Bryony Tyrell is a pro MMA fighter (2-0), intensive care nurse, and researcher. She’ll be looking at the major health issues in mixed martial arts, through the eyes of a competitior and medical professional.
Extreme weight cutting has been a practice carried out in combat sports for many years. In Mixed Martial Arts in particular, it has become a deep-seated culture without much understanding of the dangers.
Despite fatalities being linked to weight cutting previously it was not until the death of Yan Jian Bing, a 21 yr old flyweight who died from complications of extreme dehydration in 2015, that the world started to take notice. Josh Rosenblatt of Vice Sports summed up this dangerous practice beautifully in an article about this tragedy…
“The cult of the weight cut has always been MMA’s deepest shame: collective medical madness, a suicidal delusion, mass psychosis. Everybody knew this. Yet no one ever seemed to do anything about it”
Following this tragic loss, One Championship, where Jian Bing was due to fight last December, took the unprecedented move of introducing strict new rules banning weight cutting by dehydration. The Ultimate Fighting Championships, the most influential brand in the sport, soon followed suite by introducing restrictions of their own. This is a great first step but it does not go far enough to protect the thousands of fighters who take part in the smaller national and regional events every weekend around the world. It will not be until there is a wide spread adoption of these regulations that real progress can be made.
It’s not uncommon for professional and amateur fighters to drop 15-30kgs in preparation for a fight. After weeks of food restriction they will go into a sauna or salt bath, already malnourished and depleted, to shed the final kilos before the dreaded weigh in. This is often undertaken with no medical or nutritional advice, sometimes with the abuse of laxatives and diuretics.
Many fighters believe that this practice can give them the physical and mental edge over their opponent. Rehydration and nutritional intake post weigh in can mean that by the time an individual enters the cage they are in a higher weight class and the self discipline, focus, and commitment that it takes to strip this weight is thought to strengthen the fighter’s mentally (Pettersson, 2013). This may well be true if done correctly and in moderation, but when done to extremes it will have the opposite effect.
It is fairly common place at weigh ins to see the weakened bodies of elite athletes stepping on the scales, some unable to digest much more than baby food as they start the refuelling process in preparation for the fight just 24 hours later. Many endure this purgatory still to lose because of the toll this camp has taken on them. Not only is it mentally torturing but, as has been illustrated by the death of Yan Jian Bing, it also carries extreme physical danger.
The key risk lies in the fluctuation of electrolytes in the body, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium caused by severe dehydration. In normal circumstances the body regulates these electrolytes very effectively. However, any significant imbalances created by rapidly losing or gaining water can have dangerous effects on the vital organs.
Excessive water loss will result in high sodium concentrations in the blood and a low potassium level. High sodium will lead to feelings of extreme thirst and muscle twitching and, in severe cases, brain dysfunction and eventually death. Correction of these sodium levels through rehydration must be done slowly because diluting the sodium in the blood too quickly can result in permanent brain damage. Extreme fluctuations in potassium can cause changes in heart rhythm which results in an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and, again in extreme cases, can cause your heart to stop (cardiac arrest).
Severe dehydration also results in a low blood volume which can impair blood flow to the kidneys; in severe cases this will cause an acute kidney injury. Complications of this include nausea and vomiting, confusion, high blood pressure, abdominal pain and backache. If left untreated this can lead to kidney failure.
So is it really worth the risk?…..
The body is the most impressive machine anyone will ever own. It is the product of millions of years of evolution, and while it can be pushed to extreme levels, it cannot function when starved of hydration and nutrition. As with many things it’s all too easy to think “this won’t happen to me”, but even the fittest athlete is subject to the basic mechanics of biology. Young people are very good at compensating and recovering, but this means that when the body does finally reach its limit the deterioration happens very fast.
This article is not written by a condescending medical professional trying to dictate to fighters what they should and shouldn’t do, it’s written by a fighter with a view to promoting safety for other fighters. I myself have been through the weight cutting process many times, I’ve been sat on workout bikes in saunas after weeks of calorie restricted diets, all while training six days a week. I know about the mental and physical challenges involved with the preparation for fight night and I also understand the passion that drives people to put themselves through this.
To become a fighter takes unbelievable dedication and commitment. The hours of training, sparring, running, lifting and circuits. Pushing your body to its physical limits day after day in the pursuit of a dream. The excitement, adrenaline and fear of fight night; waiting for that moment when the announcer calls your name…the music….the lights….the crowd and then… nothing.
Your opponent and you are the only people in the world and it all comes down to that moment. There is no team to hide behind, weather conditions will not stop play, and if you have not trained hard enough you will be found out. This is why we love it; this is why we put ourselves through the camps again and again.
Fighters choose to challenge themselves in a unique and base way. There are very few sports in which the competitors must, through the use of trained violence, physically dominate their opponent. In an already dangerous sport, why are competitors forced to undertake further, unnecessary risks that detract from their real purpose?
The sport must recognise that it has a duty to protect its fighters at every level of competition and to ensure that it is a fair fight with opponents who are the same weight division on fight day.
I hope that something is done before the fight world loses another brave competitor. If lessons are not learnt from the death of Yan Jian Bing – and those before him – how long will it be before it happens again?
Find Bryony on Twitter at @t_bryony