The time has come for the UFC to do more about extreme weight cutting

MMA


Saturday’s UFC 216 main event was a fantastic, back-and-forth lightweight affair between two of the world’s best. It was arguably one of the better fights of the entire year.

And it almost didn’t happen, because of this sport’s outdated, extreme weight cutting culture.

Approximately 35 hours before challenging Tony Ferguson in a fistfight, a near-lifeless Kevin Lee required two attempts to make the 155-pound weight limit.

As a deadline inched closer for Lee to make weight, the MMA community braced itself for the possibility of losing the fight entirely — which has been a real problem for the UFC in 2017.

Lee ended up making weight, but UFC 216 still saw a late fight cancellation. Lightweight Nik Lentz was hospitalized when his “feet and hands went numb” and his heart rate “went through the roof.”

Lentz’s withdrawal barely made headlines, as it wasn’t one of the more high-profile fights on the card. A hospitalization typically doesn’t make headlines, in part because it’s not even rare. Two weeks ago, the UFC pulled a Japanese featherweight off an event after cameras caught him stumbling off the scale and needing physical help to walk off.

Extreme weight cutting is an epidemic in the sport, hiding in plain sight. Fans aren’t always privy to the ugly details of these cuts, but enough of them have been publicized. Former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos has described repeatedly passing out during his cuts to 155 pounds, and feeling close to death. Well-known coach Duke Roufus described seizure-like behavior in Anthony Pettis during a weight cut, and calls his role in that the biggest regret of his career.

Lee, who claimed he cut 19 pounds in 24 hours to make weight, said he was willing to die to do it, which shouldn’t be brushed off as hyperbole. There have been multiple weight-cutting related deaths documented in MMA, although none in the UFC.

It’s easy to identify this problem. Finding a solution is a lot harder. Drastic weight cuts are ingrained in the fabric of MMA. Size advantages don’t win fights, but they help — especially at the highest level. And the real money, of course, is attached to winning titles.

That’s why saying, “Well, nobody forces Kevin to fight in that weight class. It’s his fault,” doesn’t exactly address what’s happening.

In this case, Lee, 25, started his career at 155 pounds at age 19. He’s naturally getting bigger, but didn’t want to abandon the momentum and record he’s accumulated at that weight. And with his grappling base, it’s not an easy call to move up and apply that to bigger opponents. The current champion at 170 pounds is Tyron Woodley, who wrestled in college in a weight class eight pounds heavier than Lee.

Take all of that into consideration and it’s not surprising that Lee would push his body to unsafe limits for Saturday’s opportunity. Nor is it surprising Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was hospitalized in March before an interim title fight against Ferguson, also would.

Lee, along with others, have called for the creation of additional weight classes in the UFC — and it’s become difficult to argue against that. The UFC is wary of opening more divisions, as it could thin out the depth of current divisions or lessen a champion’s marketability.

But MMA isn’t even close to boxing’s 17 divisions, and there’s enough depth at 155 pounds to support opening a 165-pound class.

This is an MMA problem, not just a UFC problem, but it’s on the UFC to act as the industry leader. Athletic commissions, specifically California, are working towards a solution, but no single body has more influence or power than the UFC.

And like anything, it will cost money to address this. Opening a new weight class is not enough, and it might even encourage some heavier fighters to cut down to 165. The UFC needs to use resources on monitoring the weight of its athletes away from competition and strongly consider setting minimum weights they can compete at. The UFC is already ahead of the curve, with its Performance Institute and fight week guidelines, but it’s not enough.

If some athletes are so upset by the UFC’s refusal to book them at a lower weight class that they choose to sign with another promotion, so be it. Whatever costs associated with medically evaluating each athlete and determining his or her appropriate division, pay them.

Two years ago, the UFC invested millions in a comprehensive drug-testing policy the sport badly needed. It did so to lift the integrity of the sport, and to hopefully prevent a tragic situation — like a fatal injury caused by a cheating athlete.

It needs to act again now, and the rest of the sport will follow.



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