“Do you wanna be a fighter, that’s the question”

That is the oft-repeated quote from UFC President Dana White that originates from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. This question was then quickly followed by, “it’s not about cutting weight…,” but sadly this sentiment has been gradually eroded in recent years. Now, cutting weight is accepted as part and parcel of the MMA business.

This past week, the MMA community learned a valuable lesson about the perils of cutting weight before a fight. Sadly, this lesson had to come at the cost of one fighter’s life. Leandro “Feijao” Souza died in the midst of cutting weight, the day before he was supposed to fight on the Shooto Brazil 43 card. Shooto Brazil canceled its event in the aftermath of Souza’s death.

The exact cause of death is stated to be a stroke, but the role that cutting weight played in his demise is unclear. It’s difficult not to look at the situation and see the weight cut as at least partially responsible for Souza’s health problems, in terms of placing strain on his body.

Out of this tragedy, the MMA community must be more vigilant to the dangers of cutting weight. Although these dangers are readily apparent and widely acknowledged, little is done to protect a fighter from going too far in order to provide entertainment for our viewing pleasure. Only when someone suffers the ill effects of a cut or emerges at the weigh-ins looking like nothing more than a skeleton does the matter even cross our minds.

Heading into any major night of fights, discussion often turns to how much bigger x will be than y come fight time. Or, x walks around 10 to 15 pounds heavier than y, so that gives him a strength advantage. The role that cutting weight plays in MMA is commonplace. Some fighters do it to increase their strength comparative to their opponent, others admittedly do it due to taking a fight on short notice, whilst others simply cut weight because they see others doing likewise.

In the UFC alone, we have seen radical transformations in fighters from a weigh-in to the actual fight itself. Gleison Tibau is a prime example. Somehow, he manipulates his body to make the 155-pound lightweight limit, though come fight time he looks almost big enough to compete in the 185-pound middleweight division. In cutting the weight, Tibau is very aware of the pros and cons of the choice he makes, and, as such, little criticism can be placed at his feet. Tibau accepts that the weight cut will likely take its toll in the later rounds, and this is a consequence that he is happy to accept.

It is a strange phenomenon that a fighter spends on average eight weeks preparing for a fight. They train each day at whatever weight they happen to wake up at, but then disregard the positives that have come from that approach and cut sometimes massive amounts of weight, which will only render them unable to fully show the improvements made during that long and exhausting training camp.

In any other sport, the athlete tries to replicate the conditions they compete under as closely as possible throughout their training. Cyclists go for long training periods in mountainous regions of the world. Golfers use the same set of clubs in practice rounds. Tennis players use the same rackets and footwear as they would in actual competition. Meanwhile, mixed martial artists tend to go against the habits formed throughout their training camp, all in the name of gaining a competitive edge.

It is important to note, however, that of the UFC’s current list of champions, none are especially renowned as massive weight cutters. Instead, they prefer to stay in good shape and phase their training so that when fight week begins they are within a proximate weight to the weight they need to be come weigh-in time.

Jon Jones is arguably the biggest weight-cutter of any current UFC champion. Throughout his training camp, you will see Jones posting pictures and updates of his staggered and progressive weight cut. It may be that as Jones develops and heads towards the heavyweight division, he needs to take drastic measures to ensure he can still make 205 pounds in order to defend his light heavyweight belt. However, for the moment at least, his weight doesn’t seem to be an issue. After all, he weighed in at 204.5 pounds for his “Fight of the Year” battle against Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson.

The very fact that dieticians have become celebrities in the MMA world suggests that there is a flawed system, or at least one with a skewed perspective. Mike Dolce is one of the most recognizable coaches in all of MMA, seen loitering in the background of interviews, weigh-ins and such during pre-fight festivities, with his sole focus on getting his fighter to the scale with ease. Whilst his work is commendable, it shouldn’t represent a necessity for all fighters. Too many fighters try to replace Dolce with archaic methods of cutting weight which simply do not promote a positive performance or a sustainable quality of life.

One suggested option to try to remedy this worrying trend is to have fighters weigh in on fight day in a bid to keep fighters pinned into their natural weight class and avoid recurrences of what happened in Brazil this past week. However, this overlooks the fact that regardless of when the weigh-in is, weight cutting will always be a part of combat sports, and so this step would only place the fighters in even more jeopardy, with less recovery/rehydration time before they step in the ring or cage.

Perhaps the most sensible approach would be to introduce staggered weigh-ins throughout fight week, whereby a fighter has to be a certain weight on the Monday and is then checked again each day before the final weigh-in on Friday. This would restrict the limit that any fighter could cut within a 24-hour period and would give a fighter little option than to fight at their natural weight class.

Whilst this may seem drastic and as though it may put off great fighters from choosing MMA as their sport, it would also increase the competitiveness across the board and also provide much more entertaining, non-stop fights. Each fighter would be able to focus on using their skills as their primary weapon, rather than their inflated size difference over their opponent.

All in all, MMA has lost one of its own because of a tendency of epidemic proportions. Right now, it is seen as a requirement to cut weight before a fight. Hopefully, Souza’s death will make regulators, promoters and fighters acutely aware of the dangers of these actions and prompt them to put steps in place to ensure that the same thing does not happen again.

The MMA Corner sends its thoughts to the family and friends of Leandro “Feijao” Souza.

Photo: Leandro “Feijao” Souza (L) (Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.

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  • Johan

    Weigh-ins the same day could work very well. Athletes only lose so much
    weight now because it’s physically possible to get the water back in
    their system until the next day. As far as I know, even the slightest
    dehydration lowers your performance level a huge amount, so nobody wants
    that. If there were weigh-ins the same day, it would be completely
    impossible to cut dangerously much and still being able to perform well, and athletes would be forced to focus on reaching a stable and approved match weight.