Getting in good shape is something every fighter struggles with at some time or another. Whether on the mats of AEW, or the Octagon in the UFC, the battle of the bulge has troubled fighters throughout history.
From Chael Sonnen to Paul Wight, Conor McGregor to Mick Foley, weight loss journeys in combat sports have been well documented. Wight, aka The Big Show, is one of the most famous, losing more than 100 pounds for his return to AEW. Sonnen fought for both the UFC Light Heavyweight and UFC Middleweight Championships but once had to cut more than 36 pounds of weight in just three weeks.
How did they do it, and what can aspiring fighters and wrestlers learn from their journeys?
The first thing a fighter must have is the motivation to cut the pounds, and that was certainly the case with Sonnen. He was offered a fight against Dan Miller at UFC 98 but at a weight limit of 186 pounds. At the time, Sonnen was 222 pounds, meaning he needed extreme weight loss. Whilst that is a drastic example of weight loss motivation, Wight’s was a little more identifiable. He was challenged by fellow wrestler, John Cena, and it led him to seek a body shape he was more comfortable with. That’s a common driver for many people outside of professional sports, but it was especially important to Wight, as he explains.
“I made the comment about a giant with abs, ‘Who’d want to see that?’ And John Cena looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, a giant with abs. Who would want to see that?’ And he walked off. But the way he said it, he challenged me that I
couldn’t do it.” That comment left Wight upset at his 500-pound frame and motivated to start loving his body again. Now? He’s a seven-foot giant with abs.
Once the motivation is in place, the next step is diet. Going on a fad diet is not the approach to take, especially not for athletes. The body needs nutrients and the like to function properly, which means a rounded approach to diet. As Sonnen explains, he didn’t understand that properly. “I didn’t understand how eating certain foods can enhance one’s metabolism. So, I kicked off my weight cut by making a tremendous mistake. I began my short training camp with a two-day fast.” That led to his body ‘cannibalizing itself’ and leaving him short of the correct nutrients. Sonnen did still win the fight.
Mick Foley, another big name in the wrestling world, also dropped 100 pounds or more. He had the motivation for weight loss by being challenged by Vince McMahon in 2016. McMahon promised to hold Foley to a set target, and Foley achieved it by adjusting his diet. “It was that voice in my head late at night when the refrigerator would be saying, ‘come here, come to me!’ And then I would hear that voice say, ‘I’m going to hold you to that.’ And so I dropped 80 pounds,” he said.
All fighters exercise and train; that’s part and parcel of the profession. It means many who wish to lose weight only truly need to focus on their diet and motivation, rather than getting extra calories burned off. Indeed, Sonnen should ideally have been eating more as he prepped for his fight, and he has since warned of the dangers of extreme dieting to cut weight. In the case of Foley and Wight, they had plenty of calories they needed to burn off and hence turned to the gym.
“‘Get your diet in order, then make the commitment to get your cardio in,” he said in a 2022 interview. That underlines how what you put into your body is the first stop,
but that to shift the excess, you need to burn more than you consume. That’s where Sonnen went wrong – he put too much focus on the exercise and not enough on a balanced loss. “Overtraining, lack of sleep, and extreme calorie deprivation increased my risk of illness and injury,” he said. “That meant I was risking my ability to even show up for the fight.”
Indeed, not crashing dieting is something Foley also touched upon. He shed 100 pounds in a year but concluded it was better to drop 20 pounds in a year, every year, for half a decade, ensuring a balanced and healthy approach to weight control.
Fighters need to drop weight, whether for a specific weight class, as with Sonnen, or for performance levels, as with those in the sports entertainment industry. However, the examples we’ve listed here hopefully provide a blueprint for the right, and wrong ways to go about both, should you need to reach a target weight.