On 20th March 2021, Julija Stoliarenko was scheduled to fight Julia Avila in an MMA bout at UFC Vegas 22. During the weigh in the day before, Stoliarenko at first looked normal and healthy. You would never guess anything was wrong until she stepped onto the scale. Along came a moment of imbalance and she stumbled backwards. Managing to keep her composure and staying upright, she then stumbled a bit more until she fell off the scale and crashed into the UFC banner behind her.
People rushed to check on her as she regained consciousness. She professed she was fine as she remained seated on the floor until a chair was brought for her to sit on and recover. Controversially she was given a second chance to weigh in, registering at 135.5lbs, pumping her fist to indicate she had ‘made weight’. But once again, you could see something was wrong. She was blinking heavily and as she stepped off the scale, she fainted.
As she regained consciousness, she sat up and was taken away in a stretcher. Notably she was drinking water as she was stretchered off, highlighting the the dangers of dehydration when athletes undergo extreme weight cuts. In an Instagram post, she explained that the problem wasn’t her weight cut; “It was one of the easiest weight cuts in my career”. The problem, she says, was that she made her weight too early; 16 hours too early to be exact. Staying in that dehydrated state was unsustainable, as Stoliarenko would find out, and resulted in the cancellation of her bout at UFC Vegas 22.
So, why do combat athletes cut weight in the first place?
In combat sports such as MMA and boxing, there are various weight classes. Athletes temporarily lose weight in the days or weeks prior to a weigh in so they can compete in a weight class lower than their regular, ‘walking around’ weight. Then after the weigh in, they quickly regain their weight with the intention of gaining a size and strength advantage over their opponents.
And in the world of elite combat sports, athletes will go to great lengths to gain that advantage. Water loading is one of these examples. You drink a large volume of water for several days. Then the day before your weigh in, you cut your water intake drastically. The body won’t expect the drastic cut and will continue to expel water from the body when little water is coming in. The result is a dehydrated body and lowered weight. Other examples include staying in a sauna for prolonged periods of time, spitting into a bucket continuously throughout the day, or wearing a sweat suit and performing burpees and push ups to dehydrate yourself.
None of these are particularly healthy, nor do they sound appealing. And worryingly these weight cuts are, in many cases, done without professional supervision. In an International Society of Sports Nutrition study published in 2019, Self-reported methods of weight cutting in professional mixed martial artists, 92 professional MMA athletes were surveyed about how they cut weight. Worryingly the results showed that some athletes were getting their weight cutting advice from social media and most cut weight without the advice of a registered dietician or nutritionist.
And even if you do have a professional team overseeing your weight cut, there’s no guarantee things will go smoothly. MMA fighter Paige VanZant has described how one of her weight cuts caused her to pass out on her bathroom floor and doctors warned her she was doing permanent damage to her body. Khabib Nurmagomedov, considered one of MMA’s all time greats, revealed he suffered from seizures before his bout with Conor McGregor. The perils of drastic weight cuts, it seems, are endless.
Given the dangers associated with weight cutting, a common question is, “Is it worth it?” If an athlete fails to make weight for a UFC fight they are fined up to 20% – 30% of their earnings. A percentage goes to the commission and a percentage goes to your opponent. So you are literally paying someone to kick your ass. But there’s more to it. The advantage a fighter gets from a weight cut and rebound could be the difference between an average fighter in one weight class and a great fighter in another. One’s win-loss record makes a difference to sponsorships and future opportunities. They have to consider the livelihoods of the sometimes-vast team that works with them. And then there is mentality. To reach the elite levels of combat sports, you are already accustomed to discomfort and you justify the dangers of weight cutting as something that is just part of being a professional fighter.
Many people have argued that the rules surrounding weight cutting need a drastic overhaul. Why was Julija Stoliarenko, mentioned at the beginning of this article, allowed a second chance to weigh in after collapsing on the scale? Wasn’t it already evident that her health was in a precarious position? A common argument is to have weigh ins on the day of the fight instead of the day before. As the reasoning goes, bringing the weigh in and the fight closer together would discourage fighters from cutting too much weight in the first
A counter-argument, however, is that professional fighters already go to extreme lengths to make weight, and they’ll still take extreme measures to make weight and regain even if they have less time to do so. Whatever the solution, people are increasingly losing patience with ‘weight bullies’; those whose natural weight is considerably higher than what they weigh in as. They engage in extreme weight-cutting and then use the rapid regain to have a substantial size and strength advantage over their opponents. It’s not unheard of to have a fighter regaining up to 20lbs or 30lbs of weight in time for the fight, making a mockery of the weight class they’re supposed to be fighting in.
Opinions, of course, on such a contentious issue are divided. Some people argue that even a small weight advantage of a few pounds makes a big difference. Others suggest that the massive fluctuation in weight is actually a hindrance, and that dehydration, nutrient imbalances, and the psychological stress of cutting weight can lead to reduced endurance and diminished power. As a result, while athletes may have a size advantage by the numbers, it won’t necessarily translate into better performance. Some research even suggests that weight regain following a cut can “slow down the limbs’ movement, worsen the striking accuracy and, possibly, decrease the strike power.” However it’s important to note that the researchers concede that “The preliminary results are inconclusive regarding the competitive advantages.”
While there tends to be a positive correlation between improved health and partaking in recreational sports, the correlation gets blurred at the professional level. From professional swimmers eating 10,000 calories a day to NFL offensive linemen having to maintain a weight of over 300 lbs, sports at the highest level can be incredibly unhealthy. The decision to gain advantages may be spurred on by the belief that other advantages such as the use of steroids may be being administered to opponents or that in the world of combat sports, there isn’t always such as thing as a fair fight.
But the tables are turning on drastic weight cuts. More fans are turning against it, in particular expressing their dissatisfaction towards weight bullies. Regulations are being put in place to discourage the process. For example, California State Athletic Commission keeps track of a fighter difference in weight between the weigh in and fight night. If a fighter’s fight night weight exceeds their weigh in weight by more than 10%, the Commission recommends that the fighter move up to a higher weight class the next time they fight in California. And more research is being published on the downsides such as the potential for increased risk of brain injury.
Given the dangers and the mismatches that can occur from weight cutting, fans are also putting forward more potential solutions, from changing the time of the weigh in to implementing rehydration limits. Another suggestion is to place a limit to how much an athlete can cut weight from their regular, walking around weight, which would require random, unannounced checks of an athletes weight throughout the year, similar to steroid tests.
While competitive athlete will attempt to seek justification for cutting weight, the message on the topic has been clear for a while. As outlined in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, “No athlete should be encouraged to cut weight quickly in order to compete in a lighter weight class. Although performance may not be affected, an athlete’s health is always at risk.”