MMA evolved into a highly-regulated combat sport where it’s almost impossible to cheat. Especially in the UFC, where fighters are tested continuously and prevented from using performance-enhancing drugs, steroids, etc. But, extreme weight cutting is something that has plagued the MMA community (including the UFC).
Long-time UFC color commentator Joe Rogan once said extreme weight cutting is “cheating at a much higher scale than PED’s” because fighters cut extreme weight to fight in categories a lot lower than their natural walking weight. So, how do UFC fighters cut weight?
There are three main steps in how UFC fighters cut weight in only a few days before their match. First, they gradually dehydrate for five days, leading to no water on weigh-in day. Second, they avoid carbs and salt, and third, they sweat a lot.
Of course, that is over-simplifying, but the central part of the brutal weight cuts isn’t burning fat, but dehydrating their bodies. I haven’t even mentioned that the fighters quickly regain all that lost water 24 hours before their bouts, regaining their weight and energy. Let’s dive into how UFC fighters gain a considerable advantage with the extreme weight cuts.
How Do UFC Fighters Cut Weight?
The advanced nutrition and medical care that professional fighters have at their disposal lead to the weight-cutting trend. A fighter can drop a staggering 30 or more pounds in the week before their fight to pass a low weight limit and fight in a weight class that’s not even close to their natural weight.
I’ve wondered how it is possible to drop 30 or 40 pounds in a week and then regain a considerable part of that weight in 24 hours before the fight. Doing some research on the subject, I learned the key steps that fighters like Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal, or Darren Till take to make their weight class limits.
It’s vital to understand that the extreme weight cutting they endure shouldn’t be a normal thing to do. It’s very dangerous, and serious consequences can happen if it’s not done right, including organ failure and even death. You should never do this on your own.
It’s better to start dieting and losing weight early, from the beginning of the training camp, rather than shedding horrendous amounts of weight in 4 or 5 days. If you plan on doing the extreme dehydration/rehydration cycle before your fights, do it only with professional nutritionists and medical care around you.
As I mentioned, fighters do three crucial things: manipulate body hydration, use saunas, hot baths, and plastic jumpsuits to sweat excessive liquid out, and stay on a strict no-carbs, no-salt diet. As a result, you get fighters that naturally have, for instance, 195 lbs, fight in the welterweight category (170lbs limit).
As soon as they are done with the scale, they rehydrate and come back to 185, 190 lbs, giving them a considerable size advantage over their opponent. The most well-known fighters to “cheat” the system like this are Paulo Costa, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Darren Till, Yoel Romero, and many others.
How Much Weight Do UFC Fighters Cut?
It varies from fighter to fighter. Some fighters enjoy fighting in a category around their natural weight, so they don’t have to undergo rigorous weight cuts. They’ll drop 10-20 pounds during their weight cut, avoiding excruciating dehydration and rehydration.
The average weight cut of UFC fighters is around 15-20 pounds in the last five days before the weigh-in. They do that by using the dehydration process I’ve described earlier, as it allows them to regain a good chunk of that weight before they step into the octagon.
These average weight cuts vary from category to category. Usually, smaller fighters that compete in the flyweight or bantamweight divisions shed fewer pounds. As you go up to heavier classes, more rigorous weight cuts are happening.
The reason behind that is logical and straightforward. If a 200 lbs guy loses 30 lbs to make the 170lbs welterweight limit, that means he’s lost 15% of his overall body weight. That’s still a lot but manageable to do in only two weeks – a week of dieting and a week of dehydration.
However, if your average weight is around 155 lbs and you want to drop to 125, that’s nearly a fifth of your total body weight. Losing that kind of weight by dehydration can cause serious health problems, including organ failure and even death.
There are fighters such as TJ Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo that do drop that kind of weight, but they start dieting a lot earlier to minimize the amount of weight they cut in the final dehydration process. Even then, they often have difficulty making weight.
To conclude, an average fighter cuts 15-20 lbs, although more and more fighters cut upwards of 30 lbs. Even some heavyweight fighters cut weight to make the heavyweight limit, such as Derrick Lewis and Mark Hunt.
On the other hand, there are still fighters that fight right around their natural weight. Most of them are heavyweight fighters, but some fighters in different divisions, such as Gunnar Nelson, cut only 10-15 lbs before matches.
How Long Do UFC Fighters Cut Weight?
The duration of the weight cut depends on every fighter individually. It depends on the shape they come into training camp and how much they have to lose to make the desired weight.
Most fighters cut 15-20 lbs to make the desired weight, so they don’t have to start dieting too early into the training camp. The final weight cut by dehydration occurs five or six days prior to the weigh-in and can help the fighters lose as much as 25-30 lbs in that time frame. The less you need to cut; the less excruciating the weight cut will be.
Although the process starts five days before weigh-ins, most of the weight comes off in the final 48 hours of the weight cut. That’s when the dehydration kicks in.
You don’t just stop drinking water in the last five days before the fight. Instead, in the first three days, you drink 4 gallons of water, two on the first day, and one each in the next two days. This ensures your body goes into “flush mode,” meaning it will start filtering out water rapidly.
Then you start rapidly reducing water intake to half a gallon the next day, then a quarter of a gallon, and finally, drinking no water on weigh-in day before you hit the scales. As you reduce water intake abruptly while your body is still in “flush mode,” you’ll start losing more water than you intake – meaning your body will be dehydrating.
The process doesn’t end with the weigh-ins, though. As soon as you’re off the scales, the rehydration period starts. In the next 24 hours leading to the fight, you’ll drink 1 liter of water an hour (your body can’t absorb more in that time frame). That allows fighters to regain up to 20 lbs in a day, giving them a huge weight advantage in the actual fight.
What Do UFC Fighters Eat to Cut Weight?
The water intake manipulation is only one part of the weight-cutting process. UFC fighters have to follow a diet during those last five, six days, too, to make the manipulation as successful as possible.
First of all, they avoid eating any kind of carbs. Carbohydrates pull water into your body, and you want to accomplish the exact opposite – pulling the water out. It’s not recommended to eat more than 30-50 grams of carbohydrates a day during this period. That includes fruit, starch, or any other kind of sugar and carbs.
Instead, fighters usually load up on protein to replace the energy they are losing. You should always aim for high-quality protein meals such as white meat, eggs, or greens such as spinach, broccoli, etc. Protein won’t tie water to your cells so that the dehydration process will be more successful. Eat as much as you want in three meals a day.
However, all the food you eat must not contain salt. Avoid any kind of salt entirely if you’re in the extreme weight-cutting process. Salt contains sodium, and sodium ties to water, which will give you bad results on the scales. Yeah, the food will taste bland and weird, but it’s all worth it in the end if you manage to endure a week of torture.
If you need to cut more than the average 15-20 lbs during the process, you can go for a natural diuretic in the last two days. A diuretic encourages kidney functions, meaning you’ll lose even more water. Use the diuretic in the last two days of the weight cut to ensure you don’t go overboard.
I want to highlight how important it is to choose a natural diuretic, such as dandelion root. Fighters want to take the easy way out, so they use pharmaceutical diuretic, which can often be counter-productive and even dangerous. Avoid any pharmaceuticals during this period, if possible, to avoid possible side-effects or complications.
Combining this diet with water intake manipulation, the last thing you should do to maximize the results is – sweating it out. Fighters usually don’t go for high-intensity workouts because they’re already depleted of energy.
Instead, they do low-intensity drills such as light treadmill running or bike riding while wearing a plastic tracksuit. It will intensify the sweating drastically. After the workout, go for a hot bath, just enough cool not to burn you. Submerge as much of your body as you can into the hot water to stimulate sweating even more.
As a final touch, fighters tend to sit in a sauna before weigh-ins to try and shed those last few pounds. Think of any way to sweat as much as possible in those last few hours. Some fighters even get in the sauna in a tracksuit, lay under 20 or 30 layers of thermo-insulating materials, etc. There you have it – the guide to the UFC fighters’ extreme weight-cutting methods.
UFC Weight Cut Rules
The UFC has some unified rules when it comes to the weight-cutting of their fighters. However, those rules can vary depending on the fight’s location and the governing body officiating it. Almost every US state has its own Athletic Commission (California has CSAC, Nevada has NSAC), and their weight cut rules can differ, not to mention events happening outside of the US.
First and foremost, the fighters must satisfy the weight limit of the agreed-upon weight class. There are nine different weight divisions in the UFC, finishing with the heavyweight division. If a fighter misses the agreed-upon weight limit, the opponent holds the right to refuse to fight. That rarely happens, though, as fighters usually agree to a catchweight bout.
You must not be more than 1 lbs above the division limit for non-title bouts and only half a pound more in championship matches. If you miss the weight continuously, you will have to move to a higher division.
As for the drastic weight cuts, the UFC has taken steps to prevent them, although they still aren’t unified in every state. For instance, CSAC requires an additional weigh-in on the day of the fight. If the fighter has regained more than 10% of the weight they had yesterday on weight-in-day, they will face a penalty, possibly even disqualification from competing in that weight class again.
In the future, fighters will be encouraged to fight in divisions as close to their natural weight as possible to reduce the advantages extreme weight-cutting gives to individual combatants. Kamaru Usman, for instance, fights at 170 lbs, but his natural weight is around 195 lbs, meaning the middleweight category would suit his stature way better.
What Happens if UFC Fighters Miss Weight?
There are several sanctioning steps for UFC fighters that miss weight for their fights. If a fighter misses weight for the first time, the opponent can refuse to fight and take the show-up money, while the other fighter gets nothing.
But that rarely happens. Instead, the fighter that missed weight has to pay 20-30% of their purse to the other fighter. The amount depends on how much weight they fail to cut. The fight is then deemed as catchweight and usually does not affect the overall ranking.
If a fighter keeps missing weight, they’ll be forced to move to a higher division immediately. Kelvin Gastelum, for instance, was asked to move from welterweight to middleweight after failing to hit the 170 lbs limit several times.
What Happens if a UFC Champion Misses Weight?
In championship fights in the UFC, the weight rules are virtually the same, but some additional rules are set regarding the title.
If the challenger misses weight for the championship fight, the champion can refuse to proceed with the war. If they choose to fight anyway, the battle is deemed catchweight, and the title is removed from play.
Meaning, if the champion loses, he/she will retain the title because the challenger missed weight. This situation happened several times in the UFC. Most notably, Yoel Romero missed weight two times in championship matches – first, for an interim title against Luke Rockhold, and then for the undisputed title versus Robert Whittaker.
If the champion fails to hit the weight limit, the sanctions would be different. If the fighter didn’t miss the weight by a significant margin, the fight will usually still be held, but the UFC will strip the champion of the title. If he/she wins, the title will become vacant, and if he/she loses, the challenger will become the champion.
UFC champions never missed weight, though. The closest they ever came to this scenario was Anthony Pettis missing weight for a title eliminator fight against Max Holloway. As none of them was the champion at the time, Pettis didn’t get the chance to win the title even if he emerged victorious in the match, while Holloway was eligible to become the champion if he wins.
Biggest (and Worst) UFC Weight Cuts
Although most fighters don’t endure extreme weight cuts, some go to extreme lengths to meet the desired limit.
One of the most mind-boggling weight-cutters in UFC history was Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. He started his UFC career in welterweight, where he cut upwards to an absurd 40-50 lbs for his matches throughout his training camp. He continually missed weight, though, so he was forced to climb to the middleweight division.
Again, he missed the limit by a staggering 12 lbs, and the UFC ultimately cut him from their roster. When he returned, he was a big light-heavyweight fighter, knocking people out cold and fighting for the title two times. Right now, he is a giant body-builder, planning to compete in the heavyweight division.
Speaking of light-heavyweight fighters, another LHW star was well known for his ridiculous weight cuts. Daniel Cormier, the long-reigning LHW champion, fought for the heavyweight title against Stipe Miočić while weighing 246 lbs. Considering he was the UFC champion at 205 lbs, it’s absurd to see how much weight DC was cutting to make the LHW limit.
Another UFC superstar endured incredible weight cuts through his career, and that superstar is Conor McGregor. He fought in the featherweight division and went to welterweight for his next fight. That’s a 25 lbs difference between two appearances, showing just how much weight manipulation a human body can endure in such a small time frame.
Fighters with notoriously rigorous weight cuts currently in the UFC are Darren Till, Kamaru Usman, Max Holloway (at featherweight), Mackenzie Dern, etc.