It’s not uncommon in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) for competitors to force themselves to lose more than six kilos in one day, to make their weigh-ins 24 hours before a fight.
With the goal of “making weight” before a match, fighters will drain their bodies of as much fluid as possible in the dangerous practice of “weight-cutting” by dehydration.
The process is explored in new documentary Caged, premiering on SBS this month. In an excerpt below, 23-year-old fighter Ali Cevik sweats it out in a hot salt bath, demonstrating just how brutal this process can be:
To the outsider, the sport itself may seem thuggish or violent: a full-contact combat in the cage where anything goes: Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling rolled into one. As 36-year-old Claire Todd explains though, “it’s a very controlled environment.”
“Because you’re locked in there with someone your own size and your own weight and everything is very similar so it’s an even keel,” says Claire, one of the three fighters featured in Caged.
Probably the most physically intense aspect though is not what these super-fit athletes do to their opponents in the cage, but what they put their own bodies through in this high-risk preparation method for a fight.
Such a severe loss of vital fluids can place the body under immense pressure: the heart rate increases, heat-stroke is a distinct possibility and in extreme cases, vital organs can shut down or become permanently damaged.
The dangers were demonstrated to be very real in December last year when 21-year-old Chinese fighter Yang Jian Bin died after weight-cutting ahead of a match.
Claire also knows the risks of weight-cutting all too well, as she finds herself pushed to the brink in a chilling incident shown in the documentary.
In spite of the dangers though, she insists she’s not deterred. “Yes, I’ll weight cut again,” Claire told SBS Online this week.
“I’ve done a weight cut many times before. I did it earlier in the year and everything was hunky-dory. Something went wrong this time and so be it.”
“I would weight cut again, but like everything, you live and you learn – you just do it a little different.”
So what can you do differently?
Fellow MMA fighter Martin ‘The Situ-Asian’ Nguyen says that weight-cutting is just part and parcel of the sport, but emphasizes that there are healthier ways to do it than by breaching dangerous levels of dehydration.
“If your diet is off point and you have to cut four to five kilos - that’s dangerous,” says Martin.
“When I first started the sport, I used to cut three to five kilos,” he explained.
“From what I found out after - from how my body reacted, it was pretty dangerous and I don’t think I could go through that again.”
“That’s why I diet and keep my weight down as much as possible.”
It doesn’t stop Martin from sweating it out altogether when it comes to the crunch though:
Martin explains that if you regulate your diet, “then when it comes to weight cutting time, it’s just a matter of either going for a run or sitting in the sauna for half an hour, and I’m on weight.”
“You learn over time what your body can take and what it can’t take,” says Martin.
Ali Cevik, the fighter shown in the clip above, takes a much more laissez-faire approach to weight-cutting.
“For me, I love food and I love to eat. So I’d rather do a hard cut then have a fight camp, just struggling to not eat food,” Ali says.
“I’d rather keep eating and then just do big cuts, about a month out.”
“Doing big cuts, like eight or nine kilos, is just stupid. I wouldn’t do the fight, But if it’s like five to six kilos, that’s fine. It’s just all water.”
The Australian Institute of Sport advises a much slower rate of weight-loss in their guidelines for athletes aiming to make weight: “If athletes need to lose body mass to achieve their weight target, they should do so through long term-moderate energy restriction and appropriate exercise.”
They do not however, advise against the practice of dehydration altogether: “Weight loss of 2-3% of a hydrated body mass in the 2-3 days before competition weigh-in should be tolerated by most athletes, especially if employed against a background of good nutrition and hydration practices.”
Various International MMA competitions such as the American UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and the Singaporean ONE-Championship have introduced various rules around the practice of weight-cutting, such as moving weigh-in times further forward and banning rehydration through the use of IV fluid-injections.
For the uber-competitive athletes involved though, most seem unlikely to give up the rapid loss technique any time soon – even when they’ve experienced the dangers first hand.
“Heatstroke and dehydration can happen anywhere – not just with weight-cutting,” says Claire.
“I don’t see that it’s so massive. I just made a mistake – and you can do that driving a car, you can do that taking medication. It can happen. Maybe I’m trivializing it.”
“Everybody still drives their cars even though everybody knows someone that’s had an accident or died in an accident.”