This weekend, Auckland’s Dan ‘The Hangman’ Hooker takes on English brawler Ross ‘The Real Deal’ Pearson, a veteran of more than 30 professional fights. But before he can enter the cage at Spark Arena, he has to make the lightweight target of 155lb (70kg). Weight cutting is a controversial hidden factor of modern mixed martial arts. The risks of drastically dehydrating the body and brain just 24 hours before going into combat are severe, and occasionally fatal. In this week's Barkers’ Blog, Don Rowe takes you into the depths of Hooker’s weight cut as he attempts to drop the final pounds before competition. 

What is weight cutting, and why is it necessary?

Weight cutting is part of the sport now, it’s just the nature of the beast. It comes originally from wrestling, it’s common practice in wrestling for wrestlers to have a day-of weigh in where they’ll sit in the sauna and cut a certain amount of weight, weigh in in the morning, and then put 5-10 kilos back on before they compete, so it’s playing to the rules.

There’s nothing in the rules that makes it illegal, so it’s just a natural part of the sport. There’s a lot of wrestlers who have had success in mixed martial arts and in the UFC, so they’ve brought that with them and everyone else has had to adjust.

But not everyone cuts weight right?

There are always exceptions to the rule, but even then guys like [former lightweight champion] Frankie Edgar have learned the hard way. Even these exceptions have had to adjust. BJ Penn [former lightweight and welterweight champion] is another guy, he slowly came to learn that it’s just a matter of time and you have to adjust to the rules or you get left behind.

Everyone is doing it, everyone is cutting around that 10 percent mark of their bodyweight, and they’re doing it scientifically now too. It’s a lot healthier, they’ve learned that anything over that ten percent mark is detrimental to their performance. It's taken some time but they’ve found this preferred limit that you can put back on in that certain space of time.

How does it work?

During your fight camp you’re trying to get as lean as possible. You’re trying to get a very low bodyfat percentage, you might start your camp quite heavy, maybe 15-20 percent body fat leading into camp, but as they get closer they dial that down, so guys are getting 7-8 percent body fat and so the majority of it is done through cleaning up your diet, eating healthy, and living like a professional athlete.

In the last week, fight week, it’s the weight cut process. What you’re really trying to do in the last two weeks is to trick hormones in your body. There’s hormones in your body that control sodium, and hormones that control your hydration. So you flood the body with water, drinking ten litres of water a day, and you flood the body with sodium, taking twice the amount you would normally take, so you’re tricking these hormones, and then you just cut it to zero. You cut your water from ten litres to zero, from 3000mg of sodium to zero, and your body still thinks that it’s getting flooded so it’s trying to keep flushing them out.

So it’s really about playing with those hormones to get rid of the majority of the weight, and then to finish you get in the sauna. I drop two to three kilos on the day of the weigh in in the sauna or the bath.

The obvious advantage is that you come in as the bigger athlete with more weight behind your strikes, but what are the disadvantages or dangers of cutting?

The danger is that it’s a fine line between doing it properly and overreaching and going too far. Renan Barao is the most famous example. He was cutting weight in the bath, he’d flushed out all his sodium so his blood pressure wasn’t what it usually is, and he pushed it a bit too far. He stood up, passed out and smacked his head on the bathtub. He lost his title fight. That’s a big price to pay for a small advantage. If he had have taken that time to slowly sit up, stand up with someone watching him - the precautions that guys should take - it might have been different but he didn’t and it cost him big time.

You’re a tall dude - how was cutting to featherweight?

It was a mixture. I was losing more weight, but I got better at weight cutting, so it was difficult. I felt better than I did earlier in my career at lightweight, because I became better at cutting weight and rehydrating, but then comparing my featherweight cuts to my previous lightweight cuts isn’t accurate because when I first started this sport I was still learning all of this stuff from the internet.

Waterloading and weight cutting in general came very late to New Zealand. Weight cutting isn’t a big part of combat sports in New Zealand, even though it’s been around a long time. The kickboxing community has been around for 30 years and they were pretty anti-weight cutting for a very long time, but to compete at that world class level you have to play to the rules, and that’s all it is at the end of the day.

You’re fighting at lightweight this time around. Have you been able to put on extra size because you were better at getting down to lightweight?

Yeah, but that kind of came naturally. I had to restrict calories year-round to make featherweight, I was walking below my natural weight at an unsustainable body fat percentage. Even in the offseason I’m training hard so year-round you need that fat because it protects your joints and fat helps you recover. So I found after a week or two weeks of putting size on, I just knew that what I had been doing to my body was not right. It only took two weeks of eating and I felt the benefits. I’m not making any excuses for my past performances, but I can tell you now that I would never go back to featherweight. It’s not an option.

You’ve fought everywhere from featherweight to heavyweight, how do you determine which is the right class?

I fought most of my career at lightweight, I started at lightweight but the UFC offered my contract at featherweight. I could have taken that and gone back to lightweight straight away but I kind of got mentally set on it, and I convinced myself that that was my weight class. I set myself a goal, and when I got that mentally locked in on something with that laser focus, I kind of stopped listening so that I could turn off what my body was feeling. Your mind can override the body and all of that emotional stuff, and so I was just telling myself that featherweight was my weight class. I set my mind to it, and once I set my mind on something...I had to make that mistake six times before I finally learned.

The consequences were never drastic though. Even if you were depleted, at no point did you get badly KO’d with a dry brain.

Na, nothing like that. But I treat it very professionally. My weight cut was good, it’s always very professional and I never once came close to missing weight. I never once even considered any of my weight cuts hard or challenging mentally. Of course they’re hard, but that’s just what they are, they’re just hard, but they were never harder than I had mentally prepared for. I just think walking so light and the weight class in general, not carrying the same amount of size to properly execute my game was the biggest detrimental factor.

Is that because you started off with a game that required a lot of power? That’s obviously harder to employ at featherweight without that extra size.

Definitely. That’s just kind of a mental thing. I could wake up with a broken arm on fight day and I’m going to tell myself I feel like a million bucks. That’s just the way it is. It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling like, I could have the flu, I could have a broken toe, someone could cut my ear off and I’m going to tell myself I’m feeling a million bucks. Even if I don’t, I’ll convince myself, but that makes it hard on reflection to break down and honestly reflect on your performance. I change styles so much or I pick up so many new things - if you look at my development in the UFC it’s a different fight every time - and there’s so many different things that people haven’t seen yet which I’m excited to show. There are huge parts of my game that I haven’t even begun to display, and so there’s so much more that I have to offer that I just want to get the opportunity to showcase those skills.

It’s a hell of a fight for it. It’s Thursday now, where are you at with your cut?

Weigh in is tomorrow night so I’ve finished all of my fluids, I’ve had no sodium for a couple of days. On Monday I cut out carbs because every gram of carbohydrates holds four grams of water, if you cut those out then you’re not retaining the same amount of fluid. It’s all about that flush and retaining as little fluid as possible. So I’m pretty dry. The mind starts playing tricks. But I enjoy it, I just have accepted it as part of the sport, if you can’t change it you can’t complain about it.

The fights are on Sunday, you normally get one night to rehydrate?

Normally you get 24 hours, this time it’s about 48 hours. We weigh in at 7pm, then we have the ‘fake’ weigh-in midday on Saturday, everyone is nice and big and rehydrated, smiling, everyone is fired up, and then I’m not fighting until around 4.30 Sunday. It’s the most amount of time I’ve had to rehydrate so I’m looking forward to it.

Do you make predictions? What’s your prediction for the fight?

I don’t. I’ve known Ross and followed his career for a very long time, since he was destroying people on the Ultimate Fighter show, so I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ross as a fighter and what he’s accomplished in this sport, so I’m prepared for nothing but the best Ross. He’s a world class fighter with some amazing skills so I’m just preparing for the toughest fight of my life. That’s all I can do, I’ve prepared like I’ve never done before, I’ve put my heart and soul into this camp, and nothing is guaranteed in this sport, things can shift so quickly, so I’m not making any predictions, I’m just preparing for a hell of a fight and what will be will be.

Make sure you Watch Dans webinar series here to keep up to date on the latest UFC fight this week!