Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Eliminate weight-cutting from combat sports by controlling for water weight
There IS an alternative. Instead of having fighters actually go through the process of losing water weight, blood samples could be used to measure the water content of bodily fluids and calculate how much additional water weight the person could safely lose, without their actually having to lose it. Subtract that amount of "excess" water weight from the fighter's scale-weight to get their weigh-in weight.
This water-controlled weigh-in weight would arguably be a fairer measure of fighting weight than the weight-cutting system produces. Fighters with the same water-controlled weigh-in weight would have the same tissue mass, sans fluids. Thus a fighter who has been exceptionally good at cutting and regaining water weight, like current UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo, will lose his size advantage. Aldo (who needs no size advantage) has been consistently larger than his opponents come fight time. Under a water controlled system, they would be the same size, which seems right. Is an ability to lose water weight a fighting skill? No. So why should it be rewarded inside the Octagon?
The biggest reason to switch to water-controlled weigh-in weights is to avoid the health risks of severe dehydration. Less water makes bodily fluids thicker, which can put tremendous stress on the circulatory system and other organ systems, depending on how extreme the water loss is. That combatants at all levels are engaging in this practice, even in high school wrestling, means a huge price is being paid by a huge number of people just to be able to compete.
A coordination problem
Cutting water weight is what economists call a "coordination problem." If everyone is equally good at it then nobody gets an advantage from it, but everyone has to do it in order to keep the OTHER guy from getting an advantage from it. If only everyone could agree not to do it, then everyone would be better off. Everyone would be spared the discomfort and the health risks of dehydration, but there is no way to enforce such an agreement. Everyone would have an incentive to cheat, and it would be impossible to even define what cheating was. How could an agreed upon level of hydration even be defined?
Technology can solve this coordination problem by simply removing water from the equation. Drink as much water as you want before weigh-in. Blood samples will allow that water weight to be subtracted back out. If somebody tries to get an advantage by losing water weight, they can't do it. The blood test detects their low water weight and accordingly subtracts less water weight when calculating their weigh-in weight.
"Making weight" will become a long-term rather than a short-term proposition. Fighters will still have some ability to lose weight in the short-term by fasting for a day or two before weigh-ins (allowing the alimentary canal to empty out), but they will only be able to lose a couple of pounds this way. Water-controlled or water-compensated weight will primarily be a function of how much muscle and fat a person has.
Moving muscle and fat up and down takes longer time periods, on the order of weeks at least. Fighters just have to make sure far enough ahead of a fight that their weight is on the right trajectory (just as they do now). They'll need to be a little bit more disciplined than now, because they won't be able to drop an extra couple of pounds through more extreme dehydration. On the other hand, the formula they'll need to follow is very simple. They just stay at the maximum weigh-in weight for their class, plus their normal water allowance, plus the three or so pounds for what they can lose by last minute fasting. Then the only way to get a weight advantage will be to have a higher ratio of muscle to fat than the other guy, which is as it should be.
Calibrating the "excess water weight" measurement
Substantial testing would be required to identify just how blood thickness varies with water-weight at each level of hydration. The formula for using blood thickness to calculate excess water-weight would also vary by body size, but the "experiments" necessary to calibrate these calculations are already being run. Fighters and wrestlers all over the country are cutting weight all the time. We just need to start collecting the data. How much does their blood thicken per pound of water-weight loss? Once we calibrate that relationship for each body size then we can determine, for a given blood thickness, what the fighter's weight would be if the maximum safe amount of water was removed, and that's their water-controlled weigh-in weight.
If a suitable water-content test for blood is not already available then one would have to be developed. Maybe a simple mechanical viscosity test would do. Then a couple of years of the UFC systematically collecting data on how blood thickens with water-weight loss and the relationship would be well enough calibrated to enable a switch over to water-controlled weigh-in weights.
Better for the fans too, as fighters will be sharper, not having just put themselves through the dehydration ringer. Soon the fight world will be looking back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries as the bad old days, when everybody had to go through hell just to get in the door for weight-group competition. Good riddance. Training and fighting are grueling enough.
Cross-posted at MMAlinker. For background, you can read here about Jose Aldo's struggle to make weight for the Mark Hominick fight (where he gassed, but still won), and here is Dr. Benjamin's Q and A on the medical dangers of weight cutting.