HARRIS’S TAKE: Weight cutting in the UFC and changes that may come

BY JOHN HARRIS, MMATorch Contributor

Kevin Lee walks off the scale with his head down after weighing in one pound over the maximum 155. Lee returned to the scale one hour later and successfully made weight during UFC 216 official weigh-ins at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, NV., Friday, October 6, 2016. ( Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

UFC 216 saw the crowning of a new champion and the continued dominance of another. Tony Ferguson submitted Kevin Lee via triangle choke in the 3rd round of the main event to become the interim lightweight champion. Demetrious Johnson was able to surpass Anderson Silva for most title defenses in UFC history with one of the most beautiful armbar submission victories you will ever see over Ray Borg.

For Ferguson it seems that a show down with current lightweight champion Conor McGregor would be the next logical step. Ferguson had strong words for McGregor post-fight and appears to be one of the most formidable opponents McGregor has ever faced inside the octagon.

Johnson’s path is not as clear. He nearly wiped out his entire 125 pound division. His next challenger could be the winner of Henry Cejudo vs. Sergio Pettis on December 2. There has also been talk of moving up to 135 for a potential super fight against the winner of Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw for the bantamweight title. Either way Johnson chooses to go, his fights have become must see T.V. However, the biggest talking point for myself coming out of UFC 216 is the issue with weight cutting in the UFC and all of MMA.

Kevin Lee struggled to make weight for his 155 pond main event fight. He failed to make weight on his first attempt on the scale, then he was able to lose one pound in an hour to avoid the title opportunity being removed from him. Lee, who fought with a staph infection, was rumored to have lost 19 pounds within the last day or so just to even be close to the 155 pound weight limit.

“It was what it was.” Lee said at the UFC 216 post fight press conference. “I was going to make the weight even if I had to cut my foot off or something. I said it before, it damn near killed me and I had to do what I had to do. I had a job to do, I’m a professional and I’m going to come out here no matter how bad it hurts. I’m going to come out here and I feel like I put my best performance on tonight, but by the third round it was too much for me.”

This type of weight cutting has been an issue in all of MMA for years. Fighters have been literally nearly killing themselves to make weight. A dangerous practice for the fighter has also been bad business for the UFC. Numerous fights over the past few years have been cancelled or changed because of weight cutting. Just the past Saturday, lightweight Nik Lentz was forced to pull of his fight with Will Brooks due to falling ill from the weight cut.  UFC 209 lost its main event with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Paige VanZant recently stated she passed out in her bathroom to cut weight for her last fight at strawweight. Thankfully VanZant will be moving up to the new UFC women’s flyweight division.

One of the most shocking things I have ever seen happened this week in Japan at the Pancrase 290 weigh-ins. Daniel Lima was dragged onto the stage and was barely able to stand when he was put on the scale. Lima missed weight after cutting 16 pounds in two days but oddly enough was still allowed to fight. This was just disturbing on so many levels. The fact that a fighter feels the need to cut weight like this just to be able to compete, earn a paycheck and entertain the audience is a tough pill to swallow for this long time MMA fan. In addition, it is really troubling that nobody around Lima stepped in and not allowed Lima to fight. One would hope that his team or the company promoting the fight would have not wanted see a fighter put his life even more at risk than normal when stepping into the ring. I’m not really sure how some of these individuals can justify allowing Lima to compete after the incident at the weigh-in.

With this being said, what can be done to prevent these dangerous weight cutting practices? The first major step to making changes occurred this summer. The Association of Boxing Commissions adopted 4 new weight classes for MMA. The new weight classes would be 165, 175, 195 and 225. Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance stated the UFC will support these new weight classes and could be adding those to the UFC in the near future. Recently the UFC proactively took measures for the women by adding the 125 pound and 145 pound weight classes. The UFC now has four women’s divisions with a 10 pound increment in between each one. The plan is for the regional circuit to adopt them over time so that fighters will get used to fighting at these weight classes and larger promotions such as the UFC and Bellator will be able to have deep talent pools at each weight classes. The plan presented by the Association of Boxing would also have large fines for fighters unable to make weight and hydration checkups in the weeks leading up to a fight. The plan sounds promising for the health of the fighters and the future of the sport but the big question is, if and when the leader in MMA, the UFC, will adopt these new weight classes.

As a fan of the UFC since the early 2000’s I have always been against the idea of more weight classes. The five original weight classes were all I felt the sport needed. I did not want it become watered down like boxing with ten to twenty weight classes with thin talent pools. However, I have slowly begun to change my tune. The weight cutting has become so dangerous for the fighters that we are running the risk of someone getting seriously injured inside the octagon. Also we are having big fights not happening because of the health risks that are coming along with the extreme weight cutting. The UFC has lost a number of main events and PPV caliber fights because of the side effects caused by weight cutting.

From a business perspective the UFC cannot be happy with many of the fights that they have spent money on promoting falling through at the last second. The numbers for UFC PPV buys have been down in 2017. Up until UFC 214, no PPV event in 2017 managed to break the 300,000 buy mark. The lack of big box office drawing fights this year has been the cause of this, and one of those reasons is fighters nearly killing themselves just trying to make weight.

I think the UFC will adapt the new weight classes but it may take longer than we think. The biggest problem I see is the damage it will do to the 205 pound light heavyweight division and the heavyweight division. These two divisions are currently the weakest in the UFC in my opinion. Long time veterans who are no longer near their prime such as Mark Hunt and Shogun Rua are still top 10 ranked fighters in their respective weight classes mostly  because the lack of young talent. By adding a 195 pound division and a 225 pound division the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions will become even thinner. It may take a few years to build all of these divisions up with the talent we are used to seeing in the UFC but I think it has to happen.

The UFC has done a great job becoming a part of the mainstream sports culture over the past decade and they cannot allow themselves to continue to put their fighters health at risk with this extreme weight cutting. If it does continue then look for all the hard work Dana White and company have put in building up the brand to go down the toilet and the term “human cock fighting” to start being thrown around again.

NOW CHECK OUT HARRIS’S PREVIOUS TAKE: The UFC’s Top 10 must see remaining fights of 2017

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