Combat sports and the dreaded weight cut are intertwined to the point where it’s hard to find where one practice starts and the other one ends. In MMA, however, it seems that extremes of the practice are becoming all too prevalent.
As fighters strive for every advantage possible over their opponent, bodies are being pushed to ever-increasing levels of weight-cutting extremes in order to win.
Over the past twelve months there have been three high profile weight cuts within MMA’s top promotion, the UFC, that have caught the attention of fans for the brutality of the impact they have had.
Back in May of 2016, ahead of her long awaited debut at UFC 198, Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Justino embarked on the cut to 140lbs. Following her maiden UFC victory, footage emerged of the harrowing efforts it took in order to make weight for the clash.
Her emaciated appearance at the pre-fight weigh in was the result of a dramatic weight cut that saw the teak-tough fighter reduced to tears in the days leading up to the fight.
Skipping forward to March of 2017 and UFC 209, Khabib Nurmagomedov was scheduled to take on Tony Ferguson for the interim-lightweight belt.
The fight was cancelled with only 24 hours to go as the Russian failed to appear for his weigh in and news emerged that the MMA grappler from Dagestan had wound up in hospital as a result of his efforts to make the 155lbs weight limit.
Only last weekend, at UFC 216, again for the interim-lightweight strap, Kevin Lee ran aground of the uncompromising weight limit and was forced to drop one whole pound in an hour. Having initially weighed in at 156lbs, Lee emerged an hour later as a mere shadow of himself, weakened and shrivelled, and tipped the scales at 154.5lbs.
The difference between the 156lbs Lee and his 154.5lbs iteration were in stark and very brutal contrast to each other.
Then, again only this past weekend, footage emerged of perhaps the most harrowing weight cutting footage the MMA world has yet to witness.
At the Japanese Pancrase 290 event, Brazilian fighter Daniel Lima emerged to weigh in for his strawweight clash with Daichi Kitakata in such a state that he had to be practically carried to the scales in a semi-conscious state.
The footage raises all manner of questions around the health and safety of fighters, as well as perhaps the ethical responsibilities fighters have for themselves and coaches for their charges.
To remind ourselves, here is how Lima presented himself for his weigh in.
Video Credit: ReactQ
Following the emergence of Lima’s footage and added to the evidence of the past year or so, should we be asking more questions about weight division and the process of cutting weight in MMA?
Why is it that there are far fewer weight categories in MMA when compared to boxing? Why is it that we are presented with any number of fighters each year that have failed to make weight, despite the most brutal of weight cuts?
The topic has been broached before. Just how is MMA to ensure the physical and psychological health of fighters as they bid to shoehorn themselves into brackets that are, in reality, meant for smaller physical frames?
Should MMA be looking at a ‘walk-around’ weight? Should more guidance and advice given by coaches to ensure their fighters are not endangering themselves in order to make a weight that is beyond the limits of safety?
What about the possibility of legislation that sees fighters’ walk-around weight be measured over the course of a number of months and that weight, minus a percentage, becoming the weight class they can aim for, with anything below this number is deemed unsafe?
Ultimately, each fighter and his or her team has a responsibility to ensure they are not putting themselves at significant risk.
There are limits that the body can achieve, regardless of ambition. While many push these limits to the extreme in order to gain the advantage of making a weight division that will almost ensure physical superiority come fight night, there is always the risk that pushing too hard could have a detrimental affect over time.
So what is the solution? If an easy one were known it would already be in place. Perhaps it really does come down to the fighter and their team. Perhaps they should be responsible enough to recognise and act when enough is enough? Should winning really come at all costs?
The debate will continue to rage on and dare it be said that it will take a tragedy to take this discussion from the long finger and into the here and now, before rightful change is implemented.
One would certainly hope not.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena