The Sport of Cutting Weight – Muay Thai and Competition

Just recently the Muay Thai Classic in the US announced a change to their annual Muay Thai tournament in that competitors will weigh in twice, once before commencing the...

Just recently the Muay Thai Classic in the US announced a change to their annual Muay Thai tournament in that competitors will weigh in twice, once before commencing the first round of the eliminations and then again prior to the finals.  This decision came from the Thai Boxing Association – Sanctioning Authority and the association cited fighters’ safety and competition fairness as their main incentives for the change:

To confirm: YES, we are having two weigh ins this year. All fighters who will compete in the Championship bouts on Sunday MUST make weight on Sunday morning. No allowance. For those of you that do not share other’s enthusiasm for this step towards increased fairness and safety, we’re sorry you wont be joining us this year. The Muay Thai Classic tournament is for seeing who is the best in each weight bracket, not just the biggest. (You can follow this thread here)

There are, of course, opposing voices in response to this change.  Some applaud the TBA’s efforts toward limiting the more drastic weight-cutting feats that have become very evident as of late in shows like The Ultimate Fighter, where last season two (2!) competitors failed to make weight before their fights, and which have been a quiet background discussion in the boxing world for quite a while now.  Others, however, see the fine-tuned tricks of weight-cutting as an art within the art and one which is an indispensable advantage for their fighters.

I happen to fall into the first category.  As a small fighter I have only had to “make weight” a handful of times throughout my 75 fight career.  Even when I do make weight that matches my opponent, I am certainly out-weighed by her by the time we’re fighting the next day, making the whole “trick” of cutting weight one that is never an advantage for me, although it could be argued that not having to cut weight and stress my body is an advantage in that my opponent might be dehydrated or physically drained from her own cut.  In any case, fighting someone who is comfortably similar to my own weight – within a reasonable range – just seems the best of all options to me.

My favorite fighter at Lanna Muay Thai is a 20 year old Thai named Big.  Big is, incidentally, quite small.  He walks around at about 52 kg and when he has to weigh in for a title fight or a competition down at the big stadia in Bangkok, like Lumpinee or Rajadamnern, he cuts down to about 48 or 47 kg – which happens to be my walking around weight.  Big is a lean guy, so even though he’s not cutting a huge amount of weight (5 kg is about 11 lbs) it takes a big toll on him.  And the way in which Thais cut weight is less meticulous than the bodybuilder and wrestler-inspired methods of the west: Thais start about a week out from the fight and run the water weight out wearing a sauna suit, day after day, up until the weigh in.  It looks exhausting, pulling the water out and replacing it again after each session; so much so that during hard cuts the fighters stop training for the last week and only work to cut weight, too fatigued to bang out rounds on the bag or pads.  I’ve talked to the trainers about the water-cut that I’ve used to get down to 44 kg without draining myself much, but they seem unwilling to even try it.  I get it, actually.  They’ve been doing it their way for eons and the difficulty is part of the process in a way.  It’s part of a fighter’s “come up” to be forced through these trials.

A few months ago before one of Big’s fights at Lumpinee, my main trainer Den and I were watching Big shuffle around the gym, looking miserable.  He’d just won the Northern Thailand championship title at 108 lbs (48.9 kg) and had a fight down at Lumpinee just a couple weeks after.  Like in the west, Big cuts down for his fight and then takes time off after the fight to rest up and enjoy himself, inevitably ballooning back up in weight that will have to be cut back down for his next fight.  In fact, I’ve spotted Big during weight cuts getting off the the scale having met his number and sitting down on the bench with salty chips and a sugary drink to recoup, guaranteeing that the next day his cut will be equally difficult and draining.  Den shook his head as Big shuffled by, dead-pan expression on his hollowed faced, “he need to understand there’s more to Muay Thai than just making weight and fighting,” Den said.  He meant that Big doesn’t train to improve.  He just trains a little here and there, gets by in his fights on his talent and years of acquired skill and experience without pushing to be great.  The only times Big really has to work is to cut weight for a fight.  I found this statement fascinating because I happened to have a Facebook feed full of Northeastern American fighters getting ready for fights, all complaining about “making weight.”  In the west the story seems quite similar in that fights are so far between that the 6-8 week “fight camp” leading up to them consist mainly of the hardship of finding time and energy to train more alongside a full-time job and, the part more people talk about: dieting and cutting weight for the weigh-in.  Fighting, in the west, is largely about the weight cut.

big weight

Big LOVES cutting weight

To be fair, folks in the west don’t talk about their training very openly.  I don’t know if it’s that many people feel they’d be giving away secrets to their game or strategy or whatever to expose their training, but by and large it’s not divulged.  What people do talk about is how hard they are working to get their weight down.  It’s a huge part of the fight camp.  Details of how this is done are also not shared – maybe those are gym secrets also – but mostly everyone is doing the same things: cutting down on carbs, going “primal” or “paleo”, and limiting sodium and sugar while they dehydrate over the last week or so – epsom salt baths and saunas to be determined at the last minute.  If you’re thousands of miles away and only read the updates of folks on Facebook, you’d think fighting is all about the weight cut.  Rarely do you hear much about the fight other than the outcome and then it’s right back to details about what gastronomic exploits the fighter is indulging after such a trying time of deprivation prior to the competition.  There’s the weight cut and then there’s the binge.  It’s a remarkably disordered glorification of restriction and reward – neither of which have anything to do with the actual practice of art and sport for which all of this is taking place.

So if you get rid of the drastic weight cut, what do people talk about?  I don’t weigh in for nearly any of my fights, so I don’t think about my weight at all until I’m staring at my opponent at the fights, gauging how many kilos there are between us.  That’s probably not going to be happening in the west with the change in weigh-ins taking place at the TBA’s.  Rather, people will train down to the weight at which they want to compete and have to maintain it over a few days, rather than having drastic differences in weight between fighters, like what I face here with the “eyeball method” of matching up fights.  My point, however, is that the emphasis on the weight-cut appears to take precedence over the training and the fight itself, at least in the consciousness that is presented by the fighters’ social media outlets.  If made to fight closer to their natural weights, the extremes of deprivation and stressing of the body to get down to the lowest possible and unsustainable number will certainly be mitigated.  And while we all know it already, the way we share our experiences may actually reveal that “there is more to Muay Thai than just cutting weight.”

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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