 at the Echo Arena in Liverpool, it was revealed that headliner Darren “The Gorilla” Till had temporarily gone blind the day1 before the fight whilst attempting to cut up to 40lbs over the course of 48 hours. Two weeks later at UFC 225 in Chicago, Illinois, footage emerged2 of number #1 middleweight contender Yoel Romero needing the assistance of two men to walk after failing to make weight for his championship bout opposite Robert Whittaker.

This article examines extreme weight cutting in MMA competition and the legal and regulatory dimensions of this practice.

  • It first provides a brief description and history of weight cutting in combat sports, which originated in the organisation of weight classes to promote fair competition.

  • It then sets out the scale of extreme weight cutting in professional MMA, focusing on recent case studies in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the dynamics of the MMA landscape that inform the pervasiveness and risks of this practice.

  • It then note attempts by athletic commissions and individual promotions to address the practice, and the significant obstacles faced by policymakers in developing and implementing safe and uniform reforms.

  • Finally, it makes the case for banning extreme weight cutting in MMA, and examines the means, however improbable, by which this reform might come about.

ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF WEIGHT CUTTING

Since as far back the nineteenth century, combat sports (boxing, judo, wrestling etc), have divided their competitors into weight classes in order to preserve fairness between athletes by matching opponents of equal stature and body mass.3 As these sports evolved to become more professionalised and commercialised, the practice of weight cutting – where athletes dehydrate themselves (or “dry out”) to the lightest weight possible before rehydrating by the time they need to compete –4 became more common, as athletes sought to gain a size-advantage over their opponents. Extreme or rapid weight losses is characterised by:

"the reduction of a significant amount of body weight (typically 2–10 %, although larger reductions are often seen) in a few days prior to weigh-in (mostly in the last 2–3 days) achieved by a combination of methods that include starvation, severe restriction of fluid intake and intentional sweating."5

Unsurprisingly, the relatively limited research on rapid weight cutting has underlined its risks to athletes’ long and short-term health and to a lesser extent the effects it may have on athletic performance.6 Amongst the injuries and ailments athletes make themselves more susceptible to are, in the short term, hyperthermia, bone loss, infections associated with suppression of immune functions, reduced kidney function, decreased heart and cardiovascular function and increased risk of brain injury.7 In the long-term, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain have been associated with liver and kidney damage and enhanced subsequent weight gain (potentially predisposing the athlete to obesity later in life).8

These risks – and concerns to maintain competitive balance between athletes– have, historically, been the subject of significant controversy, and a number of stakeholders have made attempts to mitigate or prohibit extreme weight cutting in their respective sports.

In 1998 for example, following the death of three wrestlers who passed away attempting to cut weight, The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) introduced rules9 banning the use of saunas, rubber suits and diuretics to cut weight and today the NCAA exercises considerable oversight10 to ensure that athletes compete in weight classes based on their body-makeup.

Likewise, a number of different mechanisms have been introduced into professional boxing to minimise the practice of extreme weight cutting over the years. This includes:

  • The availability of a high number of different weight classes (17), which gives athletes more choice over the optimum weight to compete at (the implication being that where there are less weight classes, athletes will naturally gravitate towards the lightest possible).

  • Restrictions on how much weight athletes can put back on between the weigh in and competition (for example, in International Boxing Federation title fights).11

  • Efforts by regulators to educate athletes and trainers12 on ideal weight cutting practices.

Finally, in horse-racing, which requires jockeys to maintain a certain weight year round in order to qualify for major races,13 regulators (such as the British Horse Racing Authority14) have spearheaded research and education-related projects to challenge the dangerous weight-cutting culture and provide better oversight and support services to athletes.

EXTREME WEIGHT CUTTING IN MMA

The modern era of MMA started in 1993 with the launch of the UFC’s inaugural tournament event in Denver, Colorado. Originally structured as an open weight competition, with competitors in the first tournament ranging from 180lbs to over 400lbs,15 the promotion split fighters into two divisions (lightweight for fighters below 200lbs and heavyweight for everyone else) in 1997. As the sport evolved, MMA began recognising additional weight classes, and today the UFC divides its male fighters amongst eight weight classes and female fighters amongst four weight classes.16

Due to a combination of circumstances, extreme weight cutting has proven to be more prevalent in MMA relative to its counterparts,17 and has led to the deaths of multiple combatants.18 A recent study of 1051 athletes from different combat sports disciplines published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance for example found that MMA athletes "lost a significantly greater magnitude of weight" compared to athletes in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai/kickboxing, taekwondo and wrestling and highlighted a "prevalence of acute dehydration strategies" which contributed to a "concerning weight loss culture" in the sport.19 A 2016 study of MMA fighters in the UK reached a similar conclusion, finding ‘the magnitude and methods of rapid weight loss [in MMA] are comparable to those associated with previous fatalities" (my emphasis).20

Though there is a dearth of research into the reasons for the higher incidence of extreme weight cutting in MMA, one commonly cited cause is the long recovery window between when athletes have to weigh in and when they need to compete.21 In contrast to many combat sports in the Olympics, where athletes have as little as three hours to “fill back out” after depleting their bodies to make weight,22 MMA athletes competing in the United States have since 2016 had as much as 32 hours.23 This has created a perverse incentive for many athletes to undertake life-threatening weight cuts in order to gain significant competitive advantage over their opponent, in the belief they will not impair their athletic performance on fight day. The aforementioned Till appeared to confirm the above in an interview in early 2018, stating somewhat provocatively:

I ain’t no welterweight [170lbs]. I’m a light heavyweight [205lbs] in the welterweight division. It should be illegal what I’m doing. The UFC should ban it.24

The small number of weight classes in MMA (eight compared to 17 in boxing) is also a reason many athletes choose to make a risky cut and compete in a lighter weight class, rather than fight in a higher weight division where they will be at a size disadvantage.25

Finally, the dynamics of the MMA business also contribute to the pervasiveness and hazards of extreme weight cutting. Large promotions like the UFC, Bellator and Invicta frequently have to put together “late replacement” fights due to injury, often recruiting unsigned fighters who are willing to cut weight on short notice for their opportunity to compete in the “big show”. Example of this are provided by Andrew Todhunter, a welterweight who was given two weeks notice to compete at a UFC event in Mexico City in 2015, and lost consciousness while attempting to cut up to 38 pounds26; and the more recent case of Craig White, who cut an astonishing 46 pounds in two weeks27 to compete on the UFC Fight Night 130 card mentioned above, where he was knocked out in the first round.

ADDRESSING THE DANGERS OF EXTREME WEIGHT CUTTING THROUGH REGULATORY REFORM: EARLY INITIATORS & OBSTACLES

Despite the omnipresent risks associated with weight cutting in MMA, and concerns expressed by promotions and athletic commissions for athletes’ health and safety, progress towards legal reform in this space – by outright banning, or significantly curtailing the practice of extreme weight cutting – has thus far been more smoke than fire. Two of the major exceptions to this have been the reforms adopted by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) and the Singapore-based ONE Championship promotion, which are summarised below.

CSAC’s ten-point reform, which was introduced in May 2017, focuses primarily on preventing athletes from cutting weight by severe hydration.28 Amongst its prescriptions, which apply to all professional MMA fighters competing in California, are:

  • greater medical scrutiny of athletes’ ability to cut to the desired weight class before issuing a license;

  • the introduction of additional weight classes (165lbs, 175lbs, 195lbs and 225lbs);29

  • weight class restrictions for fighters who miss weight more than once (i.e. they are required to compete in a higher weight class); and

  • weight checks” 30 days and 10 days before the official weight to ensure athletes are meeting appropriate benchmarks (restricted to title fights).

ONE Championship went further in January 2016. In response to the death of flyweight fighter Yang Jian Bing,30 who passed away while cutting weight in preparation for his fight at ONE Championship 35 in the Philippines, the promotion banned weight cutting via dehydration and put in place a slew of rigorous monitoring mechanisms including random weight checks and gravity hydration tests.31 Athletes competing under the ONE Championship banner are now assigned weight classes based on collated data and random checks, and fights between athletes with a 5% weight discrepancy are banned.

Despite these long overdue changes, their efficacy is limited due to the fragmented nature of combat sports regulation,32 which distributes responsibility between athletic commissions and promotions for athlete health and safety according to the jurisdiction in which they operate. 33 In the United States for example, state commissions apply varying degrees of oversight of MMA events depending on their individual resources, priorities and state regulations;34 and though there have been efforts towards greater centralisation in recent decades reflected in the establishment of the Association of Boxing Commissions, this entity wields no real power and has thus far failed to bring about uniformity in other areas, such as the unified rules of MMA. The situation is even more precarious in countries where MMA is unsanctioned or which lack a dedicated athletic commission, such as the UK or Japan.35

The result is a twofold shirking of accountability. Athletic commissions – especially those with limited funding– can reasonably plead poverty when it comes to initiating more proactive and resource-intensive reforms such as those instituted by CSAC, while promotions such as the UFC can maintain that weight-cutting reform is outside their scope of responsibility as a private business.36 The lack of any litigation in this space establishing a duty of care,37 and the limited precedential value of such a case given the nature of state regulation,38 works to preserve this status quo; the only losers are the athletes.

PREVENTING TRAGEDY: BANNING EXTREME WEIGHT CUTTING

Despite the above-mentioned impediments, a consensus is emerging amongst experts regarding the unsustainability of extreme weight cutting in the world’s “fastest growing sport”.39 This practice not only represents serious health risks to athletes, but also fundamentally subverts the logic of maintaining weight classes to preserve fairness between athletes; fighters seeking an evenly matched contest against an opponent of similar body type are now effectively forced to drop to a much lower weight division, creating a race to the bottom and making a notoriously volatile sport that much more dangerous.

Below, I discuss the possible approaches to banning extreme weight cutting in the United States, where the majority of MMA bouts take place, before briefly considering reform in other jurisdictions.

Banning Extreme Weight Cutting in the United States

In terms of executing a ban in the United States, there are two approaches that have a reasonable prospect of success.

The first is that the UFC follow One Championship’s lead and prevents its athletes from dehydrating themselves before a fight via random, year-round weight checks and other monitoring mechanisms, to be codified and enforced as an extension of their contractual relationship40. As the market leader of the MMA industry and in control of up to 90% of the promotional market with over 500 fighters under contract,41 the UFC is the only entity with both the resources to implement such a strategy safely and effectively and the political and cultural capital to persuade other promotions to do the same. The UFC has already taken initiative by recently announcing it will work with athletic commissions to reduce the window between weigh ins and competing from 32 to 24 hours;42 and given the promotion implemented a comprehensive Performance Enhancing Drug regime in 201543 (another area that is traditionally the domain of athletic commissions), it’s not inconceivable they would take similar initiative with respect to weight cutting. Considering the enormous financial and reputational costs the UFC has been burdened with as a result of fighters missing weight (6.4% of fights promoted by the company between 3 June 2016 and 31 May 2018 have been affected by missed weight cuts including three title fights in the past four months),44 it might even make economic sense.

The second, albeit less probable, approach is for targeted weight cutting measures to be included in proposed Federal legislation aiming to increase regulatory oversight of the MMA industry and subject promoters and athletic commissions to the same standards as those that apply in boxing. HR 44, a bill to amend the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 199645 (PBSA) to include a definition of “fighter” that encompasses “an individual who fights in professional mixed martial arts competition” was re-introduced into the US Congress on 1 January 2017 by representative Markwayne Mullin. Because the provisions pertaining to safety standards have for the most part been implemented by states acting independently,46 the primary protections the statute would provide are economic safeguards contained in the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act,47 a supplementary piece of legislation that was passed in 2000. As has been proposed in Bellator MMA’s submission to Congress in relation to HR 44 and increased federal scrutiny of the MMA industry, the legislation grants an opportunity to create and enforce preventions on extreme weight cutting, in addition to other protections such as those addressing the risks of Traumatic Brain Injury.48 Amendments to the legislation could for example require that promoters ensure athletes do not partake in extreme weight cutting, to be verified by hydration tests and other monitoring mechanisms, as a condition to being granted a promoter’s licence in the state they are operating.

Banning Extreme Weight Cutting in Other Jurisdictions

Given that many countries do not presently sanction or regulate MMA, it is much too early to be discussing the legal means by which a ban on extreme weight cutting might be implemented on any kind of global scale. This qualification notwithstanding, some general observations follow about how this issue might be agitated in different jurisdictions:

  • Where MMA is currently regulated (such as in Australia, Sweden and Brazil), state and federal parliaments should work cooperatively to create uniform prohibitions on extreme weight cutting to be administered on national basis, in consultation with athletes, promotions and other stakeholders. Uniformity is important to prevent the possibility of athletes and promoters "forum-shopping" (i.e. fighting and putting on events in the state with the least onerous regulations), especially if these prohibitions impose costs on these parties.

 

  • The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), an entity which advocates for regional, national and global recognition for the sport of MMA and works with regulators, promotions and gyms to develop uniform rules, safety regulations and other forms of architecture legitimizing and popularising the sport, will need to front and centre in promoting dialogue amongst stakeholders about the best way to address and mitigate extreme weight cutting. This should include making the risks and prevalence of extreme weight cutting in MMA known to governments and regulators when they consider whether or not to sanction MMA in their respective jurisdictions.

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About the Author

Jacob Debets

Jacob Debets

Jacob is a freelance writer and recent JD graduate from Melbourne Law School. He will be commencing as a trainee lawyer in 2019 for Arnold Bloch Leibler, in their Workplace Advisory team. In the interim, he is working on a book analysing the economic relationship between the UFC and its athletes, as well as academic papers on the influence of technology on legal education, and the labour dimensions of the "gig economy". You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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