Athletes are increasingly being hospitalized — or worse — from trying to cut weight. Will combat sports ever stop it?
Ask someone to think of combat sports, and they’ll probably think of people running, jumping rope, or shadowboxing in gray sweats. But all of those iconic montages of boxers sweating it out before a big fight are supercuts of a dangerous practice called weight cutting, which involves athletes rapidly losing weight via extreme dehydration. In recent years, there have been mounting cases of athletes being hospitalized, or even dying, after attempting dramatic weight cuts. It’s not just professionals, either: Amateur fighters cut weight too. And regulatory and cultural changes at the amateur level may actually be the key to weeding out the dangerous practice.
For fighters’ safety, making weight is a crucial part of combat sports. The idea is that fighters of a similar size are able to have safer bouts, so before any fighter gets into the ring, they step on a scale to make sure they’re in the right weight class.
In an ideal world, everyone would fight at or close to their walking weight. But because of the way weight classes categorize fighters, cutting weight emerged as a way to get a competitive advantage. Let’s say, for example, someone cuts 7 pounds to make weight at 125 pounds. As soon as they’re done weighing in, they can rehydrate. By the time they actually step into the ring, they can easily be 132 pounds or more.
That’s one of the key problems with making weight: A fighter only needs to be at that weight for as long as they’re on the scale. Instead of stopping at a weight they can realistically maintain day-to-day, they might cut to make a lower weight. Then they can bulk back up before the actual fight. In other words: By cutting weight, a 132-pound fighter can fight in the 125-pound weight class, thus likely physically outmatching any competitor in the field who didn’t cut weight.
Past studies have shown that weight cutting can have psychological and physical impacts on fighters, like increased confusion and fatigue. Earlier this year, researchers also found cutting can worsen concussions. Individual fighters have faced serious health risks, too, like when UFC women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montano was hospitalized in 2018 for “issues regarding her kidney function” after the UFC medical team stopped her weight cut, or when fellow UFC fighter Julija Stoliarenko collapsed twice during weigh-ins last year.
Some people have died. In 2013, Brazilian mixed martial artist Leonardo Souza accepted a fight that required him to lose 33 pounds in a week to make weight. Shortly before weigh-ins, he collapsed. He was later pronounced dead due to a stroke. At the time, Andre Santos, Souza’s teammate, told MMAFight.com, “We don’t have much information, but we do know that it is related to his weight cut.”
A teammate warned me that at some point, I’d feel like my heart was pounding uncontrollably, but that it was . . . normal.
This June, I competed in my first muay Thai tournament. I didn’t have to cut for my initial weigh-in; thanks to a combination of dieting and over-hydration, I made weight easily. But the tournament I competed in, like many do, required fighters to weigh in again if they made it into the finals. Ahead of the championship bout, I was about 6 pounds over the limit.
Without the time to use the slower, healthier methods I’d used before, I had to rely on cutting to lose that weight by morning. Even the most well-planned weight cuts carry inherent risks that make it unsafe to do alone, so I headed to a teammate’s hotel room for a two-part process that began with me submerging as much of my body as possible in a hot bath for 20 minutes.
After that, I put on a layer of Sweet Sweat, a topical gel intended to help you sweat more. Then I changed into my sweat suit. A teammate wrapped me in layers of towels and blankets until I was swaddled on the floor in what’s known in the fight world as the “burrito.” I laid there for 45 minutes next to a heater on full blast (again, it was June). A teammate warned me that at some point, I’d feel like my heart was pounding uncontrollably, but that it was a normal part of being in the burrito. Eventually, I sweat so much that it felt like I was lying in a puddle. When I finished, I lifted my shirt, and liquid poured onto the floor.
In the end, I cut less than 5% of my body weight in water. Most people cut around 6%, which is considered mild dehydration. In extreme cases, fighters will cut upwards of 10% of their weight in water. Under any other circumstances, that is considered severe dehydration and requires immediate medical attention.
Amateur fighters, expert risks
Some fighters may justify those extreme measures by citing that competitive advantage. However, Christopher Kirk, a sports physiologist who works with the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, cautions that this belief doesn’t hold up. “This has some truth between people of very different body sizes (a heavyweight versus a middleweight, for example),” he told Mic by email, but “there is little evidence to suggest that two athletes from the weight division can be differentiated by the amount of weight they cut or regained leading up to the bout.”
Most of the fighters I know didn’t want to go on record about their weight-cutting experiences, evidence of how touchy the subject can be. Only one, Nassier, a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor who requested Mic withhold his last name, shared that sometimes the weight comes off fast, but other times, “I’m sitting in a sauna suit all day, running, and in a hot-ass car with the heat on in the summer, and the scale [is] not moving, no matter what I do.” No matter what, he said, “[weight cuts] are always filled with anxiety.”
It might seem like cutting weight is just part of the job for a professional fighter — an unpleasant part of their work, like being on their feet all day long is for nurses. But consider how big the amateur combat sports world is, and how none of those competitors are making money. In fact, amateurs like Nassier may pay thousands of dollars to compete in tournaments, making weigh-ins all the more stressful. “I don’t see the point in amateurs cutting weight all,” Nassier said. “You’re not getting paid to go through that. You’re always paying to go through that, and it makes you worse.” Yet he still does it.
When everybody is cutting weight, it can feel necessary to do just to make sure you aren’t falling behind. A fighter’s trainers and coaches might even feel it’s safer to help their competitor cut weight than be physically outclassed in their fights. As Lauren, who officiates muay Thai bouts nationwide for high-level organizations, tells Mic, “All coaches know somebody’s going to be [cutting weight]. And if somebody out there is trying to get that edge, then [coaches] need to protect their fighter by telling them to get the edge, too.” (Lauren asked to remain anonymous because she’s still an active referee in the sport.)
“You have to do it, because everybody else is,” Nassier similarly told me. “All the skill in the world isn’t going to stop some giant who cut two weight classes to get to your walking weight from breaking your arm, putting you to sleep, or punching or kicking your head into orbit.”
Light on solutions
We can’t just get rid of weight classes altogether, because there’s an obvious problem with a heavyweight fighting a featherweight head to head. But it’s clear something has to be done.
In recent years, professional promotions have tried to discourage weight cuts. Following the death of MMA fighter Yang Jian Bing from cardiopulmonary failure, ONE Championship, a Singapore-based promotion, introduced hydration tests, where officials test fighters’ urine at and ahead of weigh-ins to ensure there are no dramatic fluctuations. The International Federation of Muaythai Associations, which regulates both amateurs and professionals, requires fighters to weigh in every single day of a tournament, the thinking being that if a fighter knows they’ll have to make weight multiple days in a row, they won’t cut so much.
But in the United States, efforts to discourage weight cuts are harder to find at the amateur level. Amateur combat sports is somewhat of a “free-for-all,” Ron King, a former professional muay Thai fighter, tells Mic. There isn’t a federal commission to oversee combat sports, so they’re mostly regulated by state-level commissions, which can each make their own rules. Some have tried tackling the problem: In 2019, the California State Athletic Commission voted to institute a new rule that a fight would be canceled if a competitor weighed more than 15% above their weight class on the day of the fight, to prevent dramatic day-of cuts.
Similarly, some individual promotions have fighters weigh in the day of an event instead of the day before, to remove the rehydration factor and ideally lessen the competitive incentive for a dramatic cut. However, Lauren, the muay Thai referee, says, “I’ve still seen very hard weight cuts, even with those day-of weigh-ins.... I’ve seen people slumped down on the ground, in the middle of a hotel hallway, not able to stand up to get down the elevator to go weigh in.”
In 2021, the International MMA Federation, which regulates only amateurs, launched a task force to explore solutions to weight cutting. “The broad aim of this group is to investigate the current state of weight cutting in international amateur MMA (which IMMAF is the de facto world governing body for) and develop education and best-practice protocols for the coaches, teams, and athletes taking part in IMMAF competitions,” Kirk, who was invited to form the task force, told Mic.
The task force is still in its early stages. But Kirk believes that building relationships between coaches, fighters, and healthcare professionals may help more than rules. Educational programming can additionally help athletes learn safer alternatives. “If athletes entering the sport are taught that the current situation is ‘normal’ and is ‘what you have to do,’ then nothing will change,” he says. “If, however, they are taught more sustainable and less extreme methods upon entering combat sports, then those will become the norm.”
“The mentality has to change.”
Some gyms are exploring these pathways already. In New Zealand, Auckland’s City Kickboxing began working more closely with nutritionists and doctors to eliminate rapid dehydration for fighters. Head coach Eugene Bareman told Stuff in 2017, “Skill will always trump size. That’s proven throughout the history of combat sports, and that’s what I preach to my guys. The mentality has to change: It’s about the quality of your training, your training partners, and how your body is peaking at fight time.”
When King began competing as a teen, he often fought at around 125 pounds. He says at that time, it was pretty easy for him to make weight. “But as I started growing more,” he says, “it became very noticeable that that was not the weight class for me.”
Now, King believes he would’ve been “better off” if weight wasn’t so emphasized. “As I moved up [in weight classes], I was able to be more durable and have better cardio because I was more focused on the fight than the weight cut.” King’s personal experience tracks with what the research has to say: Last year, a study showed MMA fighters who cut more lose more often.
There is no easy solution to weight cutting. Even with the individual policies that have arisen, athletes still try to game the system; just last month, ONE Flyweight Muay Thai World Champion Rodtang Jitmuangnon was forced to withdraw from his upcoming bout after failing his hydration test.
But hydration tests, day-of weigh-ins, and other immediate changes can help, while in the meantime advocates try to change the culture from the bottom up. “I’ve heard before that it’s impossible to get around, that it’s part of the sport,” Lauren says. “But my personal opinion is there must be some way we can get around this. We’re pretty smart people as a society. We can figure this out.”