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Understanding ‘Natural Weight’ in Combat Sports

On 10 September 2016, IBO, WBC and IBF middleweight boxing champion GGG Gennady Golovkin fought Kell Brook, who had moved up 2 weight divisions from welterweight. The fight was a one-sided affair. Although Brook had some early success, it soon became clear that GGG wasn’t feeling any threat from Brook’s power. GGG was known for being one of the hardest hitters in middleweight boxing history, having a history of sparring with heavyweights. By round 5, Brook had taken too many clean shots, had his eye socket broken and his team threw in the towel.

Years later the fight is still discussed, often because of Brook’s courage (or madness, depending on how one looks at it). As the argument goes; it was hugely irresponsible for Brook to move up 2 weight divisions. Not only was he fighting at a higher weight class, he was fighting one of the most devastating boxers of all time. Now, while many boxing fans run with this argument, the concept of a fighter’s natural weight causes some confusion.

Why was it madness for Brook to fight at 159.4 lbs? Why did many people say he wasn’t a natural middleweight? At the weigh in, GGG came in at 158.9 lbs and on fight night, Brook looked just as big and muscular, if not more, than GGG. If Brook had taken the time to build muscle and move up in weight, why wouldn’t that be his natural weight? Isn’t that how it works? If an individual weight trains regularly, his weight may increase from 160 lbs to 165 lbs, which will now be his new natural weight. Why would this be any different for Brook, who similarly moved up in weight?

Despite frequent use of the term ‘natural weight’ among combat athletes, commentators and fans, there isn’t always a consensus on a single definition. Is there an implicit assumption that drug use is a big part of combat sports and that jumps from one weight class to another are drug assisted? How is it that an athlete can put on a significant amount of weight in a short timeframe, yet remain relatively lean? Are we using a term that, unbeknownst to us, signifies there’s a darker side to moving up in weight?

The definition of ‘natural weight’ tends to differ from person to person. For some, an athlete’s natural weight isn’t fixed, but rather a reference point from which one cuts or gains weight to fight in their intended weight class. The assumption is that the athlete is comfortable at this reference point. In combat sports a phrase we often hear about fighters is that he or she “walks around at [weight]”. This refers to the weight a fighter is before deliberately cutting or gaining weight i.e. their natural weight. It doesn’t provide any indication about their body composition, but rather a weight at which it’s assumed the fighter is comfortable.

This definition falls in line with set point theory. Your body has a weight where it is comfortable, call it natural weight if you will. If one’s weight goes too high above its set point, the body will speed up its metabolism and reduce appetite. Go too low and the body will do the opposite, slowing down metabolism and increasing appetite. Up for debate is whether set point is adjustable and if so, to what extent? If there is low adjustability, it provides fuel to the concern of a fighter moving up several weight divisions; as the body will actively be attempting to bring the fighter’s weight down to their ‘natural weight’.

Another interpretation of natural weight is the weight at which an athlete performs best. As has been shown when athletes engage in dangerous weight cuts, energy and endurance drop. If one fights above their natural weight, they may find that their stamina and speed are compromised. Perhaps this interpretation along with equating natural weight with comfort levels explains why many fans felt it was unwise for Kell Brook to move up two weight divisions to fight Gennady Golovkin.

But one problem persists. It’s widely understood that natural weight can change over a long course of time. We’re talking about years. Floyd Mayweather Jr started his professional boxing career at a weight of 131 lbs in 1996 and had his last bout in 2017 at a weight of 149 lbs. However this doesn’t explain how some fighters can move up considerably in weight within a short period of time and maintain an impressive degree of leanness. When Tony Bellew moved up to the heavyweight boxing division to fight David Haye, it was apparent that Bellew had put on quite a bit of fat in order to compete at a higher weight class.

Others, however, don’t appear to show any signs of fat gain despite having moved up in weight within a short timeframe. Is this an indication that drugs are being used? Could our use of the phrase ‘natural weight’ reveal that too much of a deviation from it is ‘unnatural’? Ultimately the phrase continues to be widely used in numerous combat disciplines despite there being various interpretations of its meaning. And one can wonder, if someone gains weight naturally, maintaining the same body composition they had before, why is it a problem or even ‘madness’ to make that jump?

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