The Philosophy of Weight Cutting in Mixed Martial Arts: Is it “Legal Cheating”?

In January 2018, Joe Rogan on the Joe Rogan Podcast described weight cutting in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as “legal cheating”. Before continuing with this post, I should disclose that although I train in MMA, I have never competed in MMA , thus have never weight cut. Hence, this will be approached from an outsider’s perspective.

Weight cutting is when a fighter, who is currently above the maximum weight for their weight division, attempts to reduce their overall body weight right before the weigh in so they can be at the required maximum weight. This is usually done through various water loss techniques and dieting. Once they make the weight at the weigh in, they replenish their water and return to eating properly. The purpose of this is to have a weight advantage over the other fighter. This is common and accepted practice amongst almost all MMA fighters.

From a recent interview with Grant Brechney, an Exercise Scientist and MMA Fighter, who is currently doing research surrounding weight cutting, has recently completed research attempting to discover a relationship between weight cutting and competition success. This research is currently in the process of being published, hence why it is not directly cited in this post.

His research has found that fighters with greater weight cuts, on average, would lose fights more often than fighters that cut less weight. His research also checked to see if weight recovery increased the liklihood of winning. His research found that the ability to recover the weight did not significantly increase the chances of winning.

Regardless of these findings, it is the general perception that the method of weight cutting does give an advantage according to many fighters. So, should this be considered, as Rogan says ‘legal cheating’? Of course it is legal, but is it cheating?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) puts forward 3 criteria to consider when deciding whether a substance or method should be banned:

  1. “It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance;
  2. It represents an actual or potential health risk to the Athlete;
  3. It violates the spirit of sport (this definition is outlined in the Code).”

Spirit of the sport is defined by the code as:

“Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport”. It is the essence of Olympism, the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s talents. It is how we play true. The spirit of sport is the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind, and is reflected in values we find in and through sport, including Ethics, fairplay and honesty; health; excellence in performance; character and education; fun and joy; teamwork; dedication and commitment; respect for rules and laws; respect for self and other Participants; courage; community and solidarity.”

If the findings mentioned previously are correct, weight cutting may not fulfil criterion 1. However, even if it is true, most believe that it would enhance sport performance. Otherwise, they would not be doing it. We could imagine someone using steroids, but for some reason they were ineffective and did not give benefits, we would still count as using a prohibited substance. So, regardless of whether the findings are true, weight cutting fulfils criterion 1.

How about criterion 2? Grant mentioned the health risks of high level weight cutting. He mentioned that in wrestling there was a regular practice of severe weight cutting, until on 3 separate occasions there were 3 deaths, which sparked outrage that moved the sport to endorse weigh ins on the same day to deter weight cutting. And there appears to be a myriad of health risks associated with the high level fluid loss and the attempt to replace in such a short period of time. Thus, criterion 2 appears to be fulfilled.

As for criterion 3, this is where things can get a bit hairy. One could argue that weight cutting does go against “relying on one’s talents”. In fact, in the same Joe Rogan Podcast, Rogan makes the same claim that “this is meant to be about two equally skilled individuals figure out who has the best strategy”. However, someone may retort that it then follows that using training and supplementation to maximise your flexibility, fitness, strength to weight ratio, and so on, would also go against this principle since it is placing you in an advantage that is not focussed on ‘best strategy’. But I think that most would not accept this objection, since these practices are universal across virtually all competitive sports and are seen as a part of the competition.

So, could it be argued that weight cutting does not violate criterion 3 because it is something universally accepted as part of the competition? In my interview, he said that many view the weight cutting process as something to focus and dedicate attention to prior to the fight. This could be defended under the “dedication and commitment” section in criterion 3.

However, does it reflect “fair play and honesty”? Grant said that if you were to ask an MMA fighter what their walking weight (weight that they usually are prior to cutting) is, many would refuse to answer. One possible explanation for this was embarassment, that there is a sense of guilt feeling that they would be judged if they disclosed that they were usually a much heavier weight than they would be fighting at, then they would be judged as doing the wrong thing. This would be evidence that there is an intuition among fighters that weight cutting does not reflect “fair play and honesty”. But there is another explanation. The other explanation is that they do not want the other fighters to become aware of this and amend their own cutting and preparation from this knowledge. If this is the correct explanation, then the non-disclosure of walking weight is a practical one, not an ethical one.

Even though criterion 3 remains an open question, criteria 1 and 2 seem to be adequately fulfilled, so does this mean we ought to prohibit weight cutting in MMA? The biggest issue regarding this is how to enforce this. Some promoters have begun to experiment with doing the weigh ins on the same day of the fight. Even though weight cutting can still be done, according to Grant, it would reduce the amount the fighter could cut to a level that would not be as much as an advantage and would be much safer, thus eliminating or reducing the issues of criteria 1 and 2.

Returning to criterion 3, many fighters and promoters will worry that it is indeed a part of the competition to bring the fighters together for the weight cut. They get their photos, stare each other down, and so on, which is a part of the performance that would be lost in the ‘spirit’ of the competition. In my earlier article regarding the art and science of MMA, this could be seen as diminishing the ‘art’ of MMA. Grant mentioned a possible way to have the best of both worlds by including the day prior weigh in, but have that weight ‘unofficial’, and do the the official weigh in privately on the same day.

Although this article does not give a definitive answer, there appears to be more evidence towards weight cutting being, as Rogan calls ‘legal cheating’. And it ought to be noted this does not allow us to blame fighters that currently weight cut, since this is more of a ‘hate the game, not the player’ discussion. There is more investigation that needs to be done, and perhaps if my interviewee’s findings in his research are confirmed, this may over time result in an attitude shift towards weight cutting. Overall, this is conversation that needs to continue.

(Many thanks to Grant Brechney for his time and contribution to an important conversation)


Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s