Call for weight cutting to be regulated

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Cutting weight hard had been a staple of collegiate and high school wrestling programs for generations. Then, late in 1997, three wrestlers died in a month. SI had the story:

He died crawling to the scale. Glassy-eyed and pale, his legs too weak to hold him after he had shed nearly 17 pounds in three days, Jeff Reese collapsed and expired on the cold floor of a locker room in Crisler Arena on Dec. 9 in Ann Arbor.

Reese, a junior at Michigan trying to make weight in the 150-pound class for a wrestling meet against Michigan State, spent the last two hours of his life in a plastic suit, riding a stationary bike in a room in which the heat was cranked up to 92. He was the third college wrestler to die in 33 days. Billy Jack Saylor, a freshman at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., and Joseph LaRosa, a senior at Wisconsin-La Crosse, died in November while cutting weight. Though the official causes of their deaths varied, Reese, Saylor and LaRosa died of the same thing: the self-inflicted torture of drastic weight loss, college wrestling’s ugly secret.

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In response to the three deaths, the NCAA took a number of steps to make wrestling safer, including:
•Banning training in a room hotter than 80 degrees:
•Banning self-induced vomiting;
•Banning extensive food or fluid restrictions;
•Requiring hydration tests:
•Requiring body fat checks; and,
•Restricting the amount of weight that can be lost.

Following the NCAA’s lead, high schools too instituted a variety of precautions.

Now, attorney Erik Magraken in his CanadianMMALawBlog.com argues that Mixed Martial Arts should not wait for three deaths in 33 days, or any deaths due to weight cutting. Instead, MMA should be proactive, rather than reactive.

It is important to introduce forward thinking legislation instead of waiting for a tragedy to occur before bringing legal change.  This leads to today’s topic, rapid weight loss in combat sports and foreseeable tragedy.

MMA, as with all weight-restricted sports, comes with a risk that athletes will subject themselves to rapid weight loss techniques in order to make their fighting weight.  These ‘brutal weight cuts’ are well documented at MMA’s highest level.  This in turn leads to many MMA athletes fighting in a dehydrated state.  This comes with increased risk of fighter injury including increased risk of traumatic brain injury.  With this in mind it is worth examining the justification for weight classes in the first place and discuss whether fights following rapid weight loss should be tolerated.

As MMA has grown in popularity so has legislative oversight of the sport.  These two developments go hand in hand with a proper legal framework helping legitimize the sport in turn creating a foundation on which the sport can grow.  One of the first regulatory developments which has helped legitimize MMA in the public’s eye was the introduction of weight classes.  At their core, weight classes exist for fighter safety.  The risk of injury grows with weight discrepancy among athletes.

Appreciating that fighter safety is the core reason behind weight classes, rapid weight loss is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed. Failing to address this issue undermines the entire foundation underlying weight classes.

Studies show that rapid weight cutting (ie- more than 5% of body weight) lead to increased participant injury risk in combat sports. As noted by Dr. Benjamin, a simple solution to address this issue is to require certain weight metrics from 30 days out from a fight. 

The MMA community should not wait for a tragedy to occur, as did in the 1990′s with NCAA wrestling, before addressing this issue.  Unless safeguards are built in some athletes will continue to undertake dangerous methods to make weight.  Stakeholders in the MMA community, be it event organizers or legislative bodies, should take proactive steps to address this reality.  Not only will this result in competition more reflective of an athlete’s ‘true’ weight, it will promote fighter safety.

Which jurisdiction or organization will have the foresight and initiative to address this issue first?

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