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Click Debate: Can weight mishaps be prevented before fight week?

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Tim Elliott trained for weeks, dieted down and flew from Missouri to Winnipeg, Manitoba with the full intention of fighting at UFC on FOX 26 on Saturday. That didn’t happen and through no fault of his own.

Elliott went through a weight cut — and they are not easy for him — and hit the mark at 125.5 pounds Friday. His opponent Pietro Menga never weighed in, though, and the fight was canceled.

Elliott apparently could have accepted the fight against a much heavier Menga and accepted 20 percent of his opponent’s purse, but rightly turned it down. Menga later tweeted that he was having kidney issues, so the fact that he would have been allowed to fight after admittedly trying to cut 31 pounds in 11 days — and actually shedding 24 — is absurd in itself.

It seems like every week there is a similar story in the UFC.

At UFC Fresno last week, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), which has been aggressive in combating extreme weight cutting, moved up a flyweight fight to bantamweight because fighter Carls John de Tomas was “significantly” heavier than the ‘10 percent above the weight class’ guidelines.

A week before that, Sijara Eubanks lost a chance to compete in the first-ever UFC women’s flyweight title fight against Nicco Montaño due to kidney failure. Eubanks, who walks in the 150s, was trying to cut too much weight and three brutal weight cuts on The Ultimate Fighter 26 likely wrecked her body, she said a few days later on The MMA Hour.

The UFC has lost multiple main events and title fights due to weight-cutting mishaps this year. Extreme weight cutting via severe dehydration is affecting fighter health and safety and hitting the world’s leading MMA promotion in the wallet, to boot. While there is no simple solution, nor a single regulation that will squash the problem, it’s far past time to make changes.

CSAC has been the leader in weight-cutting reform and the UFC’s team, led by vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky, has made inroads, but it still seems like the problem is greater than ever. While Novitzky and the UFC doctors have put a halt to dangerous weight cuts during fight week relatively often over the last two years, there must be a way to nip this in the bud before it ever gets to the point where a fighter has to be taken to the hospital due to kidney failure.

I don’t know how many times I have to write this phrase, but the weight cut should not be more dangerous and detrimental to long-term health than the actual fight.

One of the provisions of CSAC’s 10-point weight cutting plan is more accountability for matchmakers and promotions. This is not just a commission problem. The UFC must take some more responsibility for booking potential fights that end up with a combatant in the emergency room before he or she even enters the Octagon.

Take de Tomas for example. He was booked into a 125-pound fight with Alex Perez at UFC Fresno last week. The last time de Tomas tried to make 125, he was way far off the mark — five pounds overweight — last June in Singapore. If someone misses weight by that much, it might be time to realize that they shouldn’t be fighting in that division. Just like the UFC should not book Eubanks at flyweight any time soon.

If kidney failure while cutting weight is not enough to make the UFC force someone up a weight, I’m not sure what is.

Menga was coming in on 11 days notice and had a ton to cut. Who knows what he or his management told UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard about what his weight was when he accepted the fight? I’m willing to bet there was at least a possibility he lied and said he could make 125 no problem — that’s what fighters do in order to get a shot in the UFC.

Shelby and Maynard have one of the most difficult — and sometimes least rewarding — jobs in MMA. They have to wrangle a roster of nearly 600 fighters in 12 total weight divisions. They have to deal with managers; the wishes of every single one of those fighters; the goals of UFC president Dana White and the UFC’s WME-IMG overlords; and try to put together a fight card that fans will not only watch and/or pay for, but also enjoy and want to come back for more on the back end.

The last thing they probably want to hear is that they have to be more diligent about finding out what a fighter’s weight is before booking a bout. First of all, it seems ridiculous that there are only two matchmakers for that many athletes, but that’s a column for another time.

CSAC has had some success with tracking fighter weights through their required medicals and the use of FaceTime and Skype. Obviously, all of that can be gamed, but maybe it would have been worth putting Menga on the spot two weeks ago and getting better insight into where his weight was via video call. It might have helped to check in with de Tomas two or three weeks out to see where he was. Perez said de Tomas came into fight week in Fresno at 145 pounds — he’d need to cut 16 percent of his body weight to make 125.

Some have proposed random weight checks, kind of like how USADA pops in unannounced to collect urine and blood samples for drug testing. That would require an allocation of resources that the UFC probably wouldn’t be comfortable with at this juncture. Who is going to be showing up at fighters’ gyms to check their weight and is that even an appropriate scenario for independent contractors? USADA can’t do it — that’s not the agency’s role nor obligation.

What the UFC does have now is a ton of data on fighter weights from when they arrive to the host city on fight week all the way to fight day. They have been checking fighter weights for more than a year. That data needs to be sent to the UFC Performance Institute, where they are doing great work, and processed. And then it needs to be applied. Hard decisions need to be made. Some fighters will have to be told they can’t fight at the weight class they want to fight at, based on medical and scientific conclusions. There’s no way around it.

The fighters’ teams and the fighters themselves need to bear some of the responsibility, too. The first step is everyone being a little more open and honest about weight cutting, the dangers of severe dehydration and the consequences. Menga flew from Italy to Winnipeg this week hoping to make his UFC debut and all he got out of it was some pain in his kidneys. Not a dime of income. Was it worth it? He knew he was 31 pounds off.

(By the way, while we’re talking about pay, the UFC should do the right thing and give Elliott his show and win money. None of this is his fault; he did everything he was supposed to do.)

A lot of the time, fighters will do anything to make the weight and get into the cage. This is why they’re fighters and we love them. They are warriors and willing to put their bodies through hell. But they shouldn’t have to until the actual competition.

Sometimes you need to protect fighters from themselves. These athletes don’t want to cut exorbitant amount of weight. They do it because of arbitrary regulations and the culture of the sport.

Commissions need to do more about extreme weight cutting. So does the UFC.

Before fight week begins and not just when an athlete is on the verge of being rushed to the hospital.

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