How I lost 9 kilograms like an MMA fighter
Subsisting on shots of espresso for 18 hours and spending much of the day in a hot tub apparently wasn’t good for my look.
But it was easy to ignore the cracks about my appearance as I arrived for my final weigh-in. Instead I was focused on stepping on the scale to conclude my efforts of losing 9 kilograms in three weeks and then finally eating a real meal.
The scale read 70.2 kilograms, just under the UFC’s championship fight lightweight division cutoff. The feeling of accomplishment of losing 9.48 kilograms in 21 1/2 days – 5.8 of those kilograms in less than 72 hours – was stifled by a text I received from my diet coach, Mike Dolce.
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“Let’s start with rehydration of water only,” Dolce wrote. “We have to slowly turn back on the digestive process or you’ll feel sick and likely vomit or worse.”
Worse? I didn’t want to ask. Dolce, a leading diet guru for the UFC, hadn’t been wrong so far. The pizza and beer would have to wait.
There’s one question that dozens of people asked throughout the process: Why try to lose the weight?
The last time it was posed was hours before the weigh-in by a medical resident at a children’s hospital as I sat in a hot tub .
“I’m not sure that’d be something I’d recommend,” she said with a look of concern.
The answer: The general public may not fully appreciate the lengths to which mixed martial arts fighters, boxers and wrestlers go to cut weight. Extreme weight loss has led to hospitalisations for a wide range of issues, from dehydration to organ failure, as well as cut short careers and contributed to at least two deaths in MMA: Brazilian fighter Leandro Souza in 2013 and Chinese fighter Yang Jian Bing in 2015.
And if you make it through an extreme weight cut without a medical emergency, it can also sap the protective fluid around the brain and lead to a higher likelihood of brain injury.
“I have stories from athletes from their past teams and coaches dragging them in and out of saunas at a 80-plus degrees and 90-plus degrees Celsius packed in plastic bags as sweatsuits,” Dolce said. “The coaches were literally leaning on the door for 30 or 60 minutes, not letting them come out, even with them passing out. The coaches would go in there, slap them in the face, lift their legs up to get some blood flow to get their brain functioning again. This after they were malnourishing them, dehydrating them sometimes weeks before competition.”
Not sure Ronda Rousey or the other top fighters Dolce has counselled over the years would be keen to that approach. Nor would I.
As a personal trainer and obstacle race competitor, I was already lean, making this weight cut at least somewhat comparable to what a professional fighter goes through. I had a physical before the process and worked closely with Dolce to ensure my safety.
He stressed that weight cuts of this nature should not be attempted without medical supervision.
“It’s going to be rigorous, but in a good way,” Dolce said with a smirk.
Dolce is not a certified dietitian, though his growing business – which includes nutrition books, online diet coaching and a podcast – does have one on staff. At the start, my diet mimicked his Three Weeks to Shredded book and consisted of chicken, black coffee and oatmeal to total about 7,500 kilojoules a day.
I’d use a hot tub, and not the sauna, to shed the copious amounts of water I had ingested.
“I was cutting 6.3 kilograms, and I had about 3 left,” former Canadian amateur MMA fighter Jer Kornelsen told USA TODAY Sports. “I was sitting in the sauna and was feeling cruddy. I got up and started to walk out of the sauna when I passed out and hit the floor. Lucky for me, an off-duty firefighter was in the shower room.”
Kornelsen calls the weight cut in 2014 that ended his MMA career and nearly his life “the mishap.”
Kornelsen, now 37, regained consciousness about 90 minutes later in the hospital, suffering from dehydration along with kidney and liver damage.
“I was close to having all my organs shut down,” Kornelsen said.
Kornelsen was the middleweight champion of the Battlefield Fight League, an MMA promotion based in Vancouver. The scariest part, he said, wasn’t the organ damage that he would recover from but a staph infection that nearly caused a leg to be amputated two weeks later.
“My immune system was so shot that my body couldn’t fight off the infection,” said Kornelsen.
Why do so many fighters lose 10 kilograms or more in a matter of days to get to a lower weight class?
“Everyone in the sport is doing it,” Kornelsen said. “I walk around at 95 kilograms. The guys my size were all cutting down to 84. Since they were doing it, I figured I had to.”
That pack mentality permeates the sport and is seen as the biggest challenge to eliminating the dangerous tactics employed to lose weight.
“I really think you have to change the culture,” California State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Andy Foster said. “Since everybody else is doing these crazy weight cuts, all the fighters feel like they have to do it or they think they’ll be at a disadvantage.”
Fighters losing 13 or more kilograms in the weeks leading up to a fight isn’t uncommon. But in a sport in which opportunities, especially on a UFC card, can be fleeting, fighters often take bouts on short notice when a fighter drops out due to injury, like Paul Redmond did two years ago. He had 13 days to drop 16 kilograms – and was still 9 kilograms over the 65-kilogram featherweight limit 48 hours before weigh-ins – before he tipped the scales 1.3 kilograms more than the limit in his UFC debut.
“The week and a half leading up to the fight was mentally and physically exhausting,” Redmond told MMAjunkie. “It was horrific.”
Redmond lost the fight, highlighting another side effect to huge weight cuts: diminished performance.
Over the past year. the California State Athletic Commission has instituted rules to try to stem extreme weight cuts, including requiring a doctor to check a fighter’s hydration levels before a fight and ban the use of IVs for rehydration.
The UFC also instituted an IV ban, which may seem counterproductive since it’s the most effective way to treat dehydration. The issue is some fighters use IVs to drop water weight to dangerous levels – and, in turn, kilograms – in a short period of time.
The UFC also moved weigh-ins to the mornings. The weigh-ins had previously been in the late afternoon, giving fighters several more hours to shed weight.
The changes have resulted in more fighters missing weight.
“Fighters who were losing 2.5 or 3 kilograms (with the later weight-in times) could now only lose 1.3 or 1.8,” said Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance. “I think it’s a tool. Maybe fighters will realise they are attempting to lose too much weight and should move up a weight class.”
UFC also set up a guideline – though not enforced – that suggests fighters be within 8% of the fight weight when they check in four days before the fight. I was 75.7 kilograms four days out, just under the 8% cutoff.
“We reached out to experts in hydration and asked what a safe amount of water weight to lose the last couple days,” Novitzky said. “They said 6%, but we know fighters water load, which is why we made it 8%.”
Foster said there’s been talk among state commissions to have a doctor evaluate each fighter to determine his or her proper weight class, eliminating massive weight cuts.
The inability to make weight is costly for MMA fighters and boxers, who are docked up to 40% of the purse in some states if they tip the scales above the weight limit. Foster said he’d like to see fighter bonuses that can at least be equal to the purse – not just the purse itself – impacted by a failure to make weight to weed out fighters who intentionally miss weight.
My failure to make weight would just be a knock to my ego mixed with some public humiliation.
The diet plain Dolce laid out called for me to cut my food intake as the program progressed. Meanwhile, my workouts became most reliant on cardio, often sessions where I’d hit the gym before eating my allotment of oatmeal mixed with flax and hemp seeds, fruit and a little almond butter.
As my kilojoule count shrank, my water consumption increased. By day 19, I was drinking 11 litresof water. The drinking part wasn’t as annoying as the frequent trips to the restroom.
Former UFC fighter Julie Kedzie didn’t have a diet coach when she began her MMA career in 2004, relying on an Internet forum instead.
“I was an idiot and thought all I’d have to do is go on 24-hour fast,” Kedzie said. “So I went out and ate at a Chinese buffet before I had to fast. That was horrible. All that sodium made it really hard to cut weight.”
Novitzky has included nutritionists in recent fighter summits, and UFC’s new headquarters, which will open this year in Las Vegas, will offer in-house nutritionists.
“I’ve learned certain things that work for me and certain things that haven’t,” said former UFC champ Holly Holm, who will fight Germaine de Randamie atop the UFC 208 card Saturday. “I’m an old school girl. Put me in the sauna, and I lose my weight quick in the sauna. I have my routine that I’ve learned through trial and error.”
Dolce kept me in line from afar and while I may have looked malnourished, I didn’t feel that bad in the minutes after the last of my multiple 25-minute stretches in a hot tub. I was ready to step on the same scale I had used for three weeks one last time.
“What was the reaction?” Dolce asked via text. “Do your peers even grasp what you’ve accomplished.”
I responded: “The ones who are here already thought I was crazy.”
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