The dangers of boxing and mixed martial arts to human life were thrown once again into sharp relief this week following the death of 31-year-old British boxer Scott Westgarth.
However, complications arising from head trauma are not the only causes of fatalities in combat sports.
The other main culprit is weight cutting and its effects. Weight cutting involves the loss of ten pounds of body weight and often more in the space of hours.
Fighters must compete against their opponents at an agreed upon weight at which they must weigh in a day before the fight.
Though this requirement appears straightforward, the process of reaching that weight causes grievous problems.
Fighters, however, will literally push their bodies to the limits in order to lose the required weight before they use the few hours between the weigh in and the fight to regain their original size and weight and hopefully be the bigger fighter in the ring.
A fighter, on average, will ‘walk around’ at a normal weight of fifteen or twenty or even thirty pounds over his weigh in weight before he starts the whole process .
“The process of cutting the weight starts in camp weeks before the fight,” says Joe Neill, a former professional martial artist.
“I normally started out at a normal weight of around 165 to 170lbs and I would eventually be weighing in at 135lbs. While training for the fight you diet down so lose the first part of the weight.”
When training camp ends around a week from the fight, the weight cut begins. “Probably on the Sunday before the fight I’ll begin water loading and drink six litres of water per day for the next day or two,” explains Neill.
This amount is double the recommended intake for men but he will need every drop as final cut begins starts two or three days out from the weigh in.
“I aimed to lose 10 to 14lbs in the last week,” says Neill.
Essentially this part is manipulation of the water weight. “I will be so full of water and I will start exercising while keeping the calories very low,” says Neill.
“Then I start to really sweat the water weight out by spending time in the saunas and not drinking, really dehydrating yourself. You try anything to get the weight down including using diuretics when they were legal which they now aren’t.”
Neill gave an interesting and unexpected answer to my next question of whether the focus required to cut the weight helped to distract the fighter from the anxiety of facing their opponent. “It seems strange to say but the weight cut is the fight,” he says. “That is the hardest part of it.”
“Most people will never understand this level of dehydration. It is horrendous.”
Many fighters do eventually make the weight but when their efforts fail, the consequences are dire and can be fatal. Joao Carvalho, a professional fighter in Brazil died late last year while another, Daniel Lima, was so weak and depleted that he had to be carried to the scales. He would compete the following night. In March last year, the number one contender in the UFC lightweight division was pulled from a world title fight as his liver was failing.
As Neill tells me, liver and heart problems are not altogether uncommon consequences of weight cutting throughout the professional and amateur ranks worldwide.
It seems less important to mention but fighters’ performances are also compromised due to the efforts of weight cutting. “You are not seeing the best version of the fighters,” says Neill.
Neill retired from fighting after a disastrous weight cut of his own forced his hand.
“When I started cutting weight and getting in and out of the hot bath I took a negative turn,” he said. “ Less and less weight was coming off no matter how many times I got into the bath. Eventually it got to a point where I couldn’t get out of the bath.”
To compound matters, Neill was alone the entire time.
The practice seems too dangerous to continue to somebody from the outside. Numerous alternatives to weight cutting have been suggested such as creating more weight divisions to allow fighters to fight at weights within a healthier range.
Some suggest putting a ten pound limit on the amount of weight one can regain between weighing in and fighting, thus discouraging extreme depletion which could not be reversed.
Neill is open to these ideas but he also explains that fighters will always go to extraordinary lengths.
“At the time it is pure torture. You are counting down the seconds in the sauna and all you can do is pray the weight comes off and have faith in the process.”
“The sheer focus of the athletes and the lengths to which they will go to enter the cage or the ring is something most people just don’t understand. It means everything.”