Extreme weight cuts have become a standard practice in modern MMA, and just about every fighter is doing it. By losing up to 30 pounds in a week leading up to a fight, or around 15% of their total body weight, fighters compete in the weight class below their natural one to gain a physical advantage over smaller opponents. Or that’s how it is on paper. But how do UFC fighters cut this much weight in such a short time span?
Most fighters start cutting weight while they are inside the training camp. But, they lose most of their weight, up to 20–30 pounds during fight week by dehydration, and limiting the intake of salt and carbs. In the final stages before weigh-ins, they often take hot baths, go to a sauna, or lay under a pile of blankets to increase sweating, and with that lose even more weight. It is a grueling process fraught with danger.
In this article, we are going to explain how UFC fighters cut weight step by step, and bring you closer to this process.
How UFC Fighters Cut Weight (Step By Step)
As an MMA fan, you have probably seen those famous vlogs of athletes fighting for their lives while trying to lose weight. But, this is the final stage of the process, the most brutal one. The process itself begins, for most fighters, a few months before while they are inside the training camp.
It all begins in the training camp
Most UFC fighters enter the camp out of shape after a long layoff, and probably overweight. The first thing most of them do is step on the scale and see how many pounds they need to lose in the following months. For example, Paulo Costa is known to be an extreme weight cutter and he often enters his training camp weighing around 230 pounds. So he needs to lose staggering 45 pounds to go all the way down to 185 pounds.
Over the next 8 weeks or so, UFC fighters like Costa would focus on improving their strength and fitness, lowering their body mass index, and of course, working on their fighting skills. Apart from training and burning calories like maniacs, they would also follow a strict nutrition program, which helps them lose a couple of pounds each week without even noticing. After the camp is over, they enter the fight week weighing around 210 pounds and have to lose between 20 and 30 in less than 7 days.
Dehydration (fluid restriction)
The majority of the weight that UFC fighters lose before the weigh-ins is water actually, and this is the most dangerous part of the process. In fact, some fighters lose 10–15% of their body weight just in water. Getting this one wrong might get you into serious, life-threatening trouble. Though the process may vary between the fighters, most of them start by slowly decreasing their fluid intake around 5–to 6 days before the weigh-ins.
On Sunday (6 days before the weight ins), fighters start the weight cut by drinking 2 gallons of water on the first day. This will flush the excess salt out of their bodies, and cause the body to conserve secrete potassium and salt. Or in other words, the body enters the “flushing mode”. The next day and the day after (Monday and Tuesday), they would decrease the water intake to 1 gallon before they drop even lower to 0.5 gallons on Wednesday, and 0.25 gallons on Thursday. On Friday, they would drink no water or any other fluid up until weigh-ins.
Restriction of carbohydrates and salt
During the fight week and while decreasing the water intake, fighters also decrease the number of carbs they eat during the day to less than 50 grams. This is because carbs pull around 2.7 grams of water into your body, which has a big impact on the weight cut. They would stay away from eating fruits, sugar, starches, or any food rich in carbs. Instead, they are allowed to eat food rich in protein, and a lot of vegetables.
As if decreased intake of water and carbs is not terrible enough, fighters also must avoid salt at all costs because salt makes your body retain more water.
Excessive sweating (hot baths, sauna, etc)
One of the most efficient ways of losing weight, along with the restriction of fluid and carbs, is by sweating. During the fight week, fighters would often take hot baths, sit in the sauna, or as Darren Till and Khamzat Chimaev do, lay down on the floor under the pile of blankets. This part usually comes into play in the last 2 days before weigh-ins, and the scenes of fighters laying on the floor half-conscious are just horrible to watch.
What happens after the weigh-ins?
After the weigh-ins, all fighters must follow a strict procedure and rehydrate their bodies and gain the weight back the right way. Sure enough, they would drink plenty of water, around 20 gallons in 24h, and other fluid rich in various vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. They are also allowed to eat food rich in carbs, fat, salt, and protein as much as they want, which probably feels awesome.
However, they must be careful because, in some US states like California, there is a famous 10-point plan rule. According to this rule, fighters are not allowed to gain more than 10% of their body weight back. Or in other words, fighters who compete at 170 pounds are not allowed to gain more than 17 pounds after the weigh-ins and before the fight.
The members of the Athletic Commission would also perform dehydration tests and check the urine gravity. This is one of the methods they use to prevent fighters from losing too much bodyweight and going through extreme weight cuts.
What happens if a UFC fighter doesn’t make weight?
If a UFC fighter steps on the scale and is overweight, the Athletic Commission would give them another hour or two to cut to try to cut extra pounds behind the stage. The hour or two is often more than enough for most fighters cut an additional pound or two, and make weight in their second attempt. But what if they miss it again?
Fighters’ missing weight in their second attempt is a bit of a problem because, on paper, the fight is “off”. However, the UFC would, in that case, try to arrange a catchweight fight that would take place at a weight higher than the upper weight limit of that division. For example, if the fight was supposed to be at 155 pounds, the catchweight would be at 160 or 165 pounds.
The UFC would ask the opponent to accept the new circumstances, and the only thing left is for the Athletic Commission to give them a green light, which they do in most cases, and the fight is still on. However, not without the consequences for the fighter who missed weight. No, they would have to give 30% of their fight purse, sometimes even more than that, to their opponent who made weight and accepted the catchweight bout.
It’s worth pointing up that, if a title is on the line, a fighter who missed weight is not allowed to win the belt.
How dangerous is weight cutting in the UFC?
Extreme weight cutting by dehydration is one of the most dangerous aspects of modern MMA. In fact, you can often hear fighters saying that making weight is the hardest part of the game, and more dangerous than fighting itself. But what are the exact risks and dangers of extreme weight cutting?
Losing 30 pounds in less than a week has a huge impact on fighters’ bodies. First, it causes a reduction in testosterone production. This happens because the body does not have enough energy to maintain the proper function of the hormones. The cortisol levels also increase (stress hormone), which is a sign that the body is starting to break muscle tissue to provide energy. There is also an increase in creatinine in their blood as well as sodium content, which may contribute to kidney malfunction. One of the fighters who nearly died during weight cutting was Khabib Nurmagomedov prior to his scheduled bout with Tony Fighters at UFC 209.
You can often see fighters collapsing during the weight cuts, not being able to speak or stand on their feet. They often end up laying in the hospital bed fighting for their lives after pushing both their minds and bodies too far. In some of the worst scenarios, weight cutting may lead to heat exhaustion and stroke, coma, kidney failure, and low blood volume, or be lethal.
Has anyone died from weight cutting?
Yes, there have been a couple of deaths linked directly to extreme weight-cutting in MMA. Bear in mind that no one from the major promotions like the UFC has met such a fate thus far, and let’s hope it stays that way. Here is a list of fighters who died during the weight cut:
- Leonardo Souza — died of a stroke in 2013 shortly after the official weigh-ins due to complications. He was set to compete at Shooto 43 event in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and was a member of the famous gym, Nova Uniao. He accepted the fight on short notice and tried to lose 33 pounds in less than a week, which cost him his life.
- Yang Jian Bing — was a 21 year old fighter who competed for the leading Asian promotion, ONE FC. He died during the weight-cutting and the cause of death was listed as a “cardiopulmonary” failure. During the process, he suffered a suspected heat stroke and was quickly rushed to the hospital where the Doctors gave their best to save his life. Bing’s death had a big impact on the sport of MMA, and it forced ONE FC to change the system and ban weight cutting by dehydration.
- Rondel Clark — was a talented up and coming fighter who died at 26 years old shortly after his fight at “Cage Titans XXXV” in 2017. Clark looked good throughout the first two rounds, but would gas out in the third round. He was so exhausted that he had a hard time breathing and was quickly rushed to the hospital where he died due to kidney failure, caused by extreme dehydration.