Fri. Dec 9th, 2022

“Imagine walking in a desert and there’s a bottle of water you can open up at any time to stop the suffering you’re dealing with. You can stop at any time, but you’re making the decision to keep going forward.” The process of weight cutting, as described by 3x WEC lightweight champion and UFC veteran Gabriel Ruediger.

One of the most fundamental processes in the sport of mixed martial arts, weight cutting (or weight bullying as it’s sometimes known if taken to the extreme)  is something that nearly every fighter has subjected themselves to. It involves a fighter dehydrating their body as much as possible in order to make the designated weight for their bout. The primary reason they put themselves through this process is to gain as big a size advantage over their opponent as possible.

Despite the fact that it can be highly dangerous, it has remained common practice in the sport – with some fighters cutting up to 20-30lbs of weight within a day or two of the fight itself. They will often do this using saunas, sweat suits and hot baths to drain as much water from their bodies as possible. If successful in making weight, they will then proceed to rehydrate to a more natural weight ahead of their fight the following day. This however, does not mean the weight cut will not take its toll.

Dr Anthony G. Alessi, MD, talking to ESPN in 2016 described it as a “dirty little secret” going on in front of our eyes. Kidney failure, increased vulnerability to concussion, haemorrhage and tearing to the brain all listed as possible side effects. 

In order to get a first-hand idea of why athletes cut weight, I spoke to former pro MMA fighter and C&C Management’s Randy Campbell about his experience with the matter. He told me that he had already started preparing for the next cut for his bare knuckle boxing debut months in advance. Anticipating that he would have to shed around 30lbs between then and fight-week, he had started a keto diet for the first time. A diet focusing on consuming healthy fats and lean proteins whilst cutting out nearly all carbohydrates, keto diets force the body to burn fats instead of carbs and have become popular with the general population and fighters alike.

During the interview I asked Randy why he thought fighters are not fighting closer to their natural walk-around weights, to which he replied:

“I really think the decision to cut weight stems from the belief that your opponent is cutting weight as well. If I fought at the weight I’m at right now I know I’d be fighting guys that are walking around at 205+ lbs and that’s a big difference, especially in boxing or mixed martial arts.” 

He also added that it seems “a little absurd” to him that both he and the opponent for his upcoming bout have to cut weight for a singular day –  despite being “practically the same size” naturally. 

Bouncing between weights is common practice for fighters, however, and is not a mindset that will be changed easily. One suggestion he has for solving this issue is same day weigh-ins which he thinks “wouldn’t be a bad idea’ for organisations to implement, wherein fighters would have to weigh in the day of the fight itself as opposed to the day before, decreasing the opportunity for weight bullying.

Former middleweight title-challenger Paulo “Borrachinha” Costa is a prime example of what many would consider to be a ‘weight bully’. Predominantly fighting at 185lbs, Costa is yet to officially miss weight in his ongoing UFC career, although he has to change weight-classes at the last minute to avoid this happening. When facing Yoel Romero at UFC 241, Costa notoriously stepped into the Octagon at a staggering 213.8lbs – almost 29lbs heavier than the weight class he’s supposedly meant to be fighting at. This has led to accusations of weight bullying by the media and fighters alike.

Paulo Costa at the UFC 253 weigh-ins. Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Further insight was provided to me provided by former WEC champion and 3x UFC fighter Gabriel Ruediger who told me that weight bullies in the sport of MMA exist “without question”. 

Ruediger believes that the main reason fighters cut weight is in an attempt to gain any advantage they can over the opponent standing in front of them. 

“I think with any type of sport – especially when it’s based around weight classes, people are going to do whatever they can to get ahead”. He continued on to say that “Everyone is going to look for every advantage possible and let’s be honest, size does matter.”

When asked about the gruelling weight-cut he went through on The Ultimate Fighter 5, the veteran told me that he got down to 158lbs before his body just “stopped working”. He experienced delirium and stopped sweating on multiple occasions, rendering him unable to shed the last 3lbs needed. The cut took such a strain on Ruediger that he could barely remember any of it afterwards.

“I had to watch the actual show before I got to remember falling off the bike in the sauna. The only thing I really remember is the doctor giving me 4 IVs and calling me an idiot for trying to cut whilst I was on antibiotics”. 

“It’s very mentally challenging. It mentally breaks a lot of people and for me it physically broke me”. 

This experience led him to change the way he would go on to cut weight for the rest of his career. Future bouts would see ‘Godzilla’  cut a maximum of 10lbs for a fight. 

Gabriel Ruediger makes weight for his fight at UFC 118. Photo: Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner

Now coaching at his own gym Kaiju MMA and Fitness in California, he believes that he now possesses a far greater understanding of how weight cutting works, especially when he compares it to when he started out.

“I started in kind of like the dark ages of MMA. The way we used to cut weight was putting on trash bags and run then get in and spend hours in the sauna. Go and buy albolene at the local grocery store and slather your body. I didn’t understand the science of it. It was a timeframe when we didn’t have nutritionists and strength and conditioning people. We were kind of on our own in a lot of ways.”

He now uses the understanding he has gained through his career to help his own fighters.

“When you actually put the science into it, things become easier and you understand things better”.

Now, within the week of their fights he attempts to get his fighters within 10lbs of  the weight they need to compete at. If they weigh anything more than that he added, “I think they’ve f*cked up well before”.

“I used to cut weight by killing myself. You can still cut 10lbs without depleting yourself where it’s going to affect your performance.”

Later in the interview he commented on the UFCs banning of IV lines for rehydration after weight cuts, a change that happened back in 2015. After partnering with USADA (U.S Anti Doping Agency), use of IV lines containing more than 50ml of saline were disallowed by the organisation.

“I also feel like certain things like taking IV lines away is more of a detriment. If you’re not going to change the way weight-cut happens and allow people to cut mass amounts of weight, then why take away one of the things that can make them safer?”. 

One of the final questions I put forward was whether or not it was possible to make fighters compete at weight classes closer to their natural weights, to which he concluded “What we try to do and what will be done are two very different things”.  Going on to say that he does not think there’s a “clear cut” way of making it better at this current time. 

Attempting to change attitudes towards weight cutting in MMA is something that would require a monumental amount of time and collective effort. Standing in the way of safer weight cutting practices is both the hunger of fighters looking for an advantage and willingness of organisations to let fighters balloon back up in weight after the weigh-ins. 

Only last May did UFC welterweight contender Geoff ‘Handz of Steel’ Neal admit to cutting 37lbs within a week in the run up to UFC Vegas 26, after health complications arose from a case of sepsis last year. To call the culture of weight cutting unhealthy would be an understatement, and with a seemingly increasing number of fighters running into trouble when cutting weight – now is the time to encourage change within the community. Something as simple as introducing same day weigh-ins (the same system used in NCAA wrestling) would be a step in the right direction in regards to altering these aforementioned attitudes. A massive change like this is something that organisations such as the UFC would have to take, as opposed to the fighters themselves. Not only for betterment of their fighters health and safety, but also the legitimacy of the weight class system in the sport itself.

By Ben Matthews

Aspiring journalist in the UK. Currently studying for a degree in Journalism and Publishing from BSU.