The fight before the fight: Making weight in the UFC
LAS VEGAS, Nev. (FOX5) - Before a UFC athlete can step in the cage on Saturday night, they need to first step on the scales Friday morning.
Throughout the history of the promotion, countless cards, main events and even championship fights have fallen apart just hours before the bell was set to ring, all because a fighter couldn’t pass that first test.
“You’re completely dehydrated. Completely,” explained UFC light heavyweight Khalil Rountree Jr. “People may see TV shows, people stranded in the desert, they’re praying for water. You feel that, in real life.”
“The fight is fun. Let me explain to you, getting into the cage, for most of us, that’s the part we want to do,” said Las Vegas resident and UFC middleweight Chris Curtis. “No one wants to do the fight cut. It’s by far the worst part of it.”
“Not fun. Weight cutting is not fun,” smiled Tatiana Suarez, a Las Vegas resident and UFC women’s strawweight.
“It’s the life of a fighter, the weight cut,” said Edman Shahbazyan, Las Vegas resident and UFC Middleweight. “It’s normal, everybody goes through it.”
“You got to make weight,” said Rountree.
“I don’t know to compare weight cutting to anything, really,” UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin said. “Here is the irony of a weight cut; you are depleting your calories, depleting your water, depleting electrolytes, things your body needs for competition, right before a competition.”
“You are kind of just asking your body to be a sponge and just ring itself completely out,” explained Rountree. “That’s how I explain it to people. Put a sponge under water. That’s your body on an everyday basis. For a weight cut, ring it out, put out in the sun to dry, now weigh it. The sponge is pretty much lifeless, it doesn’t weigh anything. That’s exactly what weight cutting is.”
“It’s not the most perfect part of the game, but it’s always going to be there because you’re always going to have guys cutting weight to try and get an advantage to win,” UFC president Dana White said. “It’s never going to change.”
The purpose of the weight cut is for athletes to compete at lower weight classes.
After their official weigh-ins, the athletes will rehydrate, filling the body back up to be stronger on fight night. It’s this part of the fight game that motivated the UFC to build the Performance Institute, so athletes wouldn’t have to fight the battle of weight-cutting alone.
“The PI is there for all these fighters that are there under contract with us to use and what they do, they do a full health evaluation on you first,” explained White. “Then they bring you in and show you how to train properly, how to cut weight properly too.”
Charles Stull, a performance nutrition manager at the UFC PI and one of six employees in his department, is dedicated to helping the 650-plus athletes on the current UFC roster.
“Our recommendation is to not have an acute weight cut greater than 6% and we go out of our way to ensure and resource our athletes, in terms of food and our undivided attention programming over five weeks to ensure that our athletes are put in a position to have to cut much weight,” said Stull.
Staff at the PI, including Charles, did a study of more than 600 UFC athletes between 2020 and 2022 to determine the average weight cuts for fighters in each weight class during fight week.
Of the nine weight classes in the promotion, the study determined seven of them, on average, have fighters cutting more than the recommended 6% body mass threshold.
For example, UFC featherweights, who have to weigh-in at 145 pounds, have the most aggressive weight cuts at 8.2%. The study found that on average, featherweights are cutting 12 pounds within a 72-hour period.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the study determined that the heavyweights, who can’t be over 265 on the scale, only cut 2.8%, though it still amounts to a little more than seven pounds of body mass.
Every fighter is a different shape and size, meaning not all weight cuts are equal.
“I think it might be a little more difficult for females because we don’t have as much muscle, so we don’t carry as much water. I think that might be tough,” explained Suarez.
“If we happen to be on our menstrual cycle during that time, it might be holding a little more than usual because we retain water a little bit more. I’ve personally never had that issue. I have cut weight when I was and didn’t have an issue, but I know everybody’s body is different. What might be not be tough on me, might be tough on somebody else.”
Over the years, we’ve seen all kinds of walk-ups to the scale; some are snooth, some need a little more time, while others simply don’t go as planned.
“I have a lot of bad weight cut stories.” said Curtis. “I was 205 pounds fighting at 170 pounds. One fight I got (rhabdomyolysis), which means your body starts to metabolize muscle it shouldn’t, and your body breaks down faster than it ever really should, which make your kidneys overload and that can kill you.”
Cutting weight has its consequences, but so does missing weight on the scales.
Athletes have been fined, fights have been canceled, but for some, the biggest casualty is their reputation.
“If I’m not on, I’m cutting my hair off,” joked Suarez. “I’m like my hair does not weigh two pounds, so it doesn’t matter.”
“We used to put Epsom salt in the bath, which is supposed to help, but research says it does nothing. other than make you feel dirty in the bath and it’s kind of expensive,” remembered Griffin. “So yeah, I used to do all the wrong stuff.”
“There was a point I was clipping my toenails, told my brother, shave my head, shave my eyebrows, anything I could to strip off these pounds,” smiled Rountree. “I was willing to shave every ounce of hair.
Rountree, a graduate of Las Vegas High School, never went to those drastic lengths, but his dedication to the sport has been there since 2010.
At 19 years old, Rountree says he was depressed, had suicidal thoughts, and weighed over 300 pounds; until one day he saw an episode of “The Ultimate Fighter 10.”
“One afternoon my brother and I were watching TV, he knew what MMA was and he showed it to me, and we watched The Ultimate Fighter,” said Rountree. “One thing I saw on The Ultimate Fighter was these guys were big, they were big guys, but they were in shape, and they had this aggression to them, almost like an anger. Specifically, Rampage, when he tore down the door. That’s what connected to me, there was something inside of me that wants to break a door down. I’m so upset with myself, with this that I need some type of outlet. Seeing that these guys were big, they were in shape, they were strong and powerful, I was like, ‘Maybe this will help me.’”
That’s when Rountree hit the gym, lost the weight and more than a decade later, he is now the no. 13 UFC light heavyweight in the world.
Rountree doesn’t have a perfect MMA record, but he’s never missed when it comes to the scales.
“I think that the weight-cut for a lot of people and even for me sometimes was harder than the fight.” said Rountree Jr. “It is the fight before the fight. It doesn’t feel good, you can ask every single fighter that has ever cut weight, whether it’s 10 pounds or 20 pounds. It doesn’t feel good.”
“Right now, you’re focused on making weight, that’s the first step,” said Shahbazyan. “I’d say it’s step one before the fight, step two, is the fight. It is the fight before the fight, for sure.”
“100%,” said White. “Yeah, what some of these guys and girls do is incredible.”
“For some athletes, it is the fight before the fight,” said Griffin. “My suggestion would be, don’t make it the fight before the fight. One fight is enough, one fight is just great, don’t make it two fights. Set yourself up for success.”
The UFC tells FOX5 since the Performance Institute was built in Las Vegas in 2017, weight-cutting issues with fighters have gone down, which is why the promotion built another PI in Shanghai, China. The UFC is also opening another in Mexico at the end of 2023, with plans of building other facilities in the Middle East and Africa in the future, all for the betterment and safety of its athletes.
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