How and Why Do Fighters Cut Weight?

If you’ve ever watched the official weigh-ins for the UFC, you’ll notice the fighters look a heck of a lot different to when they enter the octagon.

In fact, they look like a frail, shadow of themselves that’s almost unrecognisable.

With sunken eyes and cheeks, these fighters shuffle their way onto the scales, hoping that their weight hits the mark.

But, the big question is why? Why do these fighters willingly put themselves on death's door, all for the sake of a few pounds?

Well, today we’re going to be looking into that question.

We’ll examine exactly how fighters cut weight, why they do so and discuss the risks that dehydrating your body to such an extreme extent can pose.

What is Weight Cutting?

Weight cutting is the process of purposely dehydrating your body in order to meet the required weight for a specific weight class. The weigh-in usually takes place the day before the fight, typically in the morning.

Once the weigh in is complete, the fighters then rehydrate, replenishing their body with water. This allows their weight to return almost to normal, so the person fighting is actually significantly heavier than the person that weighed in the day before.

Let’s take a look at an example of a fighter when they weighed in, and compare that to roughly 24-hours later when they compete.

The above image shows Conor McGregor at UFC 194, where he competed for the Featherweight Title.

The maximum weight limit for this division is 145 lbs, which is significantly lighter than what McGregor typically weighs, especially considering he has competed at 170 lbs before.

As you can see, the man on the left is a far cry from the happy-go-lucky man on the right.

Why Do Fighters Cut Weight?

So, why do fighters cut weight?

To be bigger than, or as big as their opponent, plain and simple.

The idea is to cut down to a weight class where you’re going to be as big as physically possible, and most likely larger and stronger than your opponent.

Theoretically, you could have a fighter against someone who weighs 25 lbs more than them. For the stronger, larger fighter, a well placed strike to the chin will stand a fair chance of knocking them out.

Compare the same strike against someone of the same weight, and the outcome may not be the same.

Let’s take our Conor Mcgregor image above for example. In that fight, he was by far the bigger man, and knocked his opponent (Jose Aldo) out in 13-seconds, which is the fastest ever win in a title match in the UFC.

Although Aldo probably cut weight as well, he’s a much more natural 145 lb fighter, spending the vast majority of his career there (and dominating it).

Compare this to when Mcgregor fought Nate Diaz at 170 lb, where he landed a few stunning shots with his left hand. While there’s a ton of different factors to consider, McGregor has never knocked Diaz out over the course of 2 fights, despite landing multiple flush shots to the chin.

Diaz admittedly has a chin made out of steel, but it’s interesting to see how McGregor’s power fairs against someone of a heavier weight.

The unfortunate reality of all this is that the vast, vast majority of fighters are cutting weight. It’s become a standard procedure that has continued over the 26-year life span of the UFC.

So, if all the fighters are cutting weight (which the vast majority are), then where’s the advantage?

Well, here it becomes more about not having a disadvantage. If a fighter doesn’t cut weight, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be up against someone who does.

This means that although they weigh their natural weight, the person opposite them will likely be significantly larger.

At this point, you either join the weight cutting club, or risk facing a much larger opponent.

How do Fighters Cut Weight?

Each fighter, coach and nutritional expert will have their own methods and strategies when it comes to weight cutting. With that in mind, each fighter will likely approach cutting weight differently, however a weight cut typically follows very similar patterns, with the same goal in mind.

Before beginning the weight cutting process, fighters will most likely go through a training camp, lasting anywhere between 6 to 12 weeks or more.

Through this training camp, a strict diet will be put in place, that further helps to reduce the fighters weight naturally. This diet will aim to balance calorie intake with calories burnt, or if more weight is needed to be lost, a calorie deficit will be put in place in order to burn fat.

A calorie deficit is when a person intakes less calories than they burn. This in turn causes their body to use their fat storage as energy, causing weight loss.

Once the week of the fight comes around, the real weight cutting can then begin. It’s likely that the fighter will start to eat less, again causing their weight to drop. At the start of fight week, some fighters opt to load their body with water, which will then help to ‘flush’ out more water once the weight cut begins a couple of days out from the fight.

Between 24-48 hours before the fight, the fighter will start to sweat out the remaining weight needed to hit their mark. The amount of weight a fighter will cut here various massively depending on the person themselves, how efficiently they controlled their weight during the training camp and the weight class in which they fight.

This is the most dangerous part, as losing so much body weight, especially in water weight over such a short period of time can cause long lasting damage as well as introduce a whole range of health risks.

How Do Fighters Sweat Out the Weight?

There’s a number of different ways a fighter will approach sweating out the remaining weight.

Usually, they will continue to train, however wearing more layers or a sauna suit which will cause them to perspire more heavily.

The below image shows UFC fighter Darren Till during his weight cut. Here he can be seen wearing a sauna suit on his upper body as he takes a rest during training.

Photo by Pundit Arena

A video from this particular weight cut can be found below. This should give you an idea about the extreme nature of weight cutting, and the sheer unpleasantness these fighters go through on a regular basis just to make weight. 

Ok, the next method a fighter may use is a sauna. As of recently, Infrared Saunas have become a popular choice.

To this day, saunas continue to be a ‘go-to’ when it comes to weight cutting. Rhona Rousey famously spent 5 hours in a sauna during a season of The Ultimate Fighter, losing 17-pounds over-night to prove to a contestant that weight cutting was easy.

While it’s definitely not easy, the effectiveness of sitting in a sauna for hours on end can’t be denied. 

However according to George Lockhart a nutritional expert and former MMA fighter, via Mens Journal, these fighters are ‘“cooking their insides”, which can in turn lead to a much higher chance of sustaining a loss via knock out or TKO.

Plus, according to Lockhart  “As little as 3% dehydration equates to a 30% decrease in performance”.

TJ Dillashaw sitting inside his infrared sauna in the garage of his Yorba Linda, California home. (Anna Boyiazis for ESPN)

Another option some fighters use are hot salt baths, typically filled salt. The idea is that the hot water, paired with the salt will draw water out of the body.

If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, check out the video below of UFC fighter Cris Cyborg cutting weight via a salt bath back in 2016.

What Are the Risks & Down Sides of Cutting Weight?

Ok, so now we know a bit more about how fighters go about cutting weight, let’s take a look at some of the risks.

Health Risks

Again, referring back to the interview with George Lockhart, via Mens Journel, “The real weight that’s being lost [when you drop a lot of weight very quickly] is through glycogen and water [rather than actual fat].” This in turn often means fighters are dehydrated, with their muscles lacking the energy to fully perform come fight night.

Given the nature of MMA, this is one sport you probably don’t want to be dehydrated. Any fight is only one punch away from being over and one career ending injury from happening. With that in mind, just entering the octagon in this condition is a massive health risk in and of itself.

The ‘sweating out phase’ is most likely the most dangerous part of the weight cutting process. Many a fighter has been hospitalised during this part, for example current Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov during his weight cut for UFC 209. Nurmagomedov starting experiencing extreme pain during the night, as his organs started to shut down from severe dehydration.

Another, more tragic example is that of Jessica Lindsey, an 18 year old amateur Muay Thai fighter. During her weight cut, she was running in a sweat suit in Perth, Australia, where the temperature reached 31 degrees centigrade. Later that day, she was hospitalized for severe dehydration and unfortunately died four days later.

Missing Weight

The next risk, while not health related is missing weight, which as any MMA fan will know, is also a common occurrence.

The consequences of missing weight varies depending on the circumstances. For example, Yoel Romero missed weight for his UFC Middleweight title fight against Champion Robert Whittaker. While the fight did take place, this meant that the title was no longer on the line for Romero, a man in his 40’s nearing the end of his career. Fortunately, it now appears that Romero is considering a move to the Light Heavyweight division, which is by far his more natural weight.

Missing weight is also a let down for the fans, who are eager to see their favourite fighters compete for titles and work their way up the contender ladder. I myself somewhat dread the morning search for ‘UFC news’, as it seems events are changing more and more at the last minute, largely due to fighters missing weight.

Poor Performance

As mentioned earlier, dehydration leads to a loss in a person’s ability to perform physically. Having just gone through a gruelling weight cut, the fighters real battle is yet to begin.

There have been numerous examples of fighters moving up weight classes to find more success. One of the more notable fighters is former featherweight contender Dustin Poirier, whose move up to Lightweight has seen him land a title shot against current Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov later this year.

With only one loss during his current stint as a lightweight fighter, Poirier has amounted wins over some of the UFC’s more notable fighters, including Featherweight Champion Max Holloway, Former Lightweight Champion Eddier Alverez, and former Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis.

Another example is Anthony Pettis himself, a former lightweight fighter who moved up to Welterweight. Yes. Pettis is a former Champion at lightweight, but as the years have gone on, the weight class has become stacked with top level athletes, as well as the fact that Pettis has got older, making the weight cut a lot harder. 

While he has only one win currently at Welterweight, this was an incredible, off the cage superman punch knock- out win over Stephen Thompson. He definitely looked more energetic and comfortable at that weight, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fairs against Nate Diaz later this year. 

Should Weight Cutting Continue/ What Can be Done?

So the big question, should weight cutting continue or be stopped altogether? If so, how does the UFC go about abolishing a practice that’s been embedded in it’s 26 year history?

Well, to answer that question we should look over to Asia, where ONE Championship, a rising promotion with a roster of elite fighters of it own, has managed to completely rid themselves of weight cutting.

How have they done this?

If a fighter has dramatic or substantial fluctuations in their weight leading up to a fight, they aren’t allowed to compete. This is due to the fact that ONE Championships policy states that athletes are required to compete at the weight in which they walk around on a day to day basis.

The way they measure this is by using hydration tests.

ONE Championship Vice President Ric Frankling said, via “We’ve developed a system of how we want our athletes to weigh in. The only way we can ensure they’ll actually compete at the weight they walk around at, is by hydration testing… We use an instrument to test the specific gravity of their urine, which tests how much solutes are in their urine,” he continued. “Obviously, the more [solutes] you have, the more dehydrated you are.”

Throughout the week of the fight, a fighter’s hydration levels and weight is measured each day, and if the results fail to meet ONE Championships requirements, the fight will no longer take place.

The one exception to this is if a fighter is fully hydrated and weights in under 105% of their opponents weight, a catchweight bout can take place.

So, what would it take for the UFC to implement such a policy?

 For starters, the vast majority of fighters in the UFC cut weight, so if hydration testing was to be implemented, the whole roster would most likely shift. You’d have Champions vacating to move up a weight class, and likely a fair amount of disarray. 

I find it unlikely that the UFC would enforce such a drastic change that would change the scope of the entire roster, especially considering their latest deal with ESPN and Zuffa’s $4 billion sale. 

Is it the right thing to do? Yes, is it likely to happen? Unfortunately not. 

Final Thoughts

Well there we have it, hopefully I’ve managed to shed some more light on such a debated topic,

If you’ve got any questions, or remarks, feel free to drop a comment in the section below.

James Davis

A fervent mixed martial artist and avid MMA fan, James combines his experience and scientific knowledge to provide you with a unique perspective on the most popular MMA products on the market. He joins the ranks of other MMA enthusiasts in creating this website to guide and educate the next generation of mixed martial artists.

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