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As we approach the opening bell on another fight week for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, our focus should be on the skills of main event fighters Donald Cerrone and Leon Edwards, as they attempt to bump their names up the list of relevant welterweights. While we can debate the style matchup and expectations, based on the recent performances of “Cowboy” and “Rocky,” and speculate what the outcome of their fight means for the division -- not to mention the stakes for the rest of the 24 athletes scheduled to compete -- there will be more than enough attention devoted to the happenings on the scale before the first punch is thrown. We all get to the play the game of “Who’s Making Weight?” as dehydrated and weakened fighters flex for cameras with forced smiles and mean mugs. If you have been playing that game, there has been no shortage of action.
Weight-cutting issues have affected all but a handful of events for the UFC in recent years. Multiple main events have undergone last-minute changes and undercard fighters have either been dropped from the card or forced into taking on an opponent who did not meet the contracted requirements. In fact, it has happened so frequently that there have even been betting odds devoted to who will and won’t make the limit for their respective weight class.
Considering the dangerous and complicated nature of the weight cutting process itself, coupled with the likelihood of injuries sustained in training camps, traveling to event cities and stress related to competing at such a high level, it’s no surprise that there is a battle on the scale that many have lost before having the chance to battle in the cage. But what is a surprise is how inconsistent the UFC has been in handling this unfortunate trend. The world leader in MMA has been all over the board regarding this problem.
Ahead of UFC 199 at the Los Angeles Forum, the promotion thought it had found a reasonable solution. The official weigh-ins would happen the morning before the event, with fighters able to step on the scale at any time during a specific hours-long window. They could rehydrate ahead of ceremonial weigh-ins, where fighters would step onto a fake scale in front of fans in the televised spectacle we had grown accustomed to. Fighters would have longer to recover from the brutal process, fans could have the customary pre-event fun, and the UFC wouldn’t lose an opportunity to sell more merchandise to those in attendance while boosting visibility to their events. It appeared to be a win-win all around. The string of high-octane fights to follow, including UFC 199, only added to the appeal of this solution, as many theorized that the increased recovery time would help fighters sustain more damage and maintain a higher pace. Along with the banning of intravenous rehydration that took effect in conjunction with the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s partnership with UFC a year earlier, weight cutting had changed.
However, as missing weight became an even more common occurrence, and event schedules became increasingly compromised, it was clear another solution had to be found. Company president Dana White made waves last week with a decree that early morning weigh-ins would be done away with. According to White, a largely anonymous group of “a ton of fighters” believed that going back to the old system of a single afternoon weigh-in would be best. From his perspective and that of other UFC officials, going back to the original format makes good business sense: Far fewer fighters missed weight prior to the change. The flaw with this is twofold. First, it does nothing to address the dangerous culture of weight cutting. Second, it potentially penalizes the large majority of fighters who manage to make weight in favor of accommodating those who don’t.
To simply change weigh-in time is only a cosmetic alteration. The practice remains generally the same. Fighters must diet and dehydrate themselves in an unhealthy fashion in order to make a weight limit. After making that limit, they rehydrate to well above the contracted weight restriction, to face another fighter who has done the same. At the end of the process, the two opponents are usually around the same size, which completely negates the purpose of the weight cut. Moving the time around does not do anything toward correcting the lunacy of this long-established ritual. The culture remains, and athletes will continue depleting themselves, further risking their health.
Fighters seeking a competitive advantage have and will always bend the rules. This was no different for the early weigh-ins. With more time to recover, some chose to make their cuts more severe and ultimately failed to hit the mark. Reverting to the old rules only chops at those fighters’ bounce-back time in the hopes that the risks taken will be less extreme. For those who have managed their cuts and have had no real issues making weight, their recovery time is cut short as well, due to the actions of others. The non-offenders are essentially being punished to keep the offenders in check.
Looking at the results of some of these botched cuts raises even more questions regarding the prudence of how the UFC has handled these situations. For example, two of the highest profile missed marks on the scale this year, Darren Till and Mackenzie Dern, actually boosted the offenders’ careers. Dern’s seven additional pounds cost her 30 percent of her purse against Amanda Cooper. However, her quick submission victory maintained her undefeated record, while the UFC apparently thought she had earned a spot in the strawweight top 15 despite being closer to the flyweight limit. Similarly, Till earned a decision win over Stephen Thompson with the advantage of an additional 3.5 pounds. He too was fined for the infraction, but saw his official UFC ranking climb as well. Leslie Smith was recently let go after not fighting Aspen Ladd when Ladd couldn’t make the bantamweight limit. Yoel Romero was awarded a shot at the undisputed middleweight title after failing to make the championship limit of 185 pounds against Luke Rockhold for an interim belt. In what should have been a unification bout against Robert Whittaker at UFC 225, Romero again missed weight.
Fighters are getting mixed signals: Making weight is a fundamental part of my job. Missing weight gets me fined. If my opponent misses weight, maybe I can benefit from that financially, but they could have a physical advantage by not finishing their cut. If I don’t take the fight, the UFC will be pretty upset with me, but if I lose, my opponent still gets all the benefits of moving up the ladder. This places the athletes in extremely difficult “catch-22”situations, based on an archaic and unnecessarily dangerous ideology.
Instead of consulting with athletic commissions about moving around weigh-in times, the UFC should be figuring out how to change the system itself. The California State Athletic Commission, which initiated the early weigh-in experiment, has been implementing hydration tests leading up to events in order to ensure weight cuts are solely reliant on drastic dehydration and crash dieting. Those rehydration rules are what prevented Renan Barao from fighting Aljamain Sterling at 135 pounds at UFC 214 in Anaheim, CA; the contest was fought at a 140-pound catchweight instead.
The UFC’s own Performance Institute just released guidelines on what it considers a healthy weight cut. Instead of making superficial changes to the rules and rewarding those who break them anyway, it would be much wiser for the company to work with its state-of-the-art facility manned by well-educated health and fitness experts and regulatory bodies to come up with a solution to a problem that has existed for far too long. The goal should be shifting the paradigm and not just changing the subject.