The state of California is on the verge of significant policy reform concerning extreme weight cutting, which executive officer Andy Foster describes as a “clear and present danger to mixed martial arts.”
Last weekend, Foster presented a 10-point plan intended to curb weight cutting to the California State Athletic Commission’s (CSAC) medical committee. The commission could vote on the implementation of the plan as early as May.
Foster’s plan includes licensing athletes to specific weight classes, adding more weight categories and a second weigh-in that would take place the day of a fight. The proposed changes would have major implications on athletes, especially those who are used to cutting a large amount of weight.
“Somebody has to act on this,” Foster told ESPN.com. “MMA is dangerous. Everybody gets that. Cutting weight, in order to qualify for an MMA competition, shouldn’t be dangerous.
“I actually think this is a clear and present danger to mixed martial arts, and I’m going to act. I don’t care if I’m by myself and nobody else acts on this. I hope they do. People have already died, and more will die if we don’t get a handle on this.”
Extreme weight cutting has long been ingrained in the culture of MMA. It’s common practice for an athlete to drain water from his or her body to briefly get on a scale and then rehydrate. The cuts are not always successful and sometimes result in an athlete being hospitalized or a fight cancelation.
There have been several deaths linked to extreme weight cutting, although none have happened in the U.S. On Sunday, The Bangkok Post reported a young Scottish kickboxer wearing a sweatsuit was found dead in Thailand. According to the report, authorities have speculated the cause of death was a heat stroke related to the fighter’s weight cut.
“OK, forget the deaths for a moment — let’s just talk about the people who are going to have long term repercussions with their kidneys, liver, all this stuff,” Foster said. “Thirty years from now, we’re going to have problems. Weight cutting is MMA’s version of the concussion problem in the NFL.”
Foster, who has been involved in combat sports since 1997, has implemented measures to control weight cuts in the past, but nothing as sweeping as this 10-point plan.
The changes would apply to all professional MMA bouts in California, but their effect on high-profile fights would obviously draw the most attention.
The UFC, for instance, is scheduled to hold a pay-per-view event on July 29 in Anaheim. Under the proposed plan, any athlete who has previously missed a particular weight twice would no longer be licensed to compete in that division.
Also, any athlete who successfully makes weight but regains 10 percent of his or her body weight before the fight would no longer be licensed in that category in the future. In other words, if a 155-pound male lightweight weighs in on fight day at 170.5 pounds, his next fight in California would need to be at welterweight. According to a recent study by the CSAC, 41 percent of athletes were at or above that 10 percent mark.
Foster said he believes many of those potential cases would be mitigated by simply addressing the issue at the time a fighter is licensed. Under the revised policies, an athlete would undergo medical evaluation to determine a safe fight weight long before fight week.
“I can’t tell you how many licensing physicals we receive where a guy weighs 30 pounds over the weight he competes in,” Foster said. “Yet, they’re fighting at that lower weight class. We’re going to start addressing that. I want some medical supervision, to decide what weight class is appropriate, much like the NCAA does with collegiate wrestling.”
As CSAC executive officer, Foster is in regular communication with the sport’s largest promoters, namely the UFC and Bellator MMA.
Both promotions are acutely aware of extreme weight cutting, with the UFC implementing several policies to address the issue. But again, there has been nothing close to Foster’s 10-point plan.
Foster said he doesn’t expect either promotion resisting the policy changes, although it’s possible it could affect whether certain athletes are booked in California. While other state commissions have publicly discussed extreme weight cutting, none is approaching the levels of reform under consideration in California.
Either way, Foster says his state is past the point of no return on the matter. Reform is coming.
“If we lose some fights because we’re trying to protect these guys from unsafe activities, I don’t see how that is a negative,” Foster said. “We want to be business friendly, but regulators need to regulate on this. And I really don’t think large promoters like the UFC and Bellator are going to abandon the California market because we’re trying to provide measure that protect athletes.”