An MMA fighter, a boxer, and a jockey walk into a bar. They all order water with lemon.

No joke, the issue of weight is the difference between a paycheck and sustaining a career for those who hit people or steer large horses at fast speeds.

Tipping the scales is what they must do before they compete and even a pound can mean the difference between forfeiting a piece of their purse, or not participating at all.

“You think about it all the time, but then, as crazy as it sounds, you can’t think about it you just have to do it,” a jockey once told me when asked about maintaining the balance of some semblance of a regular life with their job.

Bas Rutten, producer Mike Ricci, and I were having dinner with former UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz a few months back. As he ordered a fish dish he explained, “I try to eat clean. stay within a safe range for weight cuts. I feel better and stronger this way.”

It’s a must for athletes who generally can’t rely on guaranteed contracts and comfortable endorsement deals. Hypothetically, if Victor Espinoza had been unable to ride American Pharaoh in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown he would not have been paid even though he won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (where he did get paid) to have a chance at racing’s biggest prize.

A jockey rides and they get a check for being in that race, albeit not a livable wage which is why they ride seven, eight times daily. They make their big money on the 10% cut of the total for victory, second or third not unlike many fighters’ bonuses for victories or a submission and KO of the night sweetening the pot.

And as a boxer friend says, “You know my next paycheck? Next time I’m in the ring.”

That “work or don’t get paid” system is a large reason for the growth of MMA. It is a mindset that appeals to the masses. Most of us don’t make a salary unless we perform, simple as that.

While other sports might fine athletes hundreds or thousands for being overweight, they still compete, plus in those sports almost everyone has a contract.

That’s the beauty of racing and fighting, athletes proving themselves every time out. But it can get ugly when they get too heavy.

Two fighters are in the news this week for past failures on the scales. Ex-UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks talked publicly for the first time since having to pull out of the fight with Tyron Woodley, and a crucial bout it was for each man trying to get the next title shot. Hendricks couldn’t make the weight and has been the focus of dismay from fans and fellow fighters for not doing his job. His attempt at dropping 13 pounds, 24 hours from the weigh-in led to physical complications, no paycheck and a whole lot of embarrassment. He did his mea culpa this week even hinting he might try a nutrionisalist to combat the issue that has long been hanging over his head and around his waist.

Last year at UFC 177, former bantanweight champion Renan Barao got so sick trying to make the cut for his rematch with T.J. Dillashaw (the man who took his belt), that he had to be taken to the hospital. This week Barao talked of moving up ten pounds to featherweight. Apparently the weight cutting over the past couple of years is taking its toll and the once dominant Barao, considered in some polls as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the past is far from that now.

Hendricks too might consider moving up in weight, this last debacle accentuating the need for a change in lifestyle or something to remain respected and viable.

Most of us fight the bulge as we age, but prime athletes are supposed to be able to handle this. Many top jockeys like Gary Stevens were wrestlers in high school just like many top MMA fighters, so they understand the rigors of diet and training well to stay in the realm of always being ready. While the fans, media, and peers might be often too cruel on those who tip the balance beyond competing the bottom line is they only hurt themselves, especially in the checkbook. – Kenny

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