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MMA notes: California State Athletic Commission looks to eliminate dangerous practice of cutting weight

April 9, 2017 GMT

A mixed martial arts fight is certainly dangerous, but the most clear and present danger to the athletes is cutting weight, a tortuous process of shedding water weight on the eve of a bout that can land fighters in the hospital and even claim lives.

Concerned about fighters entering the cage dehydrated, the UFC last summer pushed its afternoon weigh-ins to the morning, giving competitors more time to replenish fluids, but fighters have continued to push the limits. Many are convinced they’ll enter the cage at a size disadvantage of as much as 20 pounds.

Now, the California State Athletic Commission, which piloted early weigh-ins, is putting forward 10 policy changes to nudge fighters to compete closer to their natural weight and remove advantages aggressive cutters are afforded.

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The changes are expected to go before the Association of Boxing Commissions — a national sanctioning organization that covers MMA — at its annual convention in July at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

“Everybody should recognize that there’s a problem here, and it’s as prevalent as any problem in any sport has ever been,” said CSAC executive director Andy Foster, a former MMA fighter. “We really consider this a life or death issue in a lot of cases.”

Chinese flyweight Yang Jian Bing, 21, died in December 2015 of cardiopulmonary failure while cutting for a fight in the OneFC organization, and 32-year-old Leandro Souza died of a stroke prior to weighing in for the Shooto Brazil promotion. A relative reported Souza was taking diuretic pills to assist with the cut.

The UFC has seen its share of hospitalizations and fight cancellations due to botched weight cuts, and a harrowing video released by Cris “Cyborg” Justino of her extreme cut ahead of a fight last May shocked the conscience of MMA fans.

Cutting weight can put immense stress on the liver and kidneys, and doctors say dehydrated fighters are more vulnerable to brain injury.

Instances of fighters missing the mark in the UFC have actually gone up since early weigh-ins were introduced. Fighters missed weight on six of the first eight UFC cards this year, compared to only two of the first eight of 2016, according to a study by MMA journalist Mike Bohn.

But Foster said early weigh-ins have been a “wonderful thing” overall because they allow fighters more recovery time, and said that the proposed changes “complete the package” of shifts that will lead to healthier weight cuts. He speculated more fighters are missing weight at earlier weigh-ins because they’re having a harder time finding saunas that are open overnight to turbo-charge their water loss, a common practice.

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“You’ve had more people missing weight, I think that’s indicative of the fact that they’re not in their (correct) weight class,” Foster said. “It brought them out of the shadows. It showed who they were.”

Morning weigh-ins have become a high-drama occasion with fights hanging in the balance, including last night’s UFC light heavyweight title tilt between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson. Both fighters made weight at the last minute.

The UFC says morning weigh-ins are safer because athletes are depleted for shorter periods of time, have more time to ensure proper hydration and nutrition, spend less time cutting on weigh-in day, and it helps identify fighters with weight issues.

“The morning weigh-in has received overwhelming athlete support as a safer and more convenient event,” said Jeff Novitzky, UFC vice president of athlete health and performance, who worked closely with Foster in developing the 10-point plan.

Foster said a study he’s conducting of how much weight fighters are gaining between weigh-ins and fight night has produced “absolutely astonishing” results — 31 percent of 136 fighters studied gained more than 10 percent of their body weight back. To accomplish this, fighters aggressively eat and hydrate after stepping off the scale.

“If you’re in the right weight class, you shouldn’t have gained back more than 10 percent of your body weight overnight,” Foster said. “If we have 31 percent of any licensing population engaging in what our doctors consider to be unsafe activity, that’s a problem.”

Fighters often venture to lower weights to take advantage of last-minute openings on cards. The new guidelines require fighters to declare their lowest possible weight when they get licensed, and a fighter who misses weight more than once will be required to compete in a higher class until a physician certifies the fighter can healthily fight at the weight he or she failed to make.

“If somebody’s lowest weight class is certified at 155, I don’t want to see them going to 145,” Foster said. “There’s always an out. You can go get medical supervision, and if a doctor writes you a note (saying) this is OK for you to do, then certainly we’re not going to argue with doctors.”

The CSAC’s proposals also penalize fighters 20 percent of their win bonus for missing weight — not just their guaranteed “show money” — and stipulates fighters who gain more than 10 percent of their body weight back “may be recommended” to move up a class.

The changes also add new weight classes at 165, 175, 195 and 225 pounds. New classes allow fighters more options in competing closer to their natural weight, but have been frowned upon by promoters because they water down the prestige of existing titles.

Novitzky said the UFC “is in favor of more weight class choices for athletes.”

Asked if the company will add the new classes if the policy takes effect, Novitzky said, “The organization is always evaluating its talent pool, and the recent addition of UFC’s 145-pound women’s division is a perfect example of our willingness to address additional weight classes if the talent merits it.”

The CSAC initially proposed eliminating the longstanding 170-pound class, but dropped that after conferring with the UFC and other promoters.