Less than a month out from UFC 234 in Melbourne last February, Callan Potter got the call he'd been working for the best part of a decade to receive.
The UFC needed a late replacement for a lightweight fight against American Jalin Turner. Potter's last fight had been two months prior – a split decision win over Kiwi BJ Bland – and he was a fair way from the lightweight limit of 70.7kg.
But when the phone rang, Potter knew there was only one answer he could give.
"There's no way ever that I was going to turn down the fight," Potter recalls to the Herald .
"I'd worked so hard on the local level and done everything possible I could – took fights on short notice, rebooked fights, fought the toughest guys I could - there was never going to be the idea I'd turn down the chance once it finally did present itself."
He accepted the fight, giving himself less than two weeks to cut down to the lightweight limit. With the help of Jordan Sullivan, who goes by the alias of the Fight Dietitian, Potter successfully made weight for the fight.
"It was not fun. There's no very clean way to put it. It was torture, but I knew the chances that were going to be offered to me upon reaching that limit were going to be great."
Potter was knocked out in the first round against Turner, a performance for which he credits Turner and doesn't blame the weight cut, and has since made the step up in weight class to the welterweight division after discussions with Sullivan and his coaches. In his first fight in the UFC welterweight division, in Melbourne last October, Potter looked much more comfortable and took a unanimous decision win over Hawaiian Maki Pitolo, and will attempt to back that up at UFC Auckland next month against hard-hitting Chinese striker Kenan Song.
As Sullivan tells the Herald , staying at lightweight was simply not healthy for Potter anymore.
"He looked healthier, he performed better and he is just a cheerier guy to be around now that he's eating and doesn't have to worry about it so much. He's a great example of how you should assess it and take it into consideration. I hope a lot of guys follow Cal's lead."
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Weight cutting is an arduous process at the best of times, but it has long been a part of mixed martial arts. The basic principle of it is to allow fighters to drop to a class lower than their walking weight in the hope of gaining a strength advantage over their opponents.
Sullivan says it's a delicate process which in theory it works fine, but the reality is a bit different.
"There are two stages; you lose weight in the fat burning stage, which for those who do fight camps is like eight to 12 weeks and they'll strategically bring down their body fat," he explains.
"That's what we call the fight camp phase, then weight cutting in my idea is the last week where we put in very strategic strategies so we're not losing actual body fat but we're artificially manipulating systems in the body to artificially lose weight for a very brief amount of time before we put it all back on and go compete.
"In reality (getting an advantage) is very difficult to do especially if you've got less than 24 hours to put that weight back on. And if you get that weight off in a terrible fashion you're probably coming in worse and someone in a lighter weight class could probably beat you up."
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Sullivan is well practised in the field of combat sports dietetics. After coming out of his studies only to find there were no actual jobs in Australia for a dietitian specifically focusing on combat sports, he spent some time working in a hospital before moving to Canada.
While in the North, Sullivan experimented with weight cuts both on himself and teammates ahead of Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions, trying to find what worked and what didn't.
"I went through a lot of shitty cuts myself; put my teammates through even worse ones experimenting with them," he admits.
But after a couple of years in Canada, Sullivan returned to Australia and began to work with fighters. Now, he's the dietitian for Australia and New Zealand's elite fighters, including UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, as well as promising up and comers such as Australian Chelsea Hackett.
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These are the moments nobody sees. This was my 4th cut to flyweight (57.2kg) this year. Doing it once is hard enough let alone 4 times in the span of 7 months but every single time has been a success because of you @the_fightdietitian . The back to back camps, the bath cuts, the reload protocols. Without your knowledge in these critical areas, there is no way I would walk into the cage feeling the same way. Thank you for playing such a huge part in #teamhammer ✊🏼🙏🏼 📸 @milesmuecke
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After starting his business as the Fight Dietitian about 18 months ago, Sullivan has worked to spread information about healthy weight cutting practices.
He says it was becoming something of a necessity because there is not a lot of research out there about weight cutting and the dangers involved, and even fewer people out there translating that information to the athletes.
"Pretty much everyone I've worked with has stories," Sullivan admits.
"I've heard some shockers, like guys passing out in the sauna, getting dragged out, slapped back awake and taken back in. But it's really common, which is why we need more science in this type of field.
"The thing is, when you have a problem, what's the first thing you do? Smash it into Google. If you Google how to cut weight, one, there's very little information, and two, the information you get is straight out of the bro-science academy and it's a run-off from ex-body builders … where they just shed as much weight to get as shredded as possible, but they just stand on stage.
"When you're training six or seven days a week in an explosive sport you can't be in a super reduced, negative deficit. That just can't happen."
While there are perceived in-fight benefits of the process, there are dangers that go with it. In 2017, Perth amateur kickboxer Jessica Lindsay died during a weight cut. The 18-year-old was out for a run and collapsed due to severe dehydration. She was taken to hospital, but passed away four days later. At the top level, UFC middleweight contender Darren Till has been vocal about his issues when cutting to the welterweight limit, noting he would at times go temporarily blind from the cut.
Often times, fighters will use a sauna or hot bath to help to sweat out water weight, which can lead to major problems if not done properly.
"In the water cut, immediate dangers where there's a bath or a sauna involved, the immediate thing is chronic dehydration. People go in there already dehydrated. Side effects of that are nausea, vomiting, stress on your heart, stress on your organs – kidneys and liver," Sullivan explains.
"I've personally seen a client who had done a weight cut in the past and cut way too much weight in the bath and, getting his back track results from the GP, lost 15 per cent functionality in his kidney from that one weight cut.
"It's so much stress on your body. It thickens the blood which puts you at risk of heart attacks, cardiac arrest, and people go blind because blood doesn't get to the fine capillaries in the eye.
"This is where the real danger is; all that water's coming out and your body doesn't know how to respond. Your body has all these coping mechanisms for it and it almost starts systematically shutting down. Not to mention that, but your blood is so thin when you stand up – you see this when people cut weight in their room then come down to weigh-in and just pass out in the elevator. Those are the acute water cutting issues.
"Long term there's this big issue we call REDS - relative energy deficiency in sport. Energy balance is defined as the energy you get from food, minus the energy you need for activities, to keep your body going and for all the fidgety weird stuff we do throughout the day. You get that number of what you eat and what you burn throughout the day, and then you divide that by the number of lean mass. A healthy number is defined as 45. A good number where you might lose a bit of weight is 30 and you see a lot of these fighters' number is 0-10, if not in the minuses.
"When you're in that position for a long period of time, you don't have the energy and nutrients to support metabolic function in your body so things start breaking down and your body starts to shut off certain hormonal markers. So testosterone for guys will just plummet, for girls they can get amenorrhea – they'll stop having their menstrual cycle, and then you get problems with your energy production so you can't burn fat or carbohydrates efficiently; your thyroid, which is the key regulator of your metabolism gets disrupted.
"For a short period of time you can be in that state and it's OK; that's kind of what we do in a weight cut, but you see this when people do terrible camps day in day out, their REDS are in the low energy balance for so long they get very badly metabolically and hormonally messed up. It takes a long time to fix that."
While the idea is to dehydrate for the weight cut before immediately rehydrating and putting weight back on and stepping on the scales, there is no way to know exactly how long it takes to properly rehydrate the body, and Sullivan stays away from such risks.
"From the experts I've spoken to, if they've done a big cut, it's a lot long than 24 hours. When you see people standing, shaking on the scales, then come out and fight, that's scary.
"I think about it as - you put a pebble in a cup of water and shake it around, it doesn't really hit the sides. You put a pebble in a glass with no water and shake it around – think about that as your brain, that's essentially what you're doing.
"You see that time and time again. Because the body can't rehydrate properly, people cut a lot of weight, go out, get touched with a measuring jab and boom, they're out cold. It's scary.
"Things we don't know I don't want to play with, so I'm making sure my guys aren't doing that."