The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) recently spearheaded an effort to make sweeping changes to the way weight cutting is handled and monitored in mixed martial arts and the dramatic shift could hit the sport like a tidal wave as the governing body starts to really focus on the safety and well-being of the athletes.
There are literally dozens of horror stories from around the world of fighters cutting ridiculous amounts of weight in the days and hours leading to a competition.
Many times the result of those dangerous weight cuts end with a fighter completely dropping out of the bout, or in the most serious cases, competitors have even died from the process.
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CSAC Executive Director Andy Foster was at the forefront of a recent effort to make changes to how weight cutting is handled in his state.
During a weigh-cutting summit in December 2015, broad changes were proposed to help curb the growing problem of fighters dehydrating themselves so severely that it could damage organs or even make them susceptible to long-term brain trauma amongst other things. For instance, one study done in 2013 showed that approximately 39-percent of fighters walk into the ring or cage seriously or severely dehydrated.
Foster wants to reduce that number dramatically.
"Certainly we did a lot of talking as far as getting input, we had the summit and we've gathered statements and input and the whole nine yards. We didn't rush into this problem with our eyes closed but at the same time we've been talking about it for over a year and once we got enough data, we had to make some moves on it," Foster told FOX Sports about the changes California has made recently.
The commission voted in some new rules that will likely go into effect as of March 1 and while this might just be the tip of the iceberg to future changes that could be made, Foster believes this is a huge step forward for the sport.
The rules changes are explained below:
Contestants shall be weighed within 30 hours of the scheduled match, at a time and place designated by the commission.
This rule change allows the weigh-ins to move from 24 hours to 30 hours before competition to give athletes a chance to hit the scale and then have more time to actually rehydrate. While Foster says long term a different window of time could be established, this extra six hours could make a dramatic difference for fighters weighing in and then being given maximum time to get their bodies back to full health.
"We've moved that to 30 hours. Not a large difference, but still six more hours," Foster said. "Even if we move it a few hours up, every hour provides the athletes -- especially when you combine the other provisions in this regulation package -- you start to address the problem in totality rather than one piece at a time."
Contestants shall not severely dehydrate their bodies in order to make weight. Any Contestant that the commission physician deems to be severely dehydrated may not be allowed to compete
Contestants may only rehydrate orally. Any use of intravenous therapies to rehydrate is strictly prohibited unless ordered by a contestant's physician for medical reasons and verified by a commission physician. Use of intravenous therapies to rehydrate may be cause to prohibit the athlete from competing.
Contestants may be required to submit a urine specimen for a urine specific gravity test prior to competition to verify proper hydration.
Dehydration is extremely damaging to the human body and fighters will routinely "dry" their bodies out in order to shed the weight necessary to hit the mark for a particular division. These new rules in California allow doctors to examine the athletes for signs of dehydration and if it's severe enough, it could prevent them from competing.
The commission also banned the use of IV's, which is a practice the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) also put into effect with UFC fighters after the new drug testing policy was put into effect in July 2015. While USADA banned IV's because it can be used to mask the detection of performance enhancing drugs, Foster points out that they are also routinely used for severe weight cuts to help athletes rehydrate.
"We banned the IV use. My doctors still say if you severely dehydrate yourself, it don't matter if you're using an IV or not, you're still going to have dehydration problems," Foster stated.
Part of the package of changes that California approved also included "gravity tests" being given to the athletes ahead of the weigh-ins. The gravity tests are done to measure the amount of hydration in the human body, and it's something routinely done at the NCAA level with collegiate athletes such as wrestlers, who weigh in the same day they are required to compete.
A thorough physical and eye examination shall be given each contestant by the commission physician at least one hour before the contestant enters the ring to compete. The commission physicians shall test for signs of dehydration. Referees also shall be given physical examinations immediately before officiating at any match.
The final piece of the new order gives the commission the chance to examine the fighters before they actually step into the ring or cage to compete as well. Severe weight cuts not only affect an athlete on the day they are stepping on the scale, but also hours later when they are about to compete against an opponent. As dangerous as a bad weight cut can be, severe dehydration can also lead to even more damage being done in the contest.
Of course, there will certainly be objections to the changes being implemented, most likely from the fighters who have cut weight for many years and say they haven't suffered through any adverse effects. No weight-cutting method is better than another because some fighters can routinely shed excess pounds with relative ease while others are left suffering, some doing permanent damage to their bodies all for the sake of gaining the best possible advantage in size for the contest the next day.
Foster knows that athletes are always going to be willing to push the limits for the sake of competition, but it's his job as part of a governing body overseeing the sport to sometimes save the fighters from themselves.
"Fighters need to understand, and when I'm talking about fighters I'm talking specifically about mixed martial artists, need to understand that the commissions are the regulatory authority for this sport," Foster explained. "This sport is a regulated activity and it's regulated by state or tribal government. This idea that you can just do whatever you want to goes against the responsibility of regulating these activities when it starts to get involved with health and safety.
"We've identified this particular aspect of this sport as a health and safety issue. Cutting tremendous amounts of weight to fight in a particular weight class that you weigh for about 15 seconds before you start consuming Pedialyte or Gatorade or whatever it is that you're using to replenish yourself. Then many fighters go stick an IV in their arm, build themselves back up and they're 25 or 30 pounds heavier than they were the day before. The only reason they're doing that is because their opponent is doing it too. It's like the vicious cycle to the bottom. Everybody's trying to outdo the other one to get an advantage."
Foster wants the fighters to understand that this entire program is really meant to benefit them and not to harm them in any way. The harm done from excessive weight cutting is actually the entire reason why Foster and the California Commission initiated this project in the first place.
"We as regulators, just because it's hard, doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to act," Foster said. "We've looked at this for a long time now and we're now acting responsibly to try and regulate this further not only so current fighters can participate but future groups of fighters can learn from the mistakes that we made early on."
Right now these new rules have been implemented on an emergency basis in California, but Foster believes in a perfect world regulating weight cutting could go much further in the future. Whether that means licensing fighters for a particular weight class -- meaning the competitors could potentially go through testing to see if they could safely get down to a division before even being allowed to fight in the state -- even potentially weight class changes all together.
One step at a time is the key for Foster right now, but he's definitely not done reforming the weight cutting rules in mixed martial arts. He says that other commissions have reached out already about the rules changes that California has already implemented and Foster would love to see other states look into the problem as well.
"I would like to see it go far and wide because I want to help fighters everywhere but I have a responsibility to help these fighters here in California," Foster said. "We're going to do our best to help these people within the scope of our authority."
Foster has big, long-ranging plans for MMA regulation in his state and it's never to the detriment of the fighters but rather for their protection. Foster and the commission have already worked to overhaul judges and referees used in the state to ensure that officials are well versed in mixed martial arts.
He's interested in programs that will further investigate concussion protocols to keep fighters from competing while suffering from brain trauma.
Right now, the changes to the rules surrounding weight cutting are getting all the attention, but it's certainly not the last piece of regulation Foster hopes to implement in the end to help MMA grow and prosper while keeping all the athletes safe.
"It's a dramatic shift in the way we're doing business right now," Foster said.
Foster is happy to see the changes that came from the weight cutting summit last December but he's not content and ready to sit still just yet. There's plenty more to be done and chances are California will be at the forefront to make sure it happens.
"I feel very proud that this package came from that summit, from the time this commission spent with the stakeholders and certainly there may be more coming down the line," Foster said. "This may not be the end, there could be more things coming. But this to me is a really good start.
"Before we change things, before we do anything else, let's see what this does."