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UFC 216 played out just right, but weight-cutting issues can no longer be ignored

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Overall, UFC 216 turned out to be a pretty good fight card, in that Bobby Green and Lando Vannata did a bit of synchronized swimming in the “deep water” and Demetrious Johnson broke the all-time consecutive title defenses record with a casually executed suplex-to-armbar finish of Ray Borg. These things played out extraordinarily on a night that truly needed something extraordinary, as the UFC paid tribute to Las Vegas just six days after the city’s greatest tragedy.

It really was a nice touch for the UFC to show that kind of love and empathy with its hub city. Sometimes even in the thrall of fighting’s ultimate objective to see people inflict harm, a little humanity goes a long way.

And perhaps for that reason, the only real downer was that UFC 216 played out like any other card in that it stuck with the longest running theme in the game, too, something that stretches back much farther down the fighting timeline than DJ’s record — once again, we were this close to disaster during the weight cuts.

This time Nik Lentz had to back out at the 11th hour when his body just kind of shut down, leaving Will Brooks without a dance partner. Kevin Lee, in the biggest fight of his career, bamboozled Nevada officials by concealing a staph infection that should have kept him out of his lightweight interim title fight with Tony Ferguson. Even while dealing with that, he somehow showed up on the scale as a rickety thing on the eve of that fight, looking more like Kafka’s Hunger Artist than the next UFC champion. The “Motown Phenom” might as well have come out waving a red flag.

In Lee’s case, he ended up making the walk. He shined in the first round, and began to fade in the second. By the third, he was a heaving husk of himself, unable to survive Ferguson’s relentless attack. Though he didn’t want to make it the story, the weight cut, coupled with the staph — which sat on his chest like a bullseye — ultimately did him in.

Everyone is lucky that was the extent of the outcome. Had something more serious come of Lee — who said he nearly killed himself getting down to 155 —the UFC’s tribute night would have become a second tragedy. The best thing Lee said during the post-fight press conference was that it was time to move up to welterweight, where he doesn’t have to possess the yogi’s gift of physical retraction.

UFC 216, as it appeared, was another glaring example of how ridiculous weight cutting has become. Johnson was only breaking the record on Saturday because the oversized flyweight Borg fell out of the original date at UFC 215 with complications in his weight cut. Ferguson was fighting Lee for the interim title because Khabib Nurmagomedov was hospitalized just before UFC 209, when they were supposed to do the same thing. Nurmagomedov has yet to come back.

In the interest of managing word count, we’ll stop there — but there are literally hundreds of examples of existential horror stories involving weight cutting (in which John Lineker and Johny Hendricks take up a decent chunk of the pie chart).

These aren’t casualties of war; they are exhibits of how foolish — and outdated — extreme weight cutting is. It took a long time for the broader public to take MMA in as something other than sanctioned Neanderthal violence, but rather a sport of athletic exceptionalism.

Blood on fight night is no longer the problem; nor are flash KOs or sharp elbows to the temple or necks being wrung out. We’ve all come to understand that a gash on the head is just superficial. No, it’s the organs shutting down quietly off-stage. It’s the minefield to uphold a contracted weight while purging cells from the brain. The “man-up” idea that the other guy is somewhere out there wearing the plastic suit in the sauna, and so therefore so should I. In 2017, slow suicide by dehydration feels a bit Middle Ages, even for a sport that thrives on — and connects us so deliriously to — the fringe.

How to fix it? That’s the big question, and there are plenty of ideas floating around. Does the UFC introduce more weight classes, like the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) approved in July? That would at least better peg some of the cusp fighters in-between weights to more natural divisions. That idea is met with skepticism by some, who claim that the UFC would be watering down the weight classes. That’s a funny way of seeing it. Given that the idea is to rehydrate the ranks, better watered down than drying up.

Others believe that fighters would just see a new targeted weight class to try and hit, and kill themselves to make it anyway. This would happen inevitably.

Yet, with the amount of interim titles that have been introduced of late, the addition of more weight classes doesn’t seem as ridiculous as it once did. In fact, it could potentially be a boon for adding more import to some of the lesser cards that have no symbols in play. Does having more titles detract from the meaning of belts? Of course, but no worse than interim titles do.

There are other ideas. Some of have suggested year-round weight checks to make sure that fighters are hovering within a range of their intended weight. As Ariel Helwani pointed out on Twitter, that type of condition would be more befitting of employees, not independent contractors (which UFC fighters are). The early morning weigh-ins have helped fighters get over the IV ban, but it’s not enough. The early morning weigh-ins have become more suspenseful than the fights themselves.

If UFC 216 (and a million cards before it) told us anything, it’s that the sport can’t roll on the way it is. You know it’s a problem when every time a match is made that it’s strictly hypothetical until you see the fighters make the walk. Too many become casualties of the cut, killing themselves so that they may live gloriously for 15 (or 25) minutes before a live crowd. Fighters are stubborn and don’t like to quit; it goes into their vocation.

Still, it has to be addressed.

We’re dealing in a far grimmer hypothetical than simply whether or not contracted fighter A will make it to fight contracted fighter B. We’re now sticking to if a fighter dies in the process, rather than asking when, and even for a company based in a gambling capital like Vegas that’s a dangerous play.

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