What could be more straightforward than a UFC Fight Night? Two fighters get locked inside a steel cage and battle it out—may the best warrior win.
But, if you’re trying to pick the winner of a mixed martial arts fight, you might just want to take a long look at what goes on in the fighters’ lives before that steel door slams shut behind them.
While gamblers on mixed martial arts will scrutinize records, styles of fighting, ages, height, reach and every other statistic available to try to find an edge, it’s important to remember that fighters are people, and sometimes the soft stuff that can’t be measured can make a difference between winning and losing.
Now, we’re not talking about trying to find out who’s fighting with their significant other, or who has had an illness in their family. There’s plenty of readily available information on things that may affect a fighter’s mindset leading into their bout.
In Case of Emergency
Rafael Carvalho is a former world champion who holds the Bellator record for most successful title defenses by a middleweight champion.
He didn’t look like a champion in April, however, when Carvalho faced a journeyman fighter named Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov, who had lost his first two fights in the Bellator cage. Yagshimuradov knocked out Carvalho in the second round of their fight.
What went wrong for Carvalho? And how did Yagshimuradov suddenly find success when facing a former champion of all people?
The answer lies with another fighter—Tony Johnson, who is a 36-year-old fighter who has found success in lower-level promotions since his last Bellator fight, six years ago. Johnson was originally signed to face Yagshimuradov in the April fight. Yagshimuradov went through a training camp to prepare to face the veteran, but then, eight days before fight night, Johnson suffered an injury and had to withdraw from the fight.
Promoters at Bellator had two options—cancel the fight altogether, or find someone on short notice to step in and face Yagshimuradov. They gave Carvalho a call, and he was willing to step in and fight
Injuries occur during training camps all the time, and new opponents get the phone call, sometimes a day or two before they’re expected to fight. Obviously, this puts them at a disadvantage on a number of levels. They haven’t had the benefit of going through a full training camp, like their opponent has, so they’re not in peak physical shape.
Fighters will be quick to tell you that there’s a big difference between fighting shape and “walking around shape.” There’s also the mental challenge of being prepared to fight in a week’s time.
According to one online study, late replacement fighters lose about 63 percent of the time. According to another online database. Late replacements have gone 7-27 in fights so far this year.
Drama on the Scales
Some of the fiercest fighting comes in the days leading up to fight night, when MMA warriors struggle to make weight for their bout.
Fighters want to fight in the lowest weight class possible, believing that they’ll have a size and strength advantage over smaller fighters if they can cut down from their (much higher) normal walking around weight.
How much do they cut? Michael Chiesa says he normally weighs more than 200 pounds, but for years, he fought at 155, meaning that, in addition to getting his body in shape to fight and coming up with a game plan for his opponent, he also needed to drop 50 pounds during his training camp.
The average UFC fighter reportedly cuts 15 to 20 pounds in the five days leading up to weigh ins.
Sometimes, they don’t make it and are too heavy for the contracted weight class. If you see a fight that’s listed at a “catch weight” that means that one of the fighters missed weight and agreed to give some of his purse for the fight to his opponent as a penalty for being too heavy.
Despite the fact that he might be heavier on fight night, it’s not a good idea to pick the fighter that didn’t’ make weight. Cutting weight is a brutal, exhausting process that leaves a fighter dehydrated and mentally shaken.
“I’d get into these tough weight cuts, and all of a sudden my confidence gets sapped, and I start doubting myself,” Chiesa said.
Fighters that don’t make weight lose