Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Weight cutting leads to worse injuries in majority of combat athletes, report shows

Posted on 12 April 2022 by Will Rogan

A new study has found that most combat athletes suffer more severe head injuries after cutting weight to qualify for a certain division.

Academics from St Mary’s University, the University of Essex and Swansea University found that fighters who rapidly cut weight before a bout are at a higher risk of suffering concussions or being misdiagnosed with head trauma.

The report states that more than 60% of athletes competing in sports like boxing and MMA suffered worse symptoms after dehydrating themselves to adhere to rules on weight classifications.

MMA athletes reported concussion severity to be 40% higher compared to other sports, due to strikes to the head and contact with the canvas.

It comes after some combat athletes have died in the attempt to achieve a competitive edge by competing in a smaller weight class.

Yang Jian Bing, a 21-year-old Chinese flyweight fighter, died in 2015 from a cardiopulmonary failure linked to excessive and dramatic weight cutting. He was attempting to make 125 pounds to fight in a One Championship MMA bout.

Embed from Getty Images

Controversial methods to cut significant weight quickly include long periods in saunas to aid water loss through sweat and rationing water intake to keep weight down.

When an athlete enters a water deficit, they become hypohydrated and suffer the consequences of the uncompensated loss of body water. The symptoms of hypohydration are markedly similar to the symptoms of concussion, namely dizziness, headaches and lethargy.

This means that the baseline concussion tests are unfit for purpose as symptoms of hypohydration and concussion cannot be easily distinguished from one another.

The researchers have called on the combat sport’s governing bodies to check fighters’ hydration levels before fights to ensure concussion tests remain relevant.

Researcher Nasir Uddin, from St Mary’s University, said: “This study shows that current concussion testing does not account for the crossover of symptoms from being dehydrated, and is potentially putting fighters at risk.

“Not only is cutting weight through dehydration in and of itself dangerous, but it might actually exacerbate concussion symptoms and, even more concerningly, means medical professionals may actually misdiagnose it.”

“Going forward, governing bodies should ensure hydration and baseline concussion symptoms are taken into account before and after bouts.”

Researcher Uddin added: “In terms of regulating weight-cutting, if governing bodies see this as a method of gaining a competitive ‘edge’, which many athletes tend to believe, a possible method of tightening weight-cutting practices would be to monitor weight loss across a preparation camp and assess hydration status through robust and reliable tests, towards a bout.

“In this way, they may be able to ensure body mass losses are not due to extreme dehydration and also have assessed baseline hydration symptoms against concussion systems, to ensure these are not confused after a bout or sparring session.”

The researchers found that 65% of fighters they interviewed had experience of a weight cut not having its desired effect. They reported a lack of energy, strength, power and co-ordination. More crucially, they felt more susceptible to being ‘rocked’ during a fight.

This means the attempts to severely cut weight may not offer a competitive advantage.

Dr Jamie Tallent, from the University of Essex, said: “This is perhaps the most surprising finding that not only are weight cuts dangerous – they leave fighters at a disadvantage more often than not and may exacerbate the risks of being further injured.”

It remains to be seen whether governing bodies will take these findings into account, but the report shows that there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that athlete safety is taken seriously.


Follow the Sports Gazette on Twitter:

Keep up to date with our coverage here: