Why Do MMA Fighters Cut Weight?

June 4, 2022

The weight cut is a much-dreaded part of a few sports with weight divisions. In combat sports and MMA in particular, it’s mandatory for any fighter who wishes to be competitive.

MMA fighters cut weight by losing water to weigh in below a weight class limit and then rehydrate and regain most of the weight to have a size advantage over the opponent.

The topic is long and, at times, controversial, so let’s not waste any more time and dive into the specifics of weight cutting for MMA.

Why Do MMA Fighters Cut Weight?

Fighters cut weight to fit inside the weight limit of their division. In MMA and most other combat sports, the two fighters have to be in the same weight class. Each weight class has a lower and an upper limit, and no fighter is allowed to weigh more than the upper limit.

This goal is to ensure fairness and competitiveness in the contest, which most of the time favors the larger man if the skill level is relatively equal.

However, said weigh-ins in professional MMA are done the day before the actual fights. The weigh-in is done on Friday morning if the fights are held on Saturday night in the UFC and many other organizations. This means fighters have more than 30 hours from the time they step on the scale to when they enter the cage.

Weight cutting is a process where fighters dehydrate themselves and lose water weight, which is then regained by the time they fight. This way, they are heavier than the official weight limit for the division on fight night.

This is done to gain strength and weight advantage over opponents. Still, it is more about not being at a disadvantage than gaining an advantage when everyone does it. A quick example would be a welterweight weighing in at 170 lbs. would weigh somewhere around 180-185 on fight night.

FREE Strength & Conditioning Program To Never Gas Out In The Cage

There is a debate about how much weight cutting hinders performance on fight night. Still, most of the data suggest that even in more significant weight cuts, if done correctly, the fighter’s performance is just slightly below his optimal level.

But for this slight decrease, he may very well weigh 10 lbs. more than his opponent, and this can be a game-changer at a high level.

How Do UFC Fighters Cut Weight So Fast?

How Do UFC Fighters Cut Weight So Fast

There are a few ways MMA fighters cut weight for a fight, and many times all are used together in a soul-crushing and weight-shedding recipe.

Mild Dehydration

The main processes of the weight cut are dehydration and rehydration. The only way to lose body weight in a few days without your performance suffering and then regain it in a day is by manipulating the water in your body.

The process usually begins around 5 days before weigh-in, when the fighter drinks a whopping 6 to 8 liters of water a day. This is halved each day with no water intake on or before the weigh-ins.

The initial large amounts of water cause the body to enter a flushing mode to process and take out the excess fluid. Then when the intake is lowered and stopped, the body is still in the same mode and continues flushing out the water.

The overall goal is to dehydrate the body to a point where somewhere between 3% (the reasonable amount not dangerous to the body) and 8% is lost just by water weight.

Excessive Sweating

To help the body excrete more water, excessive sweating must be forced. There are a lot of ways to do that. The best method is the sauna, and the last few pounds usually sink here, but not every venue has a sauna. For amateurs, especially, this is not a viable option.

Sauna suits are also used very often. Running or biking at a steady tempo with a sauna suit on for extended periods is one of the best ways to sweat like crazy.

Other methods, such as taking hot baths and then covering them with blankets and towels, or using Vaseline, make fighters’ lives miserable in their battle to lose the last few pounds.

Excessive Spitting

An old and not so commonly used method for dehydration is excessive spitting. Gums can be used to force the body to create more saliva and then spit it out. This method is less effective than others, but can still help, especially combined with the other methods. It can make a difference.

Reduced Calories

Of course, even sweating a river won’t be enough if the caloric intake is not optimized. The diet is critical throughout the entire fight camp, not just the weight cut week. A fighter’s weight must be within a reasonable level before the final week, or he will have to walk through hell to get the weight off.

In the final week, most fighters will be on a heavy caloric deficit (depending on the amount of weight left to cut) and reduce carbohydrate intake. Especially foods that linger in the stomach like high fiber oats and potatoes.

Fighters eat foods high in protein and fat but still in smaller portions. Another cruel enemy of the weight cut is salt. Sodium ties up with water in the body and prevents its disposal from the body.

Why Do MMA Fighters Use Vaseline To Cut Weight?

Why Do MMA Fighters Use Vaseline To Cut Weight

Vaseline is widely used in MMA, but the typical application is on the face to make the skin more elastic and slippery to prevent cuts. But petroleum jelly can also aid in losing weight.

The procedure is straightforward. The body is covered in Vaseline, which holds heat inside the body. After a set period (up to an hour), the vaseline is removed. The body starts sweating to reduce the body temperature.

Using neoprene or other heat-holding clothing can drastically increase the effect. If no sauna is available, this method is a reasonable substitution. 

How Much Weight Do MMA Fighters Cut?

The literature shows that most professional MMA fighters lose between 5 and 8% of their bodyweight during the weight cut. While doctors agree that the safe number is 2 to 3.5%, even 5 should not cause long-term health issues. The danger comes when these numbers go up to 10% or more, which is more frequent than you think.

We are talking about percentages because it’s a much better way to calculate. Ten pounds is not a lot of weight for a light heavyweight but can be the whole weight cut for a flyweight. To give some examples on the more extreme side, former welterweight champion George St. Pierre lost 20-30 lbs. in the final week.

Another great champion, Khabibi Nurmagomedov, also had notoriously big and difficult weight cuts. There are rumors that he managed to drop 40 lbs. but this may be an exaggeration. Regardless of the exact number, his cuts were monstrous and made for uncomfortable viewing:

Once you see a fighter in his corner and getting announced, he is typically around 10 to 30 lbs. above the limit of his weight class (obviously, the lower numbers for the lower divisions).

How Long Does It Take To Cut Weight For MMA?

The process of shedding weight for a fight lasts the whole training camp. Dieting and training to build muscle and lose fat is a week-long process but the final weight cut to drop water for weigh-in and then regain it for the fight is 5–6 days.

MMA Weight Cut Death: Why You Need To Be Careful

Aside from the intense mental torture weight cutting inflicts, it can also be hazardous for physical health. Severe dehydration causes many long-term health issues, but unfortunately, there have been even cases of death.

Two MMA fighters, Leonardo Souza and then ONE FC fighter Yang Jian Bing died attempting to squeeze inside a weight limit in the last few years.

The sport of MMA is not isolated in this regard. Muay Thai fighters Jordan Coe and Jessica Lindsay also sacrificed their lives due to complications from a weight cut. There are indeed more cases, but these should be enough to raise a huge red flag and caution every aspiring fighter.

Weight cutting is dangerous and must be done gradually. If you plan on cutting more than 4% of your body weight, always do it under the strict supervision of specialists. 

Why Is Weight Cutting Allowed In MMA?

How Long Does It Take To Cut Weight For MMA

Weight cutting is still an inseparable part of most MMA. The practice originated in boxing and wrestling, but there are more weight classes in boxing, and fighters can usually fight closer to their natural weight class without giving their opponents a size advantage.

After the death of Yang Jian Bing, ONE FC took drastic measures to prevent this from ever happening again. They implemented a completely new system that measures fighters’ weights throughout the fight camp, fight week, and fight night. They must always remain within a set weight and hydration level. With this, they generally abolished extreme weight cutting.

It remains to be seen if more big organizations follow similar paths and help fighters protect their health in an already brutal sport.

Summary

MMA fighters cut weight in the final week before the fight to weigh in at the limit of their weight class. This is done by losing water weight, which is regained the following day. This way, a fighter enters the cage 10, 15, or even 20 lbs. heavier than he was the previous day. The process is arduous, grueling, and agonizing. Still, if done right, it can genuinely give you the edge in a fight, where every little detail matters.

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About the author 

Plamen Kostov

Plamen has been training for the last 14 years in karate and kickboxing, before settling in for MMA for the last 5 years. He has a few amateur kickboxing fights and currently trains with and helps a stable of professional and amateur MMA fighters.


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