California targets extreme weight cutting with amateur program

The CSAC is taking steps to prevent a catastrophe in the cage. Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Effective Jan. 1, 2016, amateur mixed martial artists competing in California will comply with a lowest allowable weight limit, designed to prevent athletes from ever dropping below 5 percent body fat.

That is the current goal, according to California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization (CAMO) director JT Steele and California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive director Andy Foster.

While it's not completely certain changes will go into effect by the start of next year, that is the timeframe CSAC and CAMO are anticipating. The longterm goal, Foster says, is to see lowest allowable weight limits adopted at a professional level.

"It's much easier for CAMO to implement this program," Foster told ESPN.com. "They can amend their regulations quite easily. CSAC actually began the conversation, but speaking from a purely regulatory perspective, it's easier at the amateur level."

"It's much easier for [The California Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Organization] to implement this [lowest possible weight limit] program. They can amend their regulations quite easily. [The California State Athletic Commission] actually began the conversation, but speaking from a purely regulatory perspective, it's easier at the amateur level." California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) executive director Andy Foster

Drastic weight cutting has become commonplace in professional mixed martial arts; it's not uncommon for an athlete to cut upwards of 20-30 pounds the week before a fight to make his or her weight class.

Stories of athletes passing out after sitting in saunas while wearing plastic suits are widely circulated. The UFC has seen a heightened number of its fighters miss weight in 2015 and has even forced several fighters to move up a weight class because of it.

In September 2013, 26-year-old Brazilian flyweight Leandro Souza died shortly before a scheduled weigh-in in Brazil. It remains unclear exactly what role the weight cut played in Souza's death.

Foster, who has been involved at essentially every level of combat sports during his lifetime, has become increasingly concerned with the extreme weight-cutting practices he's witnessed and is advocating for a major change in the sport's culture.

The new amateur program, once in effect, will set a minimum weight class a fighter is allowed to compete in, based on a physical assessment conducted by a CSAC-licensed ringside physician. This practice is already utilized by the NCAA in amateur wrestling. While the NCAA also prohibits specific weight-cutting methods, CAMO intends to focus exclusively on the lowest allowable weight limit for now.

"Although we're similar to wrestling, we're going to develop our own system that works for mixed martial arts," Steele said. "The most challenging part of this will be changing the culture and the way our athletes are looking at weight cutting. This is a far more serious issue at the professional level, but if we're talking about fundamental change to weight cutting, I think starting with amateur fighters is the right place. It's going to require a culture shift."

Foster added, "It dawned on me that the professional fighters I'm dealing with, most of them have already had a long experience in our amateur ranks. That is where they developed weight cutting behaviors that they took with them. I could even go a step further and say the behavior needs to be changed in middle and high school wrestling programs. If we can stop this behavior of extreme weight cutting using various criteria with amateurs, it will transcend to the professional ranks."

Currently, amateur fighters wishing to participate in California submit a license application, which includes blood tests and a full physical examination. Once the program goes into effect, athletes will undergo an assessment to determine his or her lowest allowable weight class. This assessment will be done while the fighter is in a hydrated state and will last one calendar year. Athletes will obviously be allowed to compete at a weight above their lowest allowed division.

According to Steele, the state of California currently regulates between 120-140 amateur events per year.

"This is a large sample size to introduce this program to," Steele said. "We're probably talking about 15 percent of amateur MMA in this country."

According to Foster, certain measures are being taken to address drastic weight cutting at the professional level as well. Earlier this year, Foster worked with the Association of Ringside Physicians to draft a memo on the dangers of extreme weight cutting. The memo cited one particular study that found 39 percent of MMA fighters were competing in a dehydrated state.

CSAC will make notes on fighters' license applications should they struggle to make a certain weight class. Additionally, Foster plans to distribute educational posters to gyms in California, in the hope that information is absorbed by athletes.

The proposed amateur program, as Foster and Steele admit, will not solve every issue associated with weight cutting. It fails to address, for example, the dangers of a rapid weight cut by an athlete who might accept a fight on short notice. It also presents logistical issues, including a desperate need for consistency regarding the physical assessments, to prevent any individual from achieving a competitive advantage.

What it will almost certainly do, however, is further a conversation about weight cutting that Foster believes needs to happen.

"God forbid a high-profile, catastrophic incident occur," Foster said. "And when I say a high-profile incident, that's not to lessen the catastrophic incidents that have already taken place, OK? But we don't want to see a high-profile accident because should that happen, I think the entire conversation would be shifted."