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Before UFC Fight Night 128 on Saturday in Atlantic City, New Jersey, it was time for the promotion’s new Friday tradition, where we find out which fights on the next day’s show are cancelled. This time there were two casualties: Leslie Smith vs. Aspen Ladd and Magomed Bibulatov vs. Yuta Sasaki. Luckily, Edson Barboza agreed to take his fight even after Kevin Lee failed to make weight, preserving the card’s main event. This weekly turmoil with fighters struggling to make weight and having severe health scares was ironically created by an effort to make weight cuts safer.
The concept when it was rolled out had logic to it. A big problem with weight cutting is that fighters become dehydrated and enter fights still not fully hydrated. Thus, giving fighters additional time to rehydrate would make it safer for them in the fight. It was a humane idea designed to lessen the danger presented by head trauma in the cage. When the new system was rolled out, it was greeted with cautious optimism by many.
Having plenty of time now to evaluate the experiment, it is clear this new system is not working. It’s not certain why. Perhaps fighters not having the day on Friday to do the final cut is the big problem. Maybe fighters are trying to compensate for that the night before or early in the morning and struggling to lose weight while also fighting the body’s circadian rhythm is a dangerous combination. Alternatively, it could be that the extra time to rehydrate makes fighters think they can cut even more weight. Whatever the reasons, the numbers are undeniable. MMAJunkie.com noted that fighters missing weight tripled in the 18 months after the changes were implemented, and the problems continue on with no sign of ceasing.
It is time to end this experiment now. However good it may have seemed on paper, we have a sample size that is plenty large enough to recognize that fighters’ health is being endangered rather than protected. Fighters are undergoing perilous weight cuts, and under the new system, more and more are reaching a dangerous precipice. We know that the old system presented fewer of these disasters and it should be reinstituted while continued research takes place to determine the best path forward.
What has taken place with the earlier weigh-ins debacle also offers up a lesson when it comes to handling the issue of weight cutting in the future. Rather than rushing into new ideas, this is a subject that calls for caution and careful thought. There are so many potential unintended consequences that can come with any change, and fighters’ health is on the line. They deserve better than to be used as guinea pigs for concepts that may have the opposite of their intended effects. Unfortunately, this is also a subject more than most where easy answers are constantly being peddled.
The problem of weight cutting seems simple on the surface. If everyone simply didn’t cut weight, athletes’ health would be protected and everyone would still be on relatively even footing. Weight cutting feels silly, a system where everyone is punished with nobody really gaining much of an advantage vis-à-vis other competitors. Given the issue seems so silly and a solution so straightforward, so many have simple solutions to offer. The problem is that the incentives are too great for fighters to not try to gain any advantage, and those advantages are generated through exposing one’s self to physical peril.
Take for example the suggestion sometimes offered up that fighters weigh-in right before stepping into the cage. There would be no time to rehydrate and thus fighters would be less likely to cut weight. Of course, some would conclude that the advantage to be gained from entering the cage a little bit larger is greater than the danger in entering a little bit dehydrated, and those fighters would be playing with fire. Alternatively, it is sometimes suggested that all fighters simply move up a weight class to cut less weight. Of course, fighters up and down the roster would immediately start planning how to justify that they were on the smaller side to begin with and thus should move back down. Every solution to weight cutting is going to have these sorts of pitfalls in a professional sport where athletes know being bigger is an advantage.
This is not to say that we should be paralyzed by indecision and thus elect to do nothing. There are of course ways to make the system better or worse. The point is that we need to be particularly careful of unintended consequences when it comes to weight cutting because there are going to be people trying to game whatever system is set up. Earlier weigh-ins was rushed into and has backfired terribly. Hopefully, future attempts to address the problem will be entered into with greater care and will thus make things better rather than worse.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.