Diminished performance. Decreased strength. Blackouts. Seizures, endocrine damage, organ failure.
They’re just a few of the nightmares fighters encounter when weight cuts go wrong.
“I’m lucky—I was never hospitalized because of a cut,” says Ray Lopez, owner of NOLA Mixed Martial Arts in New Orleans. “But I had excruciating stomach pain, muscle cramps, overall impaired athletic performance. I would lose the ability to pull the trigger.”
And through years of consistent weight cutting Lopez stunted his growth. As an adult he stands just 5’6” with broad shoulders which look like they were transplanted from a larger donor, the result of what doctors later called “chronic malnutrition.” (Coaches at the time called it “success.”)
A jiu-jitsu brown belt and MMA fighter with a 4-0-0 record, Lopez first starting cutting weight for wrestling at age 13.
“We weren’t doing it the right way at all,” he recalls.
Now 36 and still competing regularly—in addition to teaching six days a week—Lopez, like many coaches, is concerned with the number of grapplers he meets “still cutting the wrong way.” He says they recycle outdated techniques wrestling teammates employed in the late 1990s, including crash dieting, spitting into cups, saunas, overusing plastics, diuretic and enema overload, standing on one’s head before weighing in (apparently that’s a thing), and forced vomiting. Combined, they take a toll on even the strongest bodies.
The problem exists at the highest levels. UFC fighter Cynthia Calvio was so weak she had to be held upright on the scales at weigh-ins in Argentina, causing commentator and fighter veteran Brendan Schaub to tweet this criticism. This past May Uriah Hall blacked out before weighing in for UFC St. Louis due to a “mini-heart attack” from dehydration. And in March Brazilian MMA pro Alexandre Pereira Silva ended up in a months-long coma with a brain bleed after complications from his cut. No shock that Kenny Florian once called cutting to featherweight an “experience of a little of what death has to offer,” and Joe Rogan calls it “the biggest problem in MMA.”
When individuals with the most elite coaches, PTs, and nutritionists handling their cuts end up in the hospital, you can imagine how bad it is on the “everyman grappler” level, where nearly all weight cuts are DIY and where, whatever Rogan’s sentiments are, weight cuts aren’t going to change anytime some.
“It’s frustrating to see athletes not taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge we have now,” says Lopez. “But it’s more maddening watching coaches refuse to educate themselves for the benefit and safety of their athletes. What we do is already dangerous enough without sloppy weight cutting.”
Lopez’s feelings about ethical, performance-focused weight cuts didn’t become a passion until late in his career—namely his 30s, when hormone shifts and juggling a full-time job with competing first made making weight harder than ever.
“After 33 I felt the dip in my metabolism. Water weight did not come off easily,” he explains. “Old school methods stopped working. And in hindsight those methods always diminished me. I could have been leaner, sharper, and more effective, period.”
His reasons for keeping it “old school” for so long were practical, and nearly universal in the fight community: money, and well-intentioned ignorance.
“The cost of a nutritionist, meal prep services, consultations, these are all generally out of the budget of weekend warriors and competitive athletes not part of big camps,” says Lopez. “Plus a lot of us stupidly assumed the nutrition advice in, like, Men’s Fitness or on Bodybuilding.com was fine for us. If you hit your weight you assume you’re fine and’ll always be fine.”
It wasn’t until Lopez missed weight for the first time in two decades, at age 36, that he realized his approach had to change.
“I had done everything correctly, everything, and the weight would…not…come…off,” he say. “I was so disappointed in myself, but aware that I had to do something different.”
That something was to work with a nutrition expert for his next fight. Having had bad experiences with certified dietitians, Lopez picked a Functional Nutritionist who addressed the roots of his lethargy and weight retention, like systemic inflammation and sleep hygiene, in addition restructuring his diet.
His next camp was the best he’s ever had. “I was leaner, sharper, had more energy. I wasn’t tired or not sleeping because I was so hungry. I looked and felt healthy.”
He won the fight via dominant ground and pound.
“If you can afford it, it’s not even a question—do it at least once to learn how. And if you can’t afford it, you have to arm yourself with the most up-to-date nutrition science. The information is out there, but it’s not on Instagram or in magazines. You can’t just do what the guy next to you does. What works for him may not be what’s best for you.”
Here are the Top 5 reasons he tells students and colleagues to “go pro” when it comes to weight cutting:
1. Safety. Knowing what weight you should be shooting for, and whether going up is better for your performance than going down, isn’t as easy as picking the weight class where competitors look like you. Age, genetics, personal relationships, stress, and access to resources can all affect whether you can successfully make weight or not. Going too low–and too fast–is how hospitalizations happen. Having a pro to go over your variables with you and calculate what your goal should be is invaluable. Registered dietitians, functional nutritionists, and sports medicine practitioners who actually train martial arts are all more qualified to help you than Dr. Google or Reddit.
2. Heightened Performance. Obviously calories matter when you’re trying to lose or gain. But where you get those calories from determines whether you move like a Spartan or a sloth attached to a fondue feeding tube. “I discovered intermittent fasting and high fat really works for my body,” Lopez says. “Getting the right fuels at the right times of day for me meant I maintained more muscle and strength than I have in other camps.”
3. Improved focus. Do you want to read every label, plan and cook every meal, prep every snack, write every shopping list, research every supplement, try to track every ounce of water, process your food journal, watch tape, work, and train…or just work and train? Meal plans, shopping lists, research, and the stress about it gets delegated off your plate when you work with someone.
4. Increased Longevity. Two or three bad weight cuts can end a career early. But if a successful camp diet is nutrient dense, rich in polyphenols, high in omega-3s, tailored to your body and easy to maintain then it’s likely to improve overall health and longevity as a non-fighting, non-matrat human who wants to, you know, just live. Dietitians, nutritionists, and sports medicine pros are all about helping you prolong your career as you prep, not just getting you in fighting shape.
5. Improved Quality of Life. Since getting help, the mat-related skin infections which often hit Lopez disappeared. He explains his sleep quality is better, recovery faster, and stress down. He’s even built the daily meditation practice that previously alluded him into his life successfully. “It turns out I was eating a lot of crap my body and brain don’t respond well to because I thought it was healthy,” he says. “Learning what is healthy for my body means I have more energy for literally everything in my life.” And even better, having been schooled in how to optimize his weight cuts and listen to his body, Lopez is now able to apply the knowledge to future camps. “If I struggle in the future I have someone to call for help,” he says. “But for now I can go into the next one myself knowing with confidence what I need to do and how to execute.”