Sweating out pounds

  • Article by: ALEX PREWITT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2011 - 6:29 AM

Local MMA fighter Paul Bradley admits the weight-cutting process is grueling and can cause problems if done incorrectly. But it's also a necessary part of the sport.

The sweat soaked straight through Paul Bradley's shoes. It poured from his sleeves. A pool would have formed beneath the fighter's feet were the treadmill not sweeping the drippings away.

His side ached. Dehydration arrived, the water drained from his kidneys and liver. Bradley gasped for air. A brisk, 20-minute walk is a simple task for a mixed martial arts fighter of his caliber, and yet he was struggling.

When someone said hello, Bradley barked that it wasn't the time. Flirting with the end means blocking out all distractions. With five minutes left, Bradley knew what the pain meant.

"This is the point of no return."

A little more than a day from his Saturday fight at Target Center, Bradley arrived at the gym to put the finishing touches on a months-long weight-cutting process. The weigh-in for Extreme Challenge 188 was four hours away, and the 28-year-old Minneapolis resident was 6 pounds too heavy.

That difference disappeared in 40 minutes.

Weight-cutting practices are ingrained in the sport's lifestyle. The idea is simple: Cut to make a weight class for the weigh-in and then pack on the pounds for the actual fight.

"It's not fun to do, but it goes with the territory," said UFC fighter Sean Sherk, who says he cuts 20 pounds, all water weight, in less than five days. "Cutting weight is a big deal. You have to have that down to a science. Your body has to be acclimated to making that weight cut and then recovering."

"If you do it right, it doesn't take a significant toll," said Bradley, who wrestled at the University of Iowa. "For half a day, we're in a lot of pain, but I try to do it right and not go haywire like some guys who spend so much time weight-cutting that it affects their abilities."

Sweating it out

"It's like being put in an oven," said Bradley, standing outside a 210-degree sauna while strength coach Danny Knowles rubbed him down with Albolene.

Bradley used the Vaseline-like substance to open his pores before sweating out around 5 pounds inside the cauldron.

"A lot of people just don't understand," Bradley said. "The average fan can't comprehend dropping 15 pounds of weight because all they think it's all fat. But it's water weight, and we'll put that right back on."

The opening five minutes in the hot box were fine. Soon after, cotton mouth hit. The room began spinning. At the 17-minute mark, Bradley got dressed. The sweat pants went on first, then socks and shoes. Last was the stocking cap. Somewhere in between were a tight thermal, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt and a plastic sauna suit.

Everyone swears by his own routine. Some people bathe in Epsom salts. Others do hot tubs. Bradley overhydrates. The week of the fight, he drinks 7 gallons of water in five days. When he hits the sauna for 20 minutes and later the treadmill for 20 more, the water weight floods out.

"The hardest part is the dehydration portion of it, is going without water for that period of time and then having to sit in that sauna," Sherk said. "By then I'm sucked down pretty good. At night I just stare into the dark thinking about food."

Insane? Maybe. Physically debilitating? Rarely. An April study by Cal State Fullerton researchers showed that rapid weight reductions among collegiate wrestlers adversely affected confusion but didn't reduce strength. In other words, the mental game was affected, but not the physical.

Then again, the trade-off is hardly preferable. Competing at one's standing weight would mean fighting bigger guys who cut weight and then regained it for the match.

"Cutting's certainly not good for you, but neither is getting punched by a guy who's 50 pounds bigger," retired UFC fighter Nick Thompson said, noting that most fighters at a high level have passed out at some point from dehydration. "Pick your poison. For most guys, it's worth the pain to not deal with fighting up."

"I felt miserable all the time when I cut, but the next weight class up were guys at 210 cutting," said Risto Marttinen, a former collegiate wrestler and co-author of the Cal State study. "That's the culture that MMA breeds. If I go up, those guys would destroy me."

Do it right

Just don't be stupid, fighters say. Diet down to within striking distance and then cut the remaining water weight in the final days. Inexperienced competitors try to drop it all the week of the fight. That's a one-way ticket to the emergency room.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to starve yourself," said Sherk, who like most fighters learned proper weight-cutting practices while wrestling. "Obviously I do have to go hungry, but if I do it the correct way, I can eat all the way up until 30 hours before the weigh-in. There's definitely a learning curve."

Two months before the fight, Bradley begins a strict dieting regimen. Alcohol is out. So are late nights clubbing and cheap meals. A social life is out, broccoli is in. It's the healthy way.

"There's a system to it," Bradley said. "If you do it wrong, it's going to affect you. There have been guys who ended up in the hospital with IVs in their arms. All they tried to do was lose 20 pounds instead of dieting down."

The importance of nutrition increases after the weigh-in. At a Snap Fitness in Minneapolis on Friday evening, Bradley sits on an idle treadmill with a gallon of water and two shopping bags at his feet, one with Powerade and the other with baby food -- "pure nutrients," he said -- and Pedialyte, a children's antidiuretic that retains the water weight.

"You feel awful before the weigh-in, and you feel awful after," Thompson said. "You'll start drinking, but if you drink too fast, you make yourself sick because your body craves it."

'The way it needs to be'

Less than 24 hours later, Bradley arrived at Target Center for his fight with Eddie Larrea. After weighing in at 171.8, Bradley is now at 195.

The majority of the 25-pound gain came from fluids, but Bradley did his fair share of gorging. Right after the weigh-in he had a steak dinner at Uptown's Green Mill and then halfway through ordered pasta to go.

The process worked. Bradley beat Larrea with an arm-triangle choke in less than three minutes. On Monday, he got a four-fight contract with UFC and will make his first fight Aug. 6 in Philadelphia.

Stretching in a tunnel before the fight, Bradley smiled when asked about the cut.

"This is the way it needs to be every time," he said.

Fighters suffer through the side aches and the dehydration constantly, but the key is powering on. Weight-cutting is a grueling practice, but it's endured for the glory of victory.

At that moment, the point of no return fades into a distant memory.

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