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Deep Waters: Is extreme weight cutting more of a danger than drugs in MMA?

Updated Sep 15, 2015 at 6:29p ET

If you tuned in to the latest Nevada State Athletic Commission hearing, on Monday, and watched the state hand a career death sentence down to Nick Diaz, you could be forgiven for believing that marijuana use is the biggest safety concern for boxers and MMA fighters. Perhaps it is, or maybe it’s the use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids.

According to the sport's official record-keeper, Kirik Jenness, however, the extreme weight-cutting commonplace among elite fighters is actually the biggest health risk in combat sports. "I think that extreme weight cutting, which you find at the highest professional levels in the sport, is the biggest danger in the sport, right now, outside of the sport itself, which is a dangerous sport. It's a hurting game," Kirik said recently on the Deep Waters podcast that he co-hosts with best-selling author Sam Sheridan and myself.

Jenness has worked with athletic commissions for years, and is also a long-time coach in addition to being a former fighter himself. As such, he's got great insight into where we've been, and what it would take to move forward and make sports like MMA, boxing, and wrestling safer.

Indeed, the practice, known colloquially as "cutting," which is, in fact, deliberate and extreme dehydration in order to shed pounds of water to make designated weight limits, does more than make fighters grumpy. Athletes routinely get sick as a result of the practice, and require medical attention after cutting weight before their fights.

Former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao recently missed a championship fight after falling and hitting his head while cutting weight. Fighters have also died as a result of weight-cutting complications.

In 2013, UFC fighter Brian Melancon said he retired from competition on the advice of doctors who told him his kidney functioning had been severely damaged, in part, from years of routine extreme water-weight loss.

Jenness pointed out that there is hope, through smart regulation. Some states are already working on solutions to make MMA safer, over the long run.

"The first state that did anything was Arkansas. The second state that is doing it very, very comprehensively is California. In both cases they are starting with the amateurs. They are trying to fix a professional issue by starting with the amateurs — changing the whole culture of the sport … And then, all the fighters that come up, 10 years from now, when they're fighting in the UFC, they're used to fighting at something like their normal weight." he continued.

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"Nothing can be done to change extreme weight-cutting in a year. It's just not going to happen. You're not going to have all these people shifting divisions. But through regulation, I would say that within five years, every major commission will be regulating weight-cutting."

According to the veteran coach and fight official, California is putting real money into making MMA safer. "Andy Foster, the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission is doing some really interesting stuff. He's a very, very intelligent guy. He got his budget from negative to positive. He bought these $18,000 scales that can measure how dehydrated you are when you step on," he recounted.

"He's doing the exact same thing with the amateurs that they do in college [wrestling], now, basically telling a person what weight they can be at. They [aren't allowed to] compete at whatever weight they can…you give them, say, a seven-percent body fat, that's the lowest they can go."

Still, changing the MMA culture of extreme dehydration to make weight will take more effort and time, Jenness said. Without a long view, one of the most dangerous parts of a very dangerous sport can never honestly be addressed.

"I think it's a long-fix," he concluded.

"At the fastest, it's a 10-year fix. It might be more like 20-25 years."

To listen to the entire episode, with us discussing what UFC 1 taught us about who would win a fight between Ronda Rousey and Floyd Mayweather Jr., listen at Soundcloud, or above! We anticipate that an iTunes listing will come in the coming weeks.

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