Weight cutting has long been an issue in mixed martial arts.
Seen as one of several problematic traditions adopted from amateur wrestling, dehydrating one’s body to the brink — and sometimes past the point — of irreparable damage was always a cause for concern. And that says a lot, considering, you know, it’s a combat sport.
In the decade-long journey the sport’s taken to what heights we find today, even the greatest minds struggled to find a viable solution. A concerned look, maybe even a shrug was often enough to keep things as such. Nothing of substance was ever conceived without a following of pitchfork-wielding folks expressing what flaws exist in a plan that would create a litter of extra problems in the solution’s wake.
Our eyes would grow wide each time we saw Conor McGregor weigh in. A man capable of dethroning the greatest featherweight fighter to ever live in a mere 13 seconds Saturday looked like he’d struggle to contend with a slight gust of wind just 24 hours before.
Our heads shook in concern when hearing of Renan Barao’s UFC 177 weight-cutting debacle. A man capable of storming past 32 straight opponents fell victim to his body’s understandable need for water, rocked by a bath tub as his temporarily frail frame gave in and gravity took over.
For obvious reasons, neither of those situations warranted the same sort of reaction to the death of Yang Jian Bing. A 21-year-old man capable of taking a breath no longer could, all because of complications from a difficult weight cut for his fight at ONE Championship 35 earlier this month.
Unfortunate as it may be to realize the death of a young man was all we needed before taking unfounded measures to prevent future tragedies, ONE Championship did just that — it took revolutionary steps, no longer allowing their fighters to make drastic weight cuts by dehydration.
At its core, one can admire the nobility. But, like many things, the plan isn’t perfect. It won’t be that easy. It can’t be.
Fighters often take drastic weight-cutting measures to, in theory, enjoy drastic size advantages inside the cage once they’ve rehydrated for 24 hours. But once an overwhelming amount of mixed martial artists begin utilizing said advantages, the troubling weight cuts almost become a necessity to remain competitive in any given division. That, or become the fighter who’s giving up the advantage. Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre — three of the most talented fighters the sport has ever seen, but none whose otherworldly skills outweighed the risk of being the smaller man inside the cage. Not a chance.
ONE Championship’s blueprint asks its fighters to break free of that mentality. With the promotion assigning fighters to specific weight classes based on “current walking weight,” no one fighter should — again, in theory — be exponentially larger than his opponent. The promotion will regulate what fighters can weigh in the final weeks while preparing for the bout, never allowing anyone to be more than the allotted amount or risk the fight from taking place altogether.
Per ONE Championship’s regulations, a fighter will need to be on weight three weeks out before a contest — something UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon only does for a few hours at a time on an annual basis. Again, this would force a majority of MMA fighters to move up a weight class.
Theoretically, you would see a good portion of fighters from any given division move up one weight class. Bantamweights become featherweights, featherweights become lightweights. Simple enough, so it seems.
Not simple, however, for those currently competing at lightweight, whose next available weight class (per MMA’s current standards, anyway) is 15 pounds greater than the one they’ve long competed in. Middleweights would need to move up 20 pounds to become a light heavyweight. Light heavyweights would only need to move up one pound to become a 206-pound heavyweight, but that’s the same division that allows fighters to balloon up to 265 pounds.
Without adding weight classes, former light heavyweights like Dan Henderson — who finds himself in that weight-cutting purgatory of light heavyweights who don’t cut much weight but still cut weight to meet the limits — could foreseeably give up 60 pounds to the largest of MMA’s heavyweights.
Then we move on to the regulation of these changes to find even more concern.
Per its list of rules, “ONE will conduct random weight checks on athletes at [its] discretion” to ensure fighters are following the new guidelines. Not only that, but “ONE doctors” are the ones doing the initial testing. Not a third-party, unbiased regulatory body, but an in-house medical professional who may or may not have a vested interest in the greater good of the promotion.
Without a widely respected, impartial regulatory body to oversee the new program, there’s no conceivable way of eliminating an existing conflict of interest.
Picture ONE Championship’s most popular titleholder missing weight three weeks out, only the promotion has spent hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars marketing the contest that people are dying to see. ONE could either cancel the fight altogether or, you know, not do anything at all. Suddenly the rug’s underside becomes a good place to store poor weight cuts.
That’s not to say it will happen, but the fact that it could happen is more than enough reason to raise an eyebrow.
Fighting against dangerous weight cuts needs to happen; this just cannot be the best way to go about doing so. Doing nothing in the wake of a fighter’s death is shameful, but doing something for the sake of doing it may not be the answer, either. Because for as much attention was placed on the promotion to act, 12 days doesn’t seem like enough time to create a viable plan to a problem decades in the making.