In a sport built off the concept of two men locked in a cage, beating each other until one of them goes unconscious, it’s a strange thing to say that the most dangerous aspect is likely taking place before either of them ever sets foot on the mat. Weight cutting is MMA’s dirty not-so-secret.
The process that (at least in one of its forms) once killed three collegiate wrestlers in little over a month back in the 90s has become one of the backbones of mixed martial arts over the last 20 years. Fighters routinely compete 20-30 lbs under their day-to-day walking weight, using training camps to slowly lean out, before dropping the last 5-10 lbs (or more) in the last couple days before the fight. In some cases, when the opportunity is big enough, fighters will shed nearly a quarter of their bodyweight in the span of a week or two, to make their designated division.
It’s an all too common practice that UFC lightweight Kevin Lee says needs to stop, before somebody gets killed.
Lee has had his own harrowing encounters with the UFC scales. Ahead of his UFC 216 bout against Tony Ferguson – and suffering from a bad staff infection – Lee, who walks around at about 185 lbs, had a weight cut that he claims “damn near killed me.” A notably drained version of his normally indefatigable form went on to lose the bout by submission in the third round.
And it’s that kind of personal struggle – along with the recent reports of Lee’s teammate Uriah Hall suffering a seizure and mild heart attack during his own disastrous cut down to middleweight – that are prompting Lee to speak out. On a recent episode of the Monday Morning Analyst with Luke Thomas, Lee gave his thoughts on how to fix the weight cutting problem. Most notably, he feels the UFC needs more divisions.
“But, they have expressed interest in a ‘65 lb division,” Lee said, speaking of the UFC’s future plans. “I think they’re just waiting on the right timing or trying to figure out how they’re going to do it. It’s gonna have to come. This weight cutting issue is such a big deal.
“And it’s not even like… I’m not calling out for it because I can’t make 155 anymore. I’m smaller than some of these other guys. Right now I’m sitting at 178, I can make the weight class no problem again. It’s just, we have to do something about this weight cutting issue. The only commission to look at it was California, and the way they came up to fix it was, they added a 165 and a 175 lb division. That’s the only solution that there is.
“Everybody knows that this weight-cutting thing is a problem, but nobody is coming up with no fucking solutions. Everybody’s just kinda waiting for somebody to die. And I don’t feel like that’s the right thing to do. I think you have to take at least one step in the right direction and then just see how it goes. It’s really no downside to it.”
“Yeah, and it’s a shame too,” Lee continued, when pressed on the idea it taking a death to cause change. “It’s happened again and again and again in all these combat sports. You’ve seen it in boxing, you’ve seen it in wrestling – they just did it a couple years ago. When the three kids died in the sauna, they went ahead and changed all these weight classes. That’s what it’s gonna take.”
That extreme tragedy has yet to strike the UFC – although fighters in the promotion have been hospitalized on numerous occasions due to weight cutting complications. However, it’s already happened on the regional MMA circuit.
In 2015, 21-year-old ONE FC fighter Yang Jian Bing was rushed to the hospital ahead of his fight, suffering from severe dehydration and possible heat stroke, he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. And in 2013, 26-year-old Shooto Brazil competitor Leandro Souza died while cutting weight for his bout at Shooto 43. Reports at the time suggested he was likely trying to shortcut the process with diuretics and suffered a stroke.
Hopefully the UFC will find a solution to fighters dropping extreme amounts of weight, before another athlete falls victim. If not, then it’s just as Lee says, everybody’s just waiting for somebody to die.