Size Matters: UFC 142's weighty problem
At UFC 142 Anthony Johnson lost his fight to Vitor Belfort but his behaviour in the run-in was the reason he ultimately lost his job.
By Fergus Ryan
Long before a fist was thrown in anger the controversy surrounding UFC 142 had begun. American Anthony Johnson was scheduled to fight Brazilian Vitor Belfort in a middleweight bout (185lbs). Johnson has found the scales a tougher adversary than anything he faced in his career to date. Having missed the welterweight mark (170lbs) twice in his career, Johnson moved to middleweight.
It seems incredible that Johnson would be able to compete at welterweight considering he weighs anything from 215-230lbs when out of competition. So, it makes sense that making middleweight, nearly a full stone above the weight he usually had to, should be “fun” and “easy” as he described it at a pre-event press conference two weeks before. Not so.
The morning of the weigh-in Johnson was instructed by the UFC doctor to begin taking IV fluids. He had cut his weight down as far as 187lbs and his body had begun to shut down. The final stages of a weight cut involve shedding ‘water-weight’, usually in the sauna.
But there comes a point where your body decides its hanging on to any remaining moisture in the system. The activity of your brain and limbs are compromised, preventing any further exertion, sweating and loss of fluids. For Johnson, this occurred at 187lbs, still north of the tolerated limit for middleweight. Already feeling dizzy and experiencing numbness in his legs the doctor intervened and administered an intravenous bag of fluids. As a result, at the official weigh-in he tipped the scales at 197lbs.
To Belfort’s credit he agreed to take the fight. The UFC brass had stipulated that Johnson would only be allowed fight if he weighed-in under the light-heavyweight limit of 205lbs the day of the fight. Belfort had the option to miss weight himself in order to try and limit the size advantage Johnson would have. Or, make weight and take 20% of Johnson’s purse. Belfort weighed-in at the contracted weight, proving he is as professional as he is talented. Johnson finally made the fight-day weight and stepped into the octagon that night weighing 211lbs to Belfort’s 206lbs.
All the behind-the-scenes drama, with Dane White, was captured
Cutting weight is a double-edged sword. The logic to a weight cut is that by temporarily dehydrating your body you can make the contracted weight, then rehydrate and potentially have a size advantage at fight-time.
However, the benefits of the size advantage can be offset by the stress that dehydration causes your body, even though it may only be for a brief period. It is a practice followed by the majority of fighters in MMA today. Frankie Edgar is one of the few fighters that does it differently.
The American opts to train at or around his fighting weight, have a limited cut, so as to be able to perform with much more energy during the fight. In his last two fights with Gray Maynard, Edgar was able to battle back from a beating in each of the opening rounds thanks to greater stores of energy that weren’t depleted due to a sizeable weight cut.
The effects of the harsh weight cut could be seen once Johnson and Belfort squared off. Johnson was aggressive and scored a number of takedowns early. However, the effort this took left Johnson able to do little more than lie on top of Belfort. Referee Dan Miragliotta had little option other than stand the fighters up. Belfort calmly weathered the storm, waiting for his opportunity. During a scramble on the ground Belfort was able to transition to Johnson’s back and sink a rear naked choke without much opposition.
A by-product of the growth in popularity of MMA is an improvement in the standard of fighters. Bigger weights cuts are seen as a possible avenue to a slight advantage. What you can’t see is the damage that a harsh weight cut can do to a fighter’s general health, mental and physical.
The frequency of fighters missing weight, along with the stories of harrowing weight cuts is increasing. While much is made of the violence in the octagon, we may be closer to a serious injury or death in the sauna as weight-cutting is taken to new extremes. As recently as UFC 138, Chris Leben was nearly pulled from the main event after the UFC doctor was less than impressed with his performance during his weight cut.
MMA needs to move on the issue of weight before it is forced to by a tragedy. Other sports have addressed methods of dehydration. For example diuretics are banned in body-building, among other sports, and the NCAA has banned college wrestlers from using plastic sauna suits.
A possible solution for MMA is to have a prescribed training weight bracket for each division. For example, middleweights must weigh no more than 210lbs in order to accept and begin training for a fight at 185lbs. The downside is fighters would be required to train consistently without necessarily having a fight booked with the upside being the reduced need to cut weight when they have an opponent.
Fighters will argue they should be allowed weigh what the like when out of competition. But missing weight is the quickest way to a promoter’s bad books. Anthony Johnson was released by the UFC on Sunday and is now unemployed. Other promoters may be wary of hiring Johnson for fights at welterweight or middleweight anytime soon. Given the chance again he may opt for extra training over the queue for a welfare cheque.