Sports Scientist tells us just how dangerous weight cutting in MMA can be
When a fighter almost dies from a weight cut you have to start taking the issue seriously.
Fighters have been going to extremes for many years to make weight for a fight - you only have to look at UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor at the UFC 194 weigh-in to see the visually shocking toll it can take on a man's body.
But the practice of cutting weight and extreme dehydration 24 hours before a fight almost cost Bellator's Dada 5000 his life.
The heavyweight reportedly cut 40lbs in the weeks before his headline fight with fellow former street fighter Kimbo Slice to make the 265lbs heavyweight limit.
But Dada, real name Dhafir Harris, collapsed mid way through the third round and reports stated his heart stopped on the way to hospital before he underwent life-saving treatment for kidney failure.
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) February 20, 2016
It's a dangerous game fighters are playing, but one man looking at the science of MMA weight cutting is sports scientist Ben Crighton.
He is about to launch a study into British amateur and professional MMA fighters at Liverpool John Moores University.
JOE spoke to Crighton about an issue which could come to define the sport of MMA.
JOE: One of the most high profile MMA fighters weight cutting in the extreme right now is Conor McGregor. He may have to cut 25lbs to get down to featherweight if he chooses to defend his title. Can he do it safely and effectively?
Ben Crighton: As long as he does it the right way, then yes. I'm sure he's got the right guys on board. As long as your time frame is big enough, it's possible to start gradually cutting that weight.
For example, he's walking around at round 168lbs now - if he had four weeks to get down then it's not going to be doable. Or it's not going to be doable safely, because you're going to have to starve yourself, your energy intake is going to be super low and then on top of that you've got to do a massive water cut.
The UFC 200 card is July 9. If he did fight at featherweight he's got more than three months.
If McGregor goes back down to featherweight he will have to shed some serious weight, is he going to be able to keep some of the strength and power he built up at the heavier weight?
Any time you're losing muscle mass, you're probably going to lose some punching force. But I think that will be in relation to bodyweight. So relatively speaking his punching power may still be as heavy as it was.
It all comes down to how sensible you are with the weight cut. This is the interesting thing - depending on your body type, depends on how easy it is for you to cut weight.
You look at Gleison Tibau. He fought Terry Etim at 155lbs but he was something ridiculous like 192lbs on fight night. He could have potentially fought at middleweight - it's frightening to think he was fighting a guy at 155lbs.
But if you look at him, he's heavily muscular and the more muscle you carry, then the more water your body can carry. Some guys have got the body type and shape to be able to cut more water.
So what effect does weight cutting have on the body?
It's like physique athletes. You can diet down to a low body fat percentage and you will lose muscle as a result of it. McGregor has packed a lot of muscle on because of the training he's been doing and because of the extra calories.
He will be able to lose that weight over a prolonged period of time. But the longer the time period you have to lose that weight, the safer it's going to be.
However, regardless of whether you've got 20 weeks or you've got eight weeks, it's not going to be fun because any time you want to shed body fat you're going to lose a bit of lean tissue and your body doesn't necessarily know you're doing this for a sport - so you're going to get hungry all the time, you're going to be irritable because you're not getting enough energy.
Long term if he wants to go between featherweight and lightweight and maybe welterweight, then those cycles with him fighting three or four times a year at different weights isnt necessarily going to be good for his long term health.
If he's going to be doing big water cuts several times a year and going up and down in weight, the chances are he may have issues with his kidneys either short term or long term.
That seems to be one of the major problems we're finding now with the guys that do the big water cuts. Especially if they're doing water loading on top of other methods like hot baths or saunas. Your body wasn't designed to be dehydrated so drastically and then rehydrated to fight the next day.
Can you explain that process of water cutting to people who don't know.
I would say the dehydration is even more extreme in MMA than in bodybuilding. Because in bodybuilding you want to be 'dry', as they say, so you look as ripped as possible - but you also need to have fullness in the muscle so you've got to have enough water to hold onto the glycogen and carbohydrate stores in the muscle, so you look 'full' on stage.
Whereas the MMA guys are dry as a bone. McGregor against Mendes - look at how bad McGregor looked. He looked like a concentration camp victim or something, that was how dehydrated he was.
If you go to any weigh-in events around the UK there are guys hobbling onto the stage because they can barely walk because they're that dehydrated.
We've seen deaths in the sport in the past few years because of dehydration. Okay, it's linked to diuretics and other extreme methods. But fighters want to gain an advantage over their opponents. There was a death of a judoka in 1995 and three deaths in college wrestling in 1997 and as a result the NCAA brought in new regulations about weight making in college wrestling.
But what we find with MMA are that these methods that were banned in wrestling are trickling down into MMA. If you can suck that weight and then be bigger than your opponent on fight night, then it enables you to be heavier and dominate your opponent.
So how does it work?
Most guys will diet down over a number of weeks on the fight camp, then the final week before fight night they will drop their carbohydrate intake right down. It's fine to do that because carbohydrates aren't essential to the body, as long as you get enough protein and sufficient fats it's not a problem.
They will cut their carbohydrate content so that means they will lose the glycogen stored in their muscles. Along with that you lose the water that's attached to glycogen.
There's roughly 3g-4g of water per 1g of glycogen. So you will lose a few kilograms in that final week just from restricting carbohydrate intake. On top of that guys tend to 'water load'. This is similar to bodybuilding.
You will drink a set amount of water - like two to three gallons of water for a few days and then you cut your water intake right down for a day or so. If you weigh in on Friday then those guys will cut their water intake out completely about midday the day before weigh-ins.
They go 24 hours without drinking. As well as loading up with water they drastically reduce their sodium intake. Salt is taken out of everything, because sodium makes you hold onto water. It's this manipulation of water intake and removal of salt which makes your body enter a 'flushing mode'.
This is whereby you've got such a large intake of water followed by a cessation of water intake, your body still continues to produce urine even when you've stopped drinking water.
There's no definitive research to say this is the best way or whether it actually works, but fighters say it works and guys lose weight doing it. But until something better comes along, it will continue to be a go-to method.
Any more weight loss comes from getting in a sauna wearing a sweat suit, hot baths is another one.
— MMA on SiriusXM (@MMAonSiriusXM) February 20, 2016
So why is it so dangerous?
What we have seen with the deaths in MMA is that one guy collapsed and died in the sauna. He had a stroke, which was linked to diuretics as well.
The guy that died in the sauna took a fight on short notice - maybe 21 days. He ended up losing a ridiculous amount of weight - like 33lbs - in the time frame he had.
Both deaths were in the flyweight division, which is 125lbs. It worked out at something ridiculous like over 20% of his bodyweight he tried to lose. Any time you're getting above 2-3% it might have an effect on performance. But when you're getting above 10-15% you've got a potential for a cardiac arrest and for you body just to shut down.
Not only are you losing so much water, but if you're reducing sodium and messing around with your electrolytes, your electrolytes are responsible for muscle contraction and making sure everything, including your heart, keeps going.
If you're playing around with this and pushing the boundaries, your body isn't designed to take this stress.
It's just as dangerous when it gets to fight night too, surely?
If guys are doing massive amounts of dehydration there's a chance that they're not going to be able to ensure the fluid volume around their brain is back when rehydrating.
If they're not completely rehydrated and haven't got all this fluid around their brain back then any strikes to the head are going to be more devastating because they haven't got that cushioning there.
Any impact on a dehydrated brain, the chances of sustaining some kind of brain trauma are a lot higher.
There's also a chance later in life of getting CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which they're finding more and more in NFL players, which is a deterioration of the brain because of the amount of trauma.
You look at guys like Diego Sanchez. He's one of my favourite fighters and a legend in the sport. But the amount of punishment he takes. He's one of these guys that bites down on his gum shield and wades forward and is willing to take it. There will be a pay off later in life.
He cut down to 145lbs recently. The figure was something like 22lbs he put back on the next day - the majority of that is water. If you don't do that correctly or rehydrate properly then any impact you take on the brain is going to be intensified.
We have to protect young fighters coming through in the sport. You see young kids having to cut weight just to compete in amateur competitions. It's crazy.
So tell us about the study you're working on into weight cutting in MMA now.
The first part is getting as many guys as possible to interview. Asking them questions about the sport, how they got involved, problems they may have had with healthcare professionals and other things. All this information will be anonymised. We want amateur level guys, coaches, judges and doctors.
The next phase is to get the guys into the lab and just follow them on their normal weight cuts without intervening in any way.
Blood samples are just measured for liver and kidney functions - were not looking for PEDs at all. We're just concerned with some markers of health and some markers of vitamin profile to get an idea of how healthy these guys are.
We want to find out what effect the weight cut has on their body. We want to see what happens on the human body because there's not much research out there.
Fighters wanting to get involved in the study will benefit. Not many guys have access to a DEXA Scanner - it gives us a picture of people's muscle mass, bone density and fat mass. So if you're a fighter coming in throughout your camp you're going to have some real accurate scientific data to take back to your coaches, nutritionists and strength and conditioning coaches, if you've got them, and see how you're losing the weight and if you're losing the right type of tissue.
We do an RMR test to measure your metabolism too, because again we're interested to see how the energy deficits and weight cuts effect a guy's metabolism.
You can volunteer to take part in the LMJU study on MMA fighters by emailing Ben on [email protected]@ac.uk