The impact of a failed experiment

A return to same-day weigh-ins would be a significant step in the right direction

Updated: March 5, 2014, 1:22 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

English pugilist Dutch Sam stood 5-foot-6, weighed between 130 and 133 pounds, and is credited with inventing the uppercut. Even though he trained on three glasses of gin a day and sometimes entered the ring drunk, according to no lesser an authority than Pierce Egan, Sam was "one of (if not) the best fighting man in the kingdom."

Nonetheless, despite his fighting prowess and widespread acclaim, Sam, who fought from 1801 to 1814, never became bare-knuckles champion. He was a victim of his time, a lightweight living in a heavyweight world.

Paying your opponent in order to gain an unfair advantage is not only poor sportsmanship but also defeats the purpose for which weight classes were created. It's actually a symptom of a larger weight-related aberration -- the day-before weigh-in.

From the dawn of modern boxing (during the early decades of the 18th century) until the middle of the 19th century, all prizefighters were lumped together regardless of size. If the same system applied today, Floyd Mayweather Jr. would have to fight Wladimir Klitschko if he wanted to be champion.

It wasn't until 1886 that Jack McAuliffe became the first lightweight champion, knocking out Billy Frazier in the 21st round. By then it was too late for Dutch Sam -- he died in 1816.

The advent of weight divisions was intended to ensure, as much as possible, that boxers were evenly matched and that ability, rather than size advantage, would decide the outcome. It was a noble idea and helped shape the sport's development, but the proliferation of weight divisions (now 17 and counting) was no panacea.

True, separate weight classes greatly benefited fighters below heavyweight, and that's a good thing. Even so, the concept also introduced plenty of new problems, some of which threaten to make a mockery of the notion of a fair fight.

The most recent scam is fighters buying their way out of making the contracted weight, as exemplified by the scandalous shenanigans surrounding Saturday's Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.-Bryan Vera match.

In order to earn the biggest payday of his career, Vera, who has spent the bulk of his career as a middleweight, was forced to agree to a series of increasingly higher weights. And as the fight drew near and it became obvious that Chavez wasn't going to make 168 pounds, the limit was raised to 173 pounds and a portion of Chavez's purse was given to Vera.

The controversy caused quite a stink, reinforced Chavez's spoiled-brat image, and put another dent in the sport's battered reputation -- as did the contentious decision in Junior's favor.

[+] Enlarge Juan Manuel Marquez, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesBy paying $600,000 to avoid dropping an additional two pounds, Floyd Mayweather Jr. executed perhaps the most egregious case of pay-to-weigh against Juan Manuel Marquez.

Perhaps the most egregious case of pay-to-weigh (or whatever you wish to call it) came when Mayweather gave Juan Manuel Marquez $600,000 rather than shed the two pounds required to make the stipulated 144 pounds before their 2009 bout. As the $300,000 per-pound penalty was written into the fight contract, you can't help but wonder if multimillionaire Mayweather ever had any intention of making weight.

Paying your opponent in order to gain an unfair advantage is not only poor sportsmanship but also defeats the purpose for which weight classes were created. Although we are seeing more and more of this sort of gambit, it's actually a symptom of a larger weight-related aberration -- the day-before-the-fight weigh-in.

Concerned about dehydrated fighters not having enough time between the weigh-in and the fight to properly rehydrate, influential ringside physician Dr. Edwin "Flip" Homansky advocated switching to day-before weigh-ins. It seemed to make a lot of sense. There are many medical risks associated with dehydration, including reducing the amount of cerebrospinal fluid in which the brain floats. Insufficient fluid compromises the cushion-effect and the brain's ability to absorb shock.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission saw merit in Dr. Homansky's suggestion and instituted the new day-before policy in the mid-1980s. It wasn't long before virtually all jurisdictions followed suit, but unanticipated complications soon surfaced.

Many boxers abuse the change, taking it as an invitation to drain their bodies to an unhealthy degree in order to make a weight that is inappropriate for their age and body size. After the weigh-in, these emaciated fighters chug down large quantities of fluids and stuff themselves with food to a point where they are often a division or more over the contracted weight by fight time.

"It has actually become part of the matchmaking process," said Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, "with some people not wanting to fight a certain fighter because he is known to put on extra weight after the weigh-in. Or sometimes they'll agree to a fight because they know the opponent will come in depleted."

In many instances, the extra weight gives a fighter a substantial edge over his opponent, such as when Arturo Gatti gained 19 pounds after the weigh-in for his 2000 match with Joey Gamache. Gatti blasted Gamache in the second round, sending him to the hospital and ending his career. On the other hand, when Oscar De La Hoya depleted himself to make weight for his fight with Manny Pacquiao, his rehydration effort failed. He gained only two pounds and was hammered into a humiliating defeat.

"Going back to the morning of the fight would be more uniform," said Homansky, who has changed his mind about the benefits of day-before weigh-ins. "It would decrease abuse. A welterweight should go into the ring not much more than 147 pounds. It's a crime when a kid weighing almost 160 fights somebody weighing 147."

Homansky is not alone in his belief that the day-before weigh-in is a failed experiment and should be abandoned.

"Our sport and our boxers suffer from ill-advised weight loss and weight loss practices," wrote Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, in a letter to members of the Association of Boxing Commissions. "By granting them the privilege to weigh-in well before the event we are only encouraging boxers to starve so that they can regain, sometime large amounts of weight, so that by the time the actual competition takes place the true weight class of the boxer becomes a farce."

Sirb is practicing what he preaches and, except for an occasional title fight, holds weigh-ins the morning of the fight. But why aren't other commissions doing likewise? After all, the NCAA has already banned day-before weigh-ins for all collegiate wrestlers.

"Every one of the commissions knows there is a problem, but it's easier to turn a blind eye and pray for nothing to happen that places the sport in a bad light," said Dr. Margaret Goodman, a neurologist and former chairman of the Medical Advisory Board of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "If there are no deaths, nothing changes."

Then there are business concerns. The day-before weigh-in has become an important part of the promotion. For major fights in Las Vegas, fans stand in line for hours in order to snag a free seat to see their favorite fighters step on the scales. These events have transformed one of boxing's oldest rituals into a pep rally, creating the sort of boisterous scene that garners plenty of media attention and helps market the fight.

Even before the introduction of day-before weigh-ins, making weight was a dodgy part of the boxing culture and frequently resulted in a whatever-it-takes mentality. Unhealthy weight-cutting methods often start in the amateur ranks, where youthful boxers routinely binge and purge, a habit that can quickly become a full-blown eating disorder and carry over into their pro careers.

[+] EnlargeJulio Cesar Chavez Jr., Bryan Vera
AP Photo/Reed SaxonThe controversy surrounding Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s inability to make weight against Bryan Vera put another dent in the sport's battered reputation.

The improper use of diuretics and laxatives can also be extremely detrimental to metabolism and body chemistry, as are extended stints in the steam room. It's a dangerous game, and fighters who practice extreme weight-cutting techniques are literally flirting with death.

On Sept. 26, Brazilian MMA fighter Leandro "Feijao" Souza died from a stroke while cutting weight for an upcoming contest. Pathologists have yet to establish a definitive link between Souza's weight cutting and his stroke, but aggressive weight loss is known to lower blood pressure, cause kidney failure and lead to unconsciousness.

Any trainer will tell you that the best course of action is for a fighter to get in the best possible physical condition and fight at whatever weight he or she is at that point. Some, such as Bernard Hopkins, have practiced that method with great success over a long period of time, but for most fighters it's not that simple. Opportunity and money have persuaded athletes involved in combat sports that fighting at an inappropriate weight is the way to go, which has resulted in a multi-horned dilemma that undermines what was intended to be the sport's great equalizer.

It wouldn't be a cure-all, but a return to same-day weigh-ins would certainly be a significant step in the right direction. Unfortunately, most commissions lack the resolve to rectify a mistake that was ballyhooed as an innovative safety measure.

If Souza had been a boxer fighting in the United States, his death might have been the kind of tipping point that Goodman suggested it would take to bring back day-of weigh-ins. But an MMA guy in Brazil doesn't cut close enough to the bone, and nothing is going to change anytime soon.

Dutch Sam, who understood how difficult it is to buck the system, would probably just sigh and order another gin.

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