Making Weight: The Unseen Side Of Mixed Martial Arts
UFC fighter Tony Martin describes what it takes to execute a healthy weight cut.
When I first started training at Sityodtong Boston, a gym for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), I found the professional and amateur fighters pretty intimidating. But over time I discovered that they're super nice people making huge sacrifices to succeed in a dangerous sport. A funny thing you may not assume about fighters is that for a bunch of rough and tumble guys and gals, they’re obsessed with their weight. Ask any fighter what he or she weighs on a given day and they can tell you, to the pound, where they tip the scales.
This body awareness is hugely important for combat athletes because there is generally a big difference between their normal “walk around” weight and their competition weight. If fighters don’t “make weight” before a fight they risk forfeiture, financial penalties and loss of championships. One extra pound can be catastrophic.
Boston based Tony Martin, has been a pro-fighter for five years with a win-loss record of 11-3. An aggressive competitor and accomplished grappler, Martin prefers to take his fights to the ground and finish opponents by submission. He started his MMA career training with retired fighter Brock Larson in his hometown of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He'd played football in college but didn’t have a background in combat sports when he was introduced to MMA.
“I went from zero to 100, training every day,” Martin says. “I turned pro a year later and two years after that I was in the UFC.” The UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, is the world’s premier MMA promotion putting Martin in an elite class of fighters.
Martin agreed to meet me for coffee in Somerville, about a half mile from Sityodtong where he trains. (Martin also trains at PMA in New Hampshire and is opening his own school, Start BJJ in Minnesota).
“You’ll have to remind me,” he texted when we set up the meeting. “I get hit in the head for a living.”
At 27, Martin’s still a young fighter and save for a pair of cauliflower ears, doesn’t have many battle scars. He’s six feet tall and walks around at a pretty lean 190 pounds. But here’s the thing, he fights in the UFC lightweight division at 155 pounds.
Martin does this to gain a physical advantage over his opponent and says being a little bigger than your typical lightweight can make a huge difference, especially in the later rounds where fatigued fighters rely more on size than technical ability
So how does a guy lose 35 pounds and still kick ass in the cage?
Before we get into that, a little context. The UFC has nine male weight classes ranging from 125 pound flyweights to heavyweights who can weigh up to 260 pounds. These weight classes are in place to ensure fair competition between combatants. But weight classes also have the unintended consequence of encouraging a risky behavior called weight cutting.
Weight cutting isn’t dieting. It’s a process by which a competitor temporarily dehydrates water reserves from the body, shedding the requisite pounds to make weight and then quickly replaces these pounds. A practiced weight cutter can lose in the neighborhood of 10 pounds the day before the fight and then put back on anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds overnight, entering the cage closer to their natural size.
If you knew any high school or collegiate wrestlers, you’ve probably heard their insane stories about starving themselves and then riding a stationary bike inside a sauna dressed in a garbage bag. This is unhealthy behavior. However, there are responsible ways cut weight that mitigate risk.
The process begins for Martin 10-12 weeks before his fight when he starts dieting. He sticks to a custom meal plan developed by his nutritionist. He eats very clean, with a lot of whole grains, healthy fats, lean meats and plenty of greens, making sure to drink 16-32 ounces of water with every meal. I won’t get into the weeds of his diet but some of the highlights include a midday sweet potato shake made with banana, honey, spinach and lemon which he assures me tastes good and buckwheat cereal he eats before bed with coconut oil, honey, cinnamon and fruit. Clearly, Martin’s not starving himself.
“I feel like I eat a lot but it’s very clean and healthy.”
The diet, coupled with two daily training sessions, results in about a two and half pound weight loss per week. Martin also drinks two gallons a day of a homemade electrolyte drink made with water, lemon, honey and Himalayan salt. Since the end goal here is to prepare the body for massive fluid loss, the key is actually to stay hydrated. This may seem counterintuitive, but proper hydration makes the body more willing to expel fluids.
“When I first started, the big thing was losing a lot of water weight, not preparing my body for water weight loss,” Martin explains. “I used the sauna and weighed all my food but then I learned that it’s more important what you eat than how much. We’re prepping the body to perform at the highest ability. It’s a process of teaching the body to let go.”
Martin’s nutritionist, Michelle Ingels is the co-founder (along with Paulina Discepolo Indara) of Perfecting Athletes – which specializes in healthy weight cuts. Her clients include top UFC stars like Amanda Nunes and Chris Weidman as well as Martin’s teammates Rob Font and Tateki Matsuda. Ingels and I spoke about her thoughts on weight cutting as a practice.
“Weight cuts are a reality in combat sports and one that will not likely go away,” she says.
“Without appropriate medical supervision weight cuts can deplete fighters of energy and nutrition which can affect their performance. If you’ve ever had the flu and lost a lot of weight in a short time period you know how exhausted it can leave you.”
Cutting weight is dangerous. In fact, it can be lethal. Incorrect weight cuts results in poor performance at best and in the worst cases, kidney or heart failure. When I ask Ingels about failed weight cuts. She pinpoints three key mistakes fighters make.
“Number one is athletes starving themselves to make weight. By severely limiting their food and fluid intake they actually slow down the weight cut and make it more stressful on the body,” she says. “Second is the athlete overheats which can lead to fainting, dizziness and blood pressure regulation issues. Third, athletes often rehydrate improperly. Rehydrating too quickly, with too much water and not enough electrolytes can lead to seizures.”
UFC fighters generally fight on Saturday nights, with weigh-ins occurring on Friday. The week of the fight, Martin will weigh about 168 pounds. He scales back his portions sizes a little but mostly sticks to his routine. On Thursday, he has breakfast, works out and gets his body sweating. By midday, he’s generally down around 164 pounds. He works out again and says he can lose another five pounds in about an hour. He drops the last four pounds by getting in and out of a hot bath at 20 minute intervals. Then he eats dinner and goes to bed at 157 pounds. He wakes up at 7:30am, jumps back in the bath to sweat off the last pounds and is on weight by 9am. If you see pictures of Martin from his weigh-ins, you can see what a body deprived of fluids looks like – his cheeks are sunken, ribs popping out. He’s all muscle and bone. But the emaciated look is temporary.
After making weight, Martin begins the process of rehydrating. He drinks his electrolyte drink and has a green shake with some fruit, slowly replenishing the water he’s lost. Gorging after a weight cut will make a fighter sluggish. The key is to drink 16oz of fluid an hour and not overeat. By the time Martin is done replenishing he wakes up on Saturday weighing 174 pounds.
That’s nearly twenty pounds overnight!
And with that, Martin’s physical preparations are done. In a way, the hard part is over. All that’s left for him now is to get in the cage and win.