The life of an MMA fighter is not for the faint of heart.
Pounds of sweat are shed, injuries are all too frequent, and you’re always one fight away from tumbling down the rankings. You take hard hits within the Octagon and leave the mat with bruises, cuts, broken bones, and tired muscles. And that's just on fight day—a fighter's journey to fight day isn’t complete without going through weigh-ins. And as any pro fighter will tell you, the dread of the scale can be worse than any opponent.
Take Bellator middleweight veteran Brian Rogers, for example. Rogers competed professionally at 185 pounds for most of his career. One of his cuts, for a fight against former UFC heavyweight Joey Beltran, required him to drop 26 pounds in five days—not an easy endeavor. And for help, he called one man: George Lockhart.
“I get the call when somebody has the worst weight cut in their life,” says Lockhart, a former fighter and current nutrition guru. “Some guys are really damaging their metabolic systems. Later on down the road, their metabolic systems are going to shut down.” Lockhart, 32, was tasked with helping Rogers reach the 186-pound threshold, a goal all middleweight fighters need to meet. Rogers lost the weight, but also lost his bout with Beltran at Bellator 136 via majority decision.
Fighters putting their bodies through hell is an all-too-common occurrence in mixed martial arts. Two fighters on the main card of UFC 183 missed weight. One of them, former flyweight-turned-bantamweight contender John Lineker, was forced to move up a weight class by his boss, UFC President Dana White, after his fourth infraction.
According to Lockhart, the problem begins in a fighters’ camp. “Camps have them cut out salt and carbohydrates three weeks out. They will lose a lot of weight initially,” says Lockhart. That, however, only hinders the body’s ability to sweat, because it will start to retain water. Keeping both water intake and sodium levels balanced is the key to a healthy weight cut, Lockhart says.
In order to tip the scales at the appropriate weight in the safe way, his fighters are brought down gradually in what is known as a pre-cut. Lockhart prescribes diets for each of his clients to follow that ensure them a healthy and efficient weight cut. He strategically maps out a daily meal plan, which includes lots of carbs and protein, although it's different for each fighter. One of his longtime clients, Dustin Poirier, recently made a memorable return to the lightweight division at UFC Fight Night 63—largely thanks to his improved diet.
Fighters who skip this important step and make a beeline for the sauna come fight week are doing their bodies a huge disservice. Not only are they “cooking their insides,” according to Lockhart, but they’re also increasing their ability to get knocked out.
“You'll see guys who walk with pain. Their joints hurt. Everything hurts,” says Lockhart. “As little as 3% dehydration equates to a 30% decrease in performance. You're starting to pull things from your major organs.”
When the body feels like it's lost too much water, it secretes the hormones vasopressin and aldosterone. The former closes up the body's pores, while the latter deals with sodium intake. Both lead to water retention, which counteracts a fighter's ability to lose the remaining pounds. Tricking the body into thinking that it has already stored enough water—Lockhart calls this a "waterload—will deactivate the vasopressin, which will allow the body to keep sweating.
Women have it even tougher. Women generally can't cut weight like men can, mainly because of their higher estrogen levels. "The female body doesn’t have the same amount of muscle mass and ability to pull water,” Lockhart says. “If you stick a pretty lean man and woman into a sauna or hot tub, that man will lose significantly more weight in the same amount of time.”
But that didn't stop former UFC women’s champion Ronda Rousey from losing 17 pounds in the span of a day, just to prove a point. While filming The Ultimate Fighter season 18, she reportedly went into a sauna for five hours to show a contestant who had missed weight just how easy (or difficult) it was.
Eating disorders, such as bulimia, are unfortunate byproducts of combat sports and something “Rowdy” Rousey dealt with at an early age. “Any sport that involves weight divisions is going to make you super conscious of your weight,” Rousey told Jonathan Snowden of Bleacher Report. “I had a lot of issues eating healthily and having a healthy self-image. It was something that I struggled with for a very long time.”
Fellow bantamweight Holly Holm notably trims 10 pounds on the day of weigh-ins. The decorated former boxer will walk around at 155 pounds, but fight at 135 pounds. It’s not the worst of weight cuts—former welterweight (who can weigh no more than 171 pounds on weigh-in day) champion Johny Hendricks walks around at upwards of 200 pounds—but for someone with such a low bodyfat ratio already, it can be particularly frightening.
“If I have somebody who's fighting at 125 [pounds] and they come to me and say, 'Hey George, I'm at 145 right now,' we'd have some serious problems,” says Lockhart. “You're losing like 10 or 20 percent of their freaking body weight. That's too much.”
In the short-term, a significantly drastic weight cut can hurt one’s performance in the cage, or even worse—they may end up being separated from their senses. According to the Association of Ringside Physicians, a recent report showed that 39 percent of MMA combatants enter competition in a dehydrated state.
The long-term effects are costly. Brain, kidney and vision problems are side effects of rapid weight loss, according to the same ARP report. Lockhart, who’s been involved in MMA for 12-plus years, has visited a multitude of gyms, as well as the nation’s top wrestling colleges.
“It’s funny how primitive the weight-cutting procedures are. I see that they haven’t evolved at all,” says Lockhart emphatically. To lose fat, you have to cut calories. "So it's like okay, we've got to feed him less. If you look at the math, one pound of fat is 3,500 calories. If you need to lose 10 pounds, that's 35,000 fat calories you need to lose to make weight by say, Friday. If you normally eat 7,000 calories a day and then you didn't eat anything for the next five days, maybe it's possible to lose those 10 pounds." Otherwise, you'd have to revert to some of these other more dangerous, performance-inhibiting measures (like sitting in a sauna.)
"The real weight that's being lost [when you drop a lot of weight very quickly] is through glycogen and water [rather than actual fat]." Glycogen and water is what fuels your muscles, hence why these quick cuts often do more harm than good.
Needless to say, Lockhart vehemently wishes for more studies to be done on the importance of cutting weight correctly.