The Hidden Risks of Combat Sports (and the Obvious Ones too)

What’s the most dangerous thing about combat sports? Surely, the answer is obvious. Doctors and medical professionals internationally seem to all be in unanimous agreement that being hit very hard is devastating to a person’s health. Naturally. Unfortunately, in boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, and indeed most professional combat sports, an even bigger danger is plaguing fights and fighers themselves. Yet what is most shocking is that this danger is occurring before fighters even step into the ring/cage.

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Fighters routinely put their lives on the line before the first punch is even thrown. [Photo Credits: Jeff Bottari @ bleacherreport.com]

For a point of reference, the average adult male weight in the United Kingdom is 13st 3lbs. Just a sole pound higher than a UFC Middleweight fighter. However, despite being at the perfect size for the division, were the average man to compete in MMA they would likely end up fighting in the Lightweight division (11st 1lb). To get there, they would have to lose about 16% of their body weight. After a fighter has pushed themselves to the physical and mental limit in (extremely expensive) training camps for months on end, they likely will have gone from their starting weight of 185lbs to around 170lbs. What is shocking is that this is only the beginning of the weight-cutting journey. The real challenge still to come.

The final week before the fight, fighters typically drop at least 10lbs, in order to be able to complete the weigh-ins, which occur the day before the fight. Considering they are already elite athletes in supreme physical condition, they do not really have 10lbs to lose. Therefore, this cut is achieved through brutalising the body with dehydration until every drop of excess water is removed. Athletes often resort to working out in sweat suits, fasting, and even bathing in salts. No doubt, there is an argument to be made that this process is more barbaric and painful than any dangers faced in the cage the following night.

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UFC Welterweight contender, Darren Till reportedly temporarily lost vision during his brutal pre-fight weight cut in 2018. [Photo Credits @ totalprosports.com]

What makes the process even more painful, is how completely frivellous and unneccesary it has become. As soon as the weigh-in is complete fighters are often seen chugging gallons of water, or even soft drinks, before gorging on pasta, ice cream, or whatever they feel like. Don’t they deserve it? By the next morning it is common practice to have regained all weight lost during the cut. This therefore begs the question, what was the point? Well, it’s not just the fighter in the example who has been through this arduous ordeal. Their opponent has made all the same sacrifices. The idea originally was that if fighter A could manipulate the system and complete the weigh-ins at a lower weight class (by sacrificing just water, not muscle or strength) they would essentially be the much bigger competitor the following day in the ring. As a result, fighter B would be fighting at their actual weight against a titan who really belongs in the division above.  This seems a bit dishonest and underhand but certainly has some logic to it. If a fighter weren’t to follow this process, they may end up fighting someone who in reality on fight night weighs 30lbs more. Not a great start.

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Former UFC Light Heavyweight contender, Chael Sonnen is seen sipping a Coca-Cola just seconds after completing weigh-ins. [Photo Credits: u/vibesplitter @ reddit.com]

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the reigning champion of the UFC’s Lightweight Division. He is most famous for demolishing transcendent Irish superstar, Conor Mcgregor last October. However, in 2017, a disastrous weight cut forced him to pull out of a title fight against Tony Ferguson just days prior to the event. For a point of reference, this is the same man who wrestled bears with his bare hands as a child and came out unscathed. Yet cutting 15lbs the week of a fight landed him in hospital. By this logic, weight-cutting is more dangerous than bears. If that does not highlight the crippling effects of weight-cutting I am not sure what will.

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Khabib Nurmagomedov – ‘I feel I almost died‘. [Photo Credits @ sportsjoe.ie]

Whilst Nurmagomedov luckily has fully recovered from this incident and gone on to achieve the highest success in his field, there are cases which have not seen the same fortune. 18 year old Australian kickboxer, Jessica Lindsay lost her life in 2018 due to complications arising from weight-cutting. An attempt to shed the final pounds prior to just her second official Muay Thai Kickboxing bout led to the teenager collapsing whilst jogging. Doctors were unable to bring down her 180 BPM heart-rate, and she eventually succumbed to organ failure in hospital several days later. This tragic incident should certainly not be attributed to the fact that Jessica Lindsay was a young fighter, or a fighter with not a great deal of experience in managing weight-cutting. Evidence shows that practice is clearly equally inherently dangerous for newcomers, established amateurs, and world champions alike. Longtime UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion, Joanna Jędrzejczyk reportedly cut 15 pounds in less than 24 hours in order to weigh in for UFC 217 in 2017. Unsurprisingly, Jędrzejczyk, who was one of the most dominant champions in recent memory, was knocked out in the first round. With this we can see that weight-cutting plays havoc with the sport from top to bottom.

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Jessica Lindsay had no known medical conditions which may have discouraged her from competing. [Photo Credits @ perthnow.com.au]

I absolutely do not wish to underplay the more obvious dangers of combat sports. Of course, fighters can, and unfortunately often do, end up with broken bones, concussions, even life-threatening injuries. But as though this activity is not dangerous enough already, weight-cutting simply amplifies every risk in a sport already full of risks. Moreover, aside from being extremely dangerous, it also has a clear negative impact on combat sports. Fights are often cancelled when a fighter fails to make weight, which sees both fighters lose their spot and subsequently their earnings and livelihoods. Furthermore, there is no doubt that we would see a higher quality of bouts were both competitors fighting at 100% fitness. However, supposedly as many as 39% of MMA fighters are entering the cage dehydrated which is clearly hindering performances. What is perhaps most infuriating is that we have seen that the process has become entirely redundant as any advantage to be gained by weight-cutting is negated by the fact that every fighter is buying into the tactic. Unfortunately, it’s a game of who will blink first. Whilst each athlete is likely conscious of the futility of their actions, they can not afford to give such a significant advantage to the opponent.

Ultimately, weight cutting is a blight on combat sports. What was once seen as an astute sacrifice in the name of a tactical and physical advantage, is now a painstaking and downright farcical process which is shortening careers, offering a lower quality of product, and worst of all, putting lives at significant risk. In a sport riddled with as many dangers as MMA or boxing, it would be in the best interest of both fighters and fans alike to knock out weight-cutting for good.

[Image Credits: martz90 @ Unsplash.com]

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