For those who have attended a UFC event, one of the main focuses is the weigh in (both real and staged) and the resulting face off.
But to get to that point involves many weeks of sometimes drastic weight loss and dieting, compounded by the need to still train hard for the fight.
The pressure on MMA fighters to make weight is extreme, with both money and reputation on the line. It is no surprise that fighters go to extreme lengths to make their weight category.
These dietary processes sometimes involve losing up to 9% of their body weight in less than 24 hours before a fight.
Although there is some excellent research on the short-term effects of extreme weight loss, our knowledge of the dangers in the long term is still limited, not only in respect to performance but more importantly in the long term health of contact sport athletes. It’s clear that BMD (Bone Mineral Density) is degraded during repeated bouts of calorific deficiency.
This is repeated up to 3 times per year, each weigh cut impacting kidney function, the immune system and brain health.
Is there an advantage to be gained to extreme weight loss prior to a fight? The research would indicate that there is little physiological advantages to be made, however, it’s difficult to ascertain for certain, as everyone seems to be doing exactly the same thing.
However, perhaps it’s the re-hydration strategy which provides the greatest physiological benefit. Is there an advantage to bigger opponent to diet down to a smaller weight category or a smaller opponent to gain weight for a fight in a bigger weight category?
Even compared to other combat style sports MMA has a history of extreme weight cutting, sometimes up to 10% of Total Body weight in less than 24 hrs. There have been two well publicised fatalities in MMA, directly related to extreme short term weight loss.
The pressure on fighters to make weight is extreme and as such there have been reports of substance abuse and the resultant health issues such as kidney failure. In a study by LJM in 2018 it was found evidence of extreme dehydration (>9.3% BM), self-induced Hyponatremia and the early signs of kidney damage in the weeks/days leading up to a fight.
What Can Be Done?
New weight classes
This is an idea that has been muted and would bring MMA in line with other weight classed sports such as boxing and Judo. The advantage would be that an athlete would be able to “fit” into a class which properly matches their anthropometrics and the temptation for extreme weight loss would be minimised. The temptation though, knowing there could be an advantage to be gained by being heavier in the fight, would still be to show-horn into a weight class that would not be healthy.
10% weight regain limit
This is currently being focussed on but until it is enforced and managed, then the athletes will continue to follow the old traditional ways of re-hydration and feeding, that have served them well in their career (regardless of what the research and evidence based practice says)
Staggered weigh ins (7 days prior)
Not so much staggered weigh ins but the enforced notification of hitting target weights prior to an official weigh in. There is scope and evidence to show the slow, steady reduction in weight is more beneficial (from both a performance and health perspective) and this official tracking of weight (with enforceable penalties) would ensure that fighters will at some point have to stagger their weight loss to a more healthy weekly reduction.
This currently being successfully implemented in horse racing where jockeys have to maintain a certain weight through out the year in order to qualify for races.
Efforts by regulators to educate athletes and trainers on ideal weight cutting practices
By far, the most important impact is evidence based practice led by qualified and experience nutritionists and dieticians.
The evidence is clear about the dangers of Extreme Weight Loss and as such, there is a professional obligation from the regulators, the management of fight promotions (and the athletes themselves) to seek the collaboration of experts
The issue is much more prevalent in MMA than in any other combat sport, but MMA is also one of the newest and fast-growing sports in the world. Research from the CombatSport Group showed that only 20% of fighters sought advised from a qualified nutritionist, instead relied solely on the advise of coaches or trainers.
The likelihood of a KO in MMA is greater than in any other sport, the risk of dehydration is greater than in any other sport and concussion or head trauma is greater (per participant) than in any other sport.
Perhaps, this science of dieting should be more regulated, evidence-based practice more vigorously adhered to.
Crighton, B., Close, G.L. and Morton, J.P., 2016. Alarming weight cutting behaviours in mixed martial arts: a cause for concern and a call for action.
Matthews, J.J. and Nicholas, C., 2017. Extreme rapid weight loss and rapid weight gain observed in UK mixed martial arts athletes preparing for competition. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 27(2), pp.122-129.
Jetton, A.M., Lawrence, M.M., Meucci, M., Haines, T.L., Collier, S.R., Morris, D.M. and Utter, A.C., 2013. Dehydration and acute weight gain in mixed martial arts fighters before competition. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(5), pp.1322-1326.
Kasper, A.M., Crighton, B., Langan-Evans, C., Riley, P., Sharma, A., Close, G.L. and Morton, J.P., 2019. Case Study: Extreme Weight Making Causes Relative Energy Deficiency, Dehydration, and Acute Kidney Injury in a Male Mixed Martial Arts Athlete. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 29(3), pp.331-338.
Coswig, V.S., Fukuda, D.H. and Del Vecchio, F.B., 2015. Rapid weight loss elicits harmful biochemical and hormonal responses in mixed martial arts athletes. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 25(5), pp.480-486.
Martin, D., Wilson, G., Morton, J.P., Close, G.L. and Murphy, R.C., 2017. The horseracing industry’s perception of nutritional and weight-making practices of professional jockeys. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(5), pp.568-582.