Weighty Matters

8 Dec

      One of the more inane practices in the sanctioning of combat sports – specifically boxing and MMA – is the matter of how the competitors’ weights are regulated. Now everyone knows these sports have weight divisions which are supposed to protect the fighters by keeping them from having to go against opponents with a significant size advantage. The problem is, the methods set up to assure this supposedly “fair” competition are utterly ludicrous.
      Years ago, boxing weigh-ins were conducted on the day of the fight, the theory being if you weighed, say, 160 pounds in the morning, you would probably not weigh too much more than that in the evening when you fought and your 160 pound opponent would not be at too much of a competitive disadvantage. Of course, athletes, being who they are, will always look for any advantage they can get. Boxers, who might have walked around as much as 10 pounds over the weight they typically fought at, would dehydrate themselves before the weigh-in in order to shed some extra pounds, then rehydrate and eat a big meal immediately after the weigh-in so as to be closer to their natural weight and thus, hopefully, be a little bigger and stronger than their opponent when they stepped into the ring. Still, the amount of extra weight someone could gain on the day of a fight was never considered significant enough to make that huge a difference in the outcome of matches and the standards of what was a “fair” match-up, in terms of weight, were pretty well established.
      But this changed during the 1980s when, following a series of deaths in boxing matches that some attributed, in part, to fighters dehydrating themselves on the day of the fight to make weight, the rules for weigh-ins were changed. It was deemed safer for weigh-ins to be held the day before the actual fight so that competitors who dehydrated themselves would have sufficient time to properly rehydrate and would be at no extra risk when they fought. However, there were several problems with this scenario.
      First of all, as far as I know, the link between boxing deaths and cutting weight on the day of a fight has never been firmly established through comprehensive scientific study. So just how much safer fighters are, in terms of dehydrating themselves the day before a fight instead of the morning of a fight, remains in question though, admittedly, common sense would seem to indicate that dehydrating yourself on the day you engage in any rigorous athletic event would probably not be a recommended practice.
      Secondly, while fighters may no longer be at risk from dehydration weighing in the day before a fight, this has led to a problem which can threaten fighter safety as much, if not more, than dehydration: namely, extreme size mismatches in fights. For fighters who are experienced in cutting weight, losing 20 or even as much as 30 pounds from their normal walking around weight is not impossible, nor is putting most of that weight back on in the 24+ hours they now have between the weigh-in and the fight. This can lead to an athlete who comes into a fight weighing something like 135 pounds having to compete against an opponent who might weigh as much as 160 pounds. Obviously, this is a ridiculous competitive advantage to allow one fighter, yet it happens all the time. Now I don’t know exactly how bad the risks from dehydration were in the days of same day weigh-ins but I do know there is a definite risk for a 135 pound fighter going against a 160 pound opponent of approximately equal skill. Forcing a competitor to fight an opponent who might be two or even three weight classes above him is not just dangerous, it’s preposterous.
      Though some argue that both fighters have the option to cut large quantities of weight, I would ask, should combat sports be decided by who is the better fighter or by who is better at cutting weight? Besides which, weight cutting is not an accepted practice in all parts of the world. Many foreign fighters are used to competing at something close to their normal, walking around weight and are simply unaccustomed to the practice, common among American combat sport athletes, of cutting huge amounts of weight. Also, in mixed martial arts, where the heavyweight division has an upper limit of 265 pounds, a fighter whose best weight is around 235 pounds, is simply out of luck. It may be impossible for him to cut a full 30 pounds in order to get down to the 205 pound division. Yet he may be matched against an opponent who cuts down to reach 265 but enters the cage around 285 pounds. Even among heavyweights, a 50 pound weight difference is a significant advantage and one that MMA competitors should not be forced to deal with.
      Making the whole situation even more ridiculous – and unjust to athletes looking for a fair fight – is the fact weight limit regulations are typically ignored by promoters and athletic commissions. If two fighters are supposed to weigh in at 170 pounds for a fight, but one of them shows up for the weigh-in the day before the match at 172 pounds unable to cut those last couple of pounds (which means he might actually enter the match weighing around 200 pounds) the 170 pound fighter is usually asked if he is still willing to fight despite his opponent’s failure to make the agreed upon weight. And since most fighters don’t want to back down from a fight (and they will only get paid if they do, in fact, fight) the fighters are put in a position where they’re usually forced to accept the bout against an opponent possessing an unfair weight advantage. And all the athletic commission will typically do to “regulate” this situation is fine the fighter who doesn’t make weight part of his purse, then blithely allow the mismatch to proceed. The argument in favor of doing this is that the athletic commissions don’t want to prevent fighters from making their living or deny fans the opportunity to see the fight they were expecting. But this is essentially an argument in favor of putting money and entertainment ahead of athlete safety, an attitude that should be unsurprising to anyone who regularly follows the fight game.
      There are a couple of fixes for this situation which would seem fairly simple and common sense (which means that no one in the fight world will probably ever try it). The first fix would be to have two weigh-ins: weigh the fighters the day before the fight, then weigh them again 24 hours later on fight day. Now as good as some fighters are at dehydrating and cutting weight, it seems unlikely anyone is going to stay dehydrated for 24 hours in order to make weight. This would force fighters to actually fight at something close to what the contracted weight is supposed to be. Wouldn’t that be a novel idea, if fighters who were supposed to step into a ring or cage weighing 155 pounds actually weighed 155 pounds?
      The second fix is even simpler: if fighters don’t make the agreed upon weight, they don’t fight. Period. This one is even less likely to ever come about since, if a fight card has to be canceled because one of the participants in the main event isn’t allowed to fight, no one makes money including the promoter and the state sanctioning the fight. Still, if fighter safety is really the most important thing, as all the promoters and athletic commissions assure us it is, then fighters should not be allowed to fight if they can’t meet the agreed upon weight limit. Fighters who don’t make that weight should be subject to lengthy suspensions. Though this might seem harsh, when you miss making the agreed upon weight for a fight, you are essentially violating a contract and, in the real world, if you violate a contract, you suffer a penalty.
      Instead, in the modern fight game, it seems that only the athletes who fight at their natural, healthy weight are the ones being penalized.

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