In 2015, Chinese fighter Yang Jian Bing passed away, reportedly due to a bad weight cut for a bout in ONE Championship. Less than two weeks after his death, the promotion instilled a new weight cutting policy that involved hydration testing, multiple weigh-ins, and renaming divisions.
ONE Championship’s been known to push hyperbole and questionable claims, and what first seemed like a quick way to avoid bad PR in China and the rest of Asia, was eventually marketed as a “revolutionary system” that supposedly solved a longstanding issue in MMA and combat sports.
“We don’t use the term weight cutting because there is no cutting,” ONE VP Rich Franklin boasted in 2017.
ONE executives, fighters, and even personalities like Joe Rogan have since advocated for it to be widely adopted in MMA, but is this system actually as good as they say it is?
Well, apart from a very concerning lack of transparency for years, there’s really been numerous situations with fighters dropping multiple divisions and admitting to cutting weight. There’s also horror stories of repeated cutting and hydrating throughout the day, allegedly under advice of ONE officials.
Numerous experts on the field were interviewed by Jason Hartley of MMA on Point on this matter, including Dr. Oliver Barley, who has published multiple research papers on sports science, hydration, and weight cutting specifically for combat sports. Barley, who holds a master’s degree and PhD in exercise physiology, believes that ONE Championship’s weight cutting policy and hydration testing is “not good” at all.
“Right now, the usage of hydration testing, especially urine testing, in trying to regulate weight cutting is a unanimous bad, a unanimous negative,” Dr. Barley told Hartley.
“People don’t really trust ONE Championship’s weight cutting policy, and I think it’s their public image overall. I think people do see it as dubious,” he said. “Now if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
According to Barley, who has written papers on the matter, the science just isn’t there when it comes to hydration testing and its accuracy, especially for athletes. He also has an issue with ONE Championship’s lack of transparency, along with the promotion using what he calls an “arbitrary” cut-off limit of 1.025 to mark those who are “dehydrated.”
“I’m not convinced that urinary test hydration testing is a great measure in almost any situation, but I am extremely not convinced that it’s useful in the case of weight cutting,” he said, pointing out how these tests were only made for patients in a hospital setting. “These hydration tests were not designed for someone who is going to specifically aggressively dehydrate themselves and then rehydrate themselves.
“If we pulled in 100 people off the street, my guess is 40 percent of them would probably fail a urinary hydration test. People typically walk around, according to a urinary test, with at least some mild to moderate dehydration,” he said. “There’s actually a good chance that you’ll be declared dehydrated even if you’re not.
“The thing that confuses me the most, is that (ONE) had years where I was not aware of a single fight being canceled due to urinary hydration test failing, which to me is so unbelievable that I don’t even know how to describe it,” Dr. Barley said.
In a separate video, nutritionist Tom Coughlin also brought up other studies that discussed the “problematic” use of hydration tests for sports. He pointed out how the test can have a number of factors to give an inaccurate result such as diet, drug interactions, and muscle mass, and how it needs far more research before being implemented in sports.
Apart from detailing how these tests clearly aren’t fit for weight cutting scenarios, Dr. Barley also described how it is also “ridiculously easy” to cheat. Interestingly enough, he even admits to helping some “big names” in ONE pass hydration tests even with weight cuts.
“I’ve been involved in helping fighters trick this test. It’s not been difficult, at all,” he admitted.
“Tricking the test is super easy,” Dr. Barley explains. He says it simply has to do with drinking distilled water at certain points to trick your body in thinking you’re over-hydrated. “You put the fluid back in but not the electrolytes, so then the concentration of your blood really plummets and the kidneys actually think you’re over-hydrated and they start emptying urine out and the urine comes out clear.
“It’s ridiculously easy. Currently, I am batting 100 percent in getting people to trick the test. I have (a short) instruction thing on my phone that I just copy and paste and send it to them whenever anyone asks me.”
As for why he is willing to share and expose these details now, Barley hopes that revealing its significant flaws just gets the entire system changed.
“The fact is, huge amounts of athletes are doing it anyway, and as these tests get bigger and bigger, people are going to work out how to do it. Me telling everyone how to do it just rips that band-aid off, and moves us away from an ineffective solution, and tries to make us do something more productive,” he said.
“People are going to make larger cuts (knowing that) that they can trick these tests.”
I think it's really important to note that the reason I agreed to speak out in this was to point out how flawed urinary hydration testing is, in that it won't be an effective deterrent, and tricking it actually poses a health risk to athletes. So it's a completely unsound move.— Oliver Barley, PhD (@OliverBarley) February 18, 2023
ONE Championships also has a rule that fighters are only allowed to gain 5% of their weight on fight day. That follow up weigh-in is also concerning for health and safety, according to Barley, as it could lead to people not recovering properly.
“They just eat food, they’re already at that five percent,” Barley stated. “You’ve (also) reduced someone’s rehydration. They’re not going to rehydrate as well, and then what you get are people competing possibly more dehydrated than they would have been if you just let them cut the weight and not check them a second time.”
As for anyone saying “then don’t just cut weight,” Barley responds that the problem isn’t simple and fighters are always going to look for an edge.
“Talk to a fighter. It is obvious that they will sacrifice a lot to win. They will sacrifice a lot more than being kinda hungry, or being slightly dehydrated. Relative to everything they do, that’s tiny. Relative to the pain they put themselves through in training, the pain they go through in fighting, the discipline and effort they have to have — this is nothing to them.
“Also, this runs the risk of making fighters think they’re smarter by tricking it. Going ‘you know what, everyone else is now probably cutting less weight, so if I do it and I trick the test, I will now get a bigger advantage.’”
At the end of the day, weight cutting is a complex problem in combat sports. As Dr. Barley and others explained, it certainly wasn’t magically solved by a policy seemingly rushed out less than two weeks after a tragic death.
“How could 12 days possibly be enough time? While hydration tests sound like they fit the bill perfectly, almost like a great marketing slogan — I mean it’s called hydration testing, it just sounds good — but nothing I’m able to find on this subject backs up those claims,” Hartley concluded in his report.
“With the confounding factors surrounding the testing methods, relative ease of being able to game the system, and the subsequent dangers around manipulating electrolyte balance, (ONE’s system) poses its own very real set of risks,” Coughlin stated. “This is not the fix that MMA has been asking for.”
“The problem is that everybody wants simple answers to complicated questions,” Dr. Barley said. “Hydration testing is a relatively simple answer to what people think is a simple problem, but it’s actually an extremely complicated problem.”
About the author: Anton Tabuena is the Managing Editor for Bloody Elbow. He’s been covering MMA and combat sports since 2009, and has also fought in MMA, Muay Thai and kickboxing. (full bio)