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Can we agree that mixed martial arts has a weight problem? Opinions may vary on the specific issues, and they vary enormously on potential solutions, but I don’t know many MMA fans who would profess to be content with the way fighter weight is currently structured, regulated and enforced. Weight cutting causes fights to be scrapped or altered at the last minute, which is nobody’s idea of a good thing, and it is happening with increasing frequency. Even in fights where both combatants make weight, the cycle of dehydration and rehydration causes fighters to fight at less than their best. Worst of all, weight cutting poses serious health risks and has been the direct cause of several fighter deaths.
Weight classes, weight cutting and enforcement of missed weight are a topic I’ve wanted to discuss for quite a while, and as it happens, the last weekend of fights provided plenty of conversation starters. I want to frame this discussion by laying down three core assumptions. I think they’re uncontroversial.
Core Assumption No. 1: Weight classes are a good and necessary thing for this sport.
Yes, the Ultimate Fighting Championship started out without weight classes but quickly realized it needed them if it had any aspirations of becoming a legitimate sporting organization. Think about this: At UFC 12, when the promotion instituted its first weight-class system -- a simple dividing line at 200 pounds -- gloves were still optional. Fighters could still pull hair, head butt, twist each other’s fingers, hit the back of the head and fight while wearing shoes. That’s how high weight discrepancy was on the “get people to stop calling us human cockfighting” to-do list.
I’m sure there are a few reactionaries out there who think the sport would be better off without weight classes. Those people are wrong. Without weight classes, we would have no “Showtime Kick.” We would have missed Jose Aldo vaulting over the fence and into the arms of an adoring Rio de Janeiro crowd at UFC 142. We would not have heard Jens Pulver at UFC 30, telling us through tears that surviving the early rounds with B.J. Penn was nothing compared to having been beaten by his father all his life. The sport would be poorer for the loss of those moments and countless others. If you’re willing to stipulate that some kind of weight-class system is necessary, all that needs to be discussed is how that system should be structured and enforced: How many weight classes do we need and how do we deal with people who don’t make their contracted weight?
Core Assumption No. 2: Making weight matters to the outcome of the fight.
Whether it’s the exact weight required for title fights or the one-pound allowance for non-title fights, it absolutely matters that both fighters meet the agreed-upon weight limit. This is hard to deny, considering that fighters who missed weight are now 10-0 in the UFC this year. I’m not a mixed martial artist, but as a former wrestler, I can attest that cutting water weight is awful and a bad weight cut is an exercise in surreal, out-of-body misery. The last half-pound is harder to cut and takes more time and work than the first 10. A hard weight cut leaves an athlete diminished, even after partial rehydration. It saps stamina, strength, speed and even chin, meaning dehydrated people are demonstrably easier to concuss. It isn’t that a 159-pound fighter is larger than a 156-pound fighter; it’s that he is fresher and more durable thanks to not being forced to sweat out those last three pounds.
Core Assumption No. 3: Fighters will always seek a competitive edge.
Not only that, but their ongoing quest for that edge will always push against the boundaries set by the sport’s regulators and rule-makers. Whatever rules are in place, fighters will try and maximize their chances of winning within the limits of those rules, and many fighters will try and skirt those rules without being caught. This is most obviously true for the never-ending parade of PED busts, but it crosses over into the world of weight cutting, as well. Think of Daniel Cormier placing his not-so-subtle mitts atop the towel at his UFC 210 weigh-in. Whether you think “DC” was probably going to make weight either way or he pushed down on those towels to the tune of a full pound of pressure, the lesson is the same: These are hypercompetitive people, and in the moment, even one of the sport’s truly good guys was not above angling for any advantage. As long as fighters believe that being the larger person in the cage on fight night is a vital advantage, they will do everything they can to secure that advantage.
If we’re going to talk about weight the week after UFC 224, we might as well address the elephant in the room immediately. The biggest story of the weekend was of course Mackenzie Dern missing the strawweight limit by a mind-boggling seven pounds. I don’t want to spend too much time on that. It’s been hashed out exhaustively over the past week. What I will say is that Dern appeared not to have even tried to make weight, which is an enormous advantage over an opponent who did put in that work. She wagered -- correctly -- that the Brazilian regulators would greenlight the fight when an American jurisdiction might not and that her opponent would accept the fight; it is not hard to imagine the pressure placed on Cooper not to back out. Dern was also able to laugh off the 30 percent purse penalty in the full knowledge that she is part of the UFC’s promotional plans going forward. In short, she encapsulated many of the problems with the current system of standards and consequences.
I’m more interested in discussing the exploits of two other chronic offenders on the scale. John Lineker, who has struggled to make the flyweight limit on and off for years, punctuated his recent bantamweight run with a brutal starching of Brian Kelleher. When I say it was one of the most impressive knockouts of Lineker’s career, I say it without hyperbole and in full recognition of all it implies. In the co-main event, we got to see Kelvin Gastelum, whose difficulties in making the welterweight limit may be even worse -- and more publicized -- than Lineker’s problems at 125 pounds. Gastelum won a split decision over Ronaldo Souza in a rollicking fight that saw exciting back-and-forth action in all phases.
Why is this important? Because Gastelum and Lineker fought in weight classes that were evidently more comfortable to make, and they were just fine. Lineker allayed any doubts that his numbing power can carry over to the bantamweight division. Gastelum hung with Ronaldo Souza, one of the most physically impressive and imposing specimens in the middleweight division, for three rounds of wrestling, grappling and striking. In fact, more than merely hang, he defended himself ably on the ground against a man who is at worst one of the five most feared grapplers in MMA.
Gastelum is now 3-1 with one no-contest in his current middleweight run, and that should be 4-1 as far as I’m concerned; having a win against the sport’s all-time poster boy for actual performance-enhancing drugs overturned because of cannabis is the height of irony. At any rate, Gastelum’s only true blemish at middleweight was against Chris Weidman. Guess what? When he’s healthy, Chris Weidman is damn good and beats most 185-pounders, whether they’re 5-foot-9 or 6-foot-3. Gastelum looks smaller compared to everyone in the middleweight Top 10, and he always will. Who cares? The second smallest guy in that group, fellow ex-welterweight Robert Whittaker, happens to be the champion.
More fighters need to learn the lesson Lineker and Gastelum seem to be learning: Cutting weight is not an end-all, be-all competitive advantage. That unfortunate belief is seemingly shared by most fighters. It is a mentality so pervasive and unquestioned that dropping a weight class is almost the default strategy for aging former champions and contenders who are in a slide, even though it’s overwhelmingly doomed to failure. Here’s a quiz: Other than small heavyweights, name the current or former Top 15 fighters who moved to a lower weight class after age 32 and made a good career move. You’ve got Demian Maia, Frankie Edgar and … let me know if you think of any others. Meanwhile, for every fighter you name, I can name five Penns or Josh Burkmans who looked miserable on the scale and fought miserably in the cage, risking their long-term health in the process.
There is no easy way to change a culture of weight cutting. Adding weight classes won’t fix it; it would only create a boxing-esque world where the best fighters hold multiple belts. If the UFC unveiled a 160-pound division tomorrow, the Top 3 super lightweight fighters would be Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor. None of them would give up their 155-pound aspirations over it. Any suspense would come from wondering if Georges St. Pierre might try and win the belt. Enforcing things differently or more tightly won’t help, either. As my colleague Todd Martin explained recently, the early weigh-in experiment has, by and large, only exacerbated the problems it had hoped to solve. Once again, changing rules and enforcement only gives ultra-competitive fighters a different system to game.
The only long-term solution -- and it must come from within -- from the example of fighters like Lineker and Gastelum is for the culture to change, for fighters to realize that mass is only one factor at play in the cage on fight night.