On November 10, 2017, 18-year-old Australian fighter Jessica Lindsay wrote “weight cutting is sick” on her Instagram page while preparing for a Muay Thai fight. Six days later, she died of extreme dehydration, having collapsed while out running, 30 minutes before she was due to weigh in. Her organs, her sister said, had shut down “one by one”.
Acute weight loss is a growing concern in combat sports. The practice of sweating out vast amounts of water to reach the required weight limit for a fight started in wrestling and has become hugely common in MMA and boxing. It’s not unusual for a UFC fighter to lose 20 lbs – often more than 10 percent of their body weight – in the 48 hours before a weigh in. They will stop eating and drinking, and then use a combination of saunas, hot baths and cardiovascular exercise to force their bodies to excrete as much fluid as possible. While extreme dehydration is less prevalent in boxing, it is still an option that boxers sometimes take to meet limits that are far below their natural weight. The thinking is that by shedding water weight quickly, only to pile the pounds back on after weighing in, they can gain a size and weight advantage over their opponent. Being the bigger and heavier fighter clearly has its benefits. In May 2016, Amir Khan was knocked out cold with one punch by Canelo Alvarez, who is said to have weighed as much as 30 lbs more than the 155 lsb limit on fight night.
“First, there’s the danger of actually losing the weight,” says Dr Loosemore. “Sweat isn’t pure water – the salts that are in your blood are required for running your heart nice and smoothly. When you get very dry, you lose a lot of electrolytes. Those electrolytes are very important for the nerves that make your heart beat regularly. If they start misfiring you put yourself at risk of heart arrhythmia, heart attacks and death.” GB Boxing have strict guidelines when it comes to weight cutting, with “a dehydration of two percent of their weight considered safe”.
“Greater percentages than that, we wouldn’t recommend,” says Dr Loosemore, “because it’s just dangerous. It’s Russian roulette.”