Transcript of Episode 10, Nov. 27, 2017
King Kaufman: Hi it’s King Kaufman. There’s only 3 weeks left in Season 1 of Can’t Win 4 Losing, and it’s not a sure thing yet that I’ll be able to afford to create Season 2. You can help make that happen by supporting this show at Patreon.com/losing. Even a dollar a month would be a big help. Rewards start at $3 a month. We’ve got ad-free episodes, access to the full interviews behind the show, discounted merchandise, even free merchandise, all kinds of good stuff. We just need your help. I’d love to keep bringing you stories about losing in sports. If you want to hear them, please pledge what you can at patreon.com slash losing. Thanks for listening.
Announcer: One-thirty-nine point 6.
Kaufman: You’ve seen this right? The weigh-in. It’s the day before the mixed martial arts or boxing match. There’s a stage with advertising banners, spokesmodels, a mechanical doctor’s scale. Each fighter strips down and steps on the scale, and someone calls out the weight. The fighter flexes. The crowd cheers — there’s a crowd. Once in a while the whole thing can go viral if, for example, one of the fighters is a marketing genius.
Conor McGregor: (Recording) He shoulda killed me when he had the chance, because now I’m back, and I’m gonna kill you and your whole f—— team! You and them b—- kids.
Joe Rogan: (Recording) We’ll see you all tomorrow night!
Kaufman: It’s about 5 percent official sports administration stuff — the fighters really do have to weigh in for their bouts — and 95 percent publicity stunt. We’ll see you tomorrow night!
But what you might not realize is what many of the fighters have put themselves through in the days leading up to it, and the work they still have to do in the next 24 hours.
Donte Burney: I’ve done 20 pounds within three days. I’ve done 30 pounds within maybe a matter of three to four weeks.
Kaufman: It’s called cutting weight. It’s an extreme—and extremely dangerous — practice, that’s widespread in all kinds of combat sports, even high school sports where the weigh-in isn’t staged for publicity. In any event that uses weight classes, at least some of the athletes are cutting weight. They want to compete in the smallest class they can so they can have the advantage of being the bigger person. What they’re doing in those next 24 hours? Putting the weight back on.
This is serious business. In the top levels of professional fighting, even being a pound over the contracted weight can cost an athlete thousands, even millions of dollars. So the athletes lose weight. And sometimes, they lose more than that.
Music: “Big Swing Band”
Kaufman: I’m King Kaufman, and this is Can’t Win For Losing, a podcast about losing. On this episode, Andrew Stelzer on the dangerous practice of cutting weight. Plus: Billy Conn, who gave Joe Louis all he wanted. And then he gave him a little too much. Protect yourself at all times, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. This is Can’t Win For Losing.
Cutting weight. It’s hard. It’s painful. It may not give you much of a competitive advantage. And then there’s this: It just might kill you. Andrew Stelzer has more.
Karim Mayfield: My name is Karim “Hard Hitta” Mayfield.
Andrew Stelzer: Karim Mayfield is a boxer from San Francisco. He’s the North American Boxing Organization super lightweight champion. That weight class is also known as junior welterweight. It means that to defend his title, he has to weigh in at no more than 140 pounds. But early on in his career, he discovered he was at a biological disadvantage.
Mayfield: I was a little heavier than what was expected for my height.
Stelzer: Mayfield’s “walking around weight”—that’s what he weighs on a regular day, when he’s not in training — is around 158 pounds. That’s about 20 pounds above his weight class. And that’s not unique to Mayfield. Most fighters “walk around” heavier than their fighting weight. Losing that 20 pounds — in a very short period of time, sometimes only a couple of days — is what “cutting weight” is all about.
Every day at thousands of gyms around the world, athletes work to turn themselves into effective fighters — fast and strong, quick and powerful. But when they have a fight coming up, they’re also doing something that saps them of their strength and endangers their health. They’re losing weight. Fast.
Albert Salopek: It’s not fun.
Stelzer: Albert Salopek is a San Francisco-based muay thai fighter.
Salopek: I’ve only done it once. I think I was at 192 and I needed to get to 180.
Stelzer: The idea is to fight at the smallest weight class you can, so you’ll be as big as it’s possible for someone in that division to be. And since the weigh-in is usually the day before the fight, the trick is to gain as much weight back as you can in those last 24 hours. As you might imagine, this is a terrible idea.
Krista-Scott Dixon: Weight cutting is actively damaging to almost every system in the body, every system of the mind, every system of the emotions.
Stelzer: Krista-Scott Dixon knows about this firsthand. She’s director of education and curriculum at a Canadian company called PrecisionNutrition.com. She’s also a former grappler, who used to cut 20 to 30 pounds before her matches. She developed an eating disorder, and went into menopause in her early 30s.
Dixon: So from a coaching perspective, you are doing exactly the opposite of what you should be doing with an athlete, which is nurturing them and ensuring that they are as healthy as possible.
Stelzer: So how do they do it? Fighters generally get about seven weeks notice of a match, and for most of that time, they drop weight they way we do, or try to. Less carbs, more exercise … basic fat-burning stuff. But in the last week, it’s time to lose water weight. Here’s Salopek, the muay thai fighter.
Salopek: So we put this rubber sweat suit on, pants and top. You cover your skin with what’s called abilene, which is a makeup remover, and it opens your pores. Got on the treadmill and ran like three or four miles, and with your pores open, your sweat just comes off like a river. Probably lost four or five pounds from that, and then had to go sit in a hot sauna with the sweat suit on for probably another 30-40 minutes.
Stelzer: And sweating and not eating are just part of the battle. Some fighters use diuretics and laxatives. And then there’s also the flush. You drink a ton of water, and you pee a lot. And then after a few days, you stop drinking. By now you’ve trained your kidneys, so you just keep peeing. Your urine gets darker and darker. You’re running a water deficit.
Salopek: You’re super dehydrated, you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you don’t have any energy. You can’t do it alone, you need someone in the sauna with you that’s not cutting weight in order to make sure that you don’t pass out, and make sure you can walk and you don’t cramp up. It’s brutal.
Stelzer: The pressure is on. If a fighter doesn’t make their weight class, the match might be cancelled, or they could have to pay a several thousand dollar fine. Dehydrated, weak, tired and cranky. It’s now time to weigh in.
Announcer: (Recorded) OK, first to the scales. From San Francisco, California. One thirty-nine point six! 139.6 for Karim Mayfield.
Stelzer: But even if you make weight, the work is not over. Now you’ve got to gain that weight back before fight time. It’s time to re-hydrate.
Mayfield: Because you’re super thirsty after weigh-in. So once you put that, you may drink probably like 10 bottles of water within that night. Your body is like, longing for this water, so it wants to hold on to anything. So it’ll hold on, and that’s how the weight is put back on.
Stelzer: As Krista Scott Dixon points out, the problem with all of this as a competitive strategy is that your opponent is most likely doing the exact same thing.
Dixon: You know, the theory behind weight cutting is it’s done to equalize, right, so that if you have opponents who are different weights, then one of them cuts weight. But a lot of times, what we actually see happening is that the fighters begin at the same weight and end at the same weight, so there’s really no competitive advantage to cutting weight. They both start at 180. They both cut to, I don’t know, 165, like nobody’s really won anything here.
Stelzer: So you’ve got both fighters accomplishing nothing except damaging their bodies and even risking their lives. In the past few years, at least three MMA and muay thai fighters have died during their weight cuts. Some believe it’s a wonder there haven’t been more.
Dave Zirin: The sauna stories are particularly scary.
Stelzer: Dave Zirin is sports editor at The Nation magazine, and host of the podcast “The Edge of Sports.”
Zirin: Athletes not only being put in a sauna for 20 or 30 minutes, but their coaches actually leaning against the door to make sure that they don’t quote/unquote wimp out and come outside.
Stelzer: Zirin says that, as with head injuries in football, it’s going to take a high-profile incident, or even a series of them, before the public starts caring about this issue. But there have been a few moves to reign in weight cutting. Both the NCAA and the UFC, the company that dominates mixed martial arts, have new rules meant to discourage rapid weight fluctuations in the days leading up to a match. And some athletes are looking to self-police in the interests of their own health.
Strength coach Tom Campitelli runs small power-lifting competitions out of his gym in Oakland, California. Instead of a weigh-in, he recently started experimenting with a “weigh-out,” where lifters step on the scale immediately after competing.
Tom Campitelli: Not only did it wind up making the meet run faster, it also helped to accomplish my goal of actually discouraging people from cutting weight.
Stelzer: Without that last 24 hours to gain the weight back and get strong again, there’s no way for lifters to cut weight to begin with.
Campitelli: And I think it makes for a better competition in a lot of ways. It ensures that people actually compete in a more level playing field of sorts.
Stelzer: But while the “weigh-out” might work for events where your results can be compared to equivalent competitors after the fact, it likely wouldn’t work in combat sports, since you cant switch your opponent after you’ve already finished the fight. In California, former Mixed Martial Arts fighter Andy Foster has taken on the issue of weight-cutting in his new role as executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission, which regulates MMA.
Andy Foster: Weight is an important part of whether the fight is safe and competitive.
Stelzer: Foster helped create a 10-point plan, which just went into effect this past June. Among the new changes: dehydration checks, the creation of additional weight classes, and a second weight check the day of the event, to ensure fighters have not gained more than 10 percent of their body weight back in the previous 30 hours.
Foster: And we’ve been certainly, certainly seeing a tremendous improvement in what we saw in the past. No question about it.
Stelzer: Foster says the industry, and the fighters themselves, are not opposed to reform, but they wont do it on their own — regulators need to step in. There’s too much money at stake for individuals to resist the pressure.
Foster: You gotta remember, these guys are independent contractors. Sometimes fighters aren’t forthcoming with exactly what they weigh when the matchmaker offers them the contract, because they’re excited about getting an opportunity to fight in a show. So they may be overly optimistic about what they can actually make and the matchmaker just takes their word for it.
Stelzer: The changes Foster has instituted in California may set a precedent. But Foster agrees that it may take a high-profile death to transform the larger industry. For now, tweaks around the edges are slowly chipping away at the dangers of the practice.
Dixon: I would like to see weight cutting go, honestly. I’d like to see it gone.
Stelzer: Krista Scott Dixon says we shouldn’t expect weight-cutting to disappear anytime soon, and that’s a shame.
Dixon: I do feel that if we got the weight cutting concept under control, we would see even better performance. Like the fact that these folks can perform as well as they do is remarkable. (Laughs) But wouldn’t it be even more amazing, wouldn’t we see even more amazing things if they came in at their physical peak, and at their mental peak and emotional peak, and you know, were able to do this for years and years and years? I think that would be really cool.
Kaufman: Andrew Stelzer is a journalist based in Oakland. You can hear more of his work at AndrewStelzer.com.
You know who doesn’t have to worry about cutting weight? We’ll be right back with the story of Joe Louis and the Pittsburgh Kid.
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Kaufman: Billy Conn didn’t have to worry about cutting weight when he fought Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship in 1941. The Pittsburgh Kid was giving away 30 pounds, but he knew what he was doing. He was the light-heavyweight champion. It was common in those days for the 175-pound champ to move up and challenge the heavyweight king. And they always lost.
Billy Conn lost. But during the time Joe Louis was champ, nobody came closer to beating him. Billy did beat him, for 12 rounds. But the fight was 15. And what happened in the 13th round is why anybody remembers the Pittsburgh Kid.
Tim Conn: He always used to say “I made a big mistake.” That’s what he’d say.
Kaufman: That’s Tim Conn, Billy’s son, a real estate broker in Pittsburgh. The big mistake? It wasn’t enough to beat the great Joe Louis. Billy Conn wanted to be the guy who knocked out Joe Louis. He’d hurt the champ late in the 12th round with a pair of left hooks. Louis’ knees buckled, and he pulled Billy into a clinch.
Conn: He went back to his corner and they said, “You haven’t lost a round from the eighth on. You have this won. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” And he says, “No, he’s hurt.” He said “He’s hurt. I hurt him and I’m gonna knock him out this round.”
Kaufman: Conn wasn’t a big puncher. He only had 15 knockouts his whole career. By contrast, in a similar number of fights, Louis had 52. Billy won with speed and skill and smarts. He was what they called a cutie. But in that 13th round, with 54,000 fans roaring in the Polo Grounds in New York City, he stood in front of the Brown Bomber and traded punches.
Conn: He went out for the 13th, and if you saw that round, he’s not moving as much. He’s sort of just standing there looking for an opening, and he’s leaving himself open.
Kaufman: He did pretty good. He almost lasted the full three minutes before he got knocked out.
Billy realized his mistake right away. In the dressing room after Louis knocked him out, he said “What’s the point in being Irish if you can’t be stupid.”
But Tim Conn says the loss never seemed to haunt his father.
Conn: I think it’s more it was a dumb thing to do, and he said “Whattaya gonna do?” It’s over now.
Kaufman: It’s hard to overstate how big Billy Conn could have been. He had Irish charm and movie star looks. In fact, he made a movie. He went out to Hollywood right after the Louis fight to play a fictionalized version of himself in The Pittsburgh Kid. The producers wanted him to stick around, make more, and they wanted his new wife, Mary Louise, to do a screen test. Billy wasn’t the only cutie in the house. But the Conns were not interested.
They’d eloped right after the fight. He was 23, she was 18, and they got married over the objection of her father, a former big league baseball player named Jimmy Smith. Jimmy had once challenged the entire Brooklyn Dodgers team to a fight. He was ready to take on a bigger outfit than that to keep his daughter from marrying too young, to a guy who was too much like him.
Conn: In those days you couldn’t get married in the Catholic Church unless you had parental consent. And he actually went to the bishop’s residence and threatened to beat the hell out of the bishop if he gave any priest any authority to marry them.
Kaufman: Well, the lovebirds found a priest, and pretty soon young Tim was born. Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was also a boxing promoter, and he was friends with both the old ballplayer and the fighter. He arranged a party for Tim’s christening and he told the two athletes: Bury the hatchet.
Conn: And it was in the kitchen. Who knows what happened. But it was sort of something like “If you’re going to be in this family, you’re going to do what I tell you. You’re going to do this and do that. And father said I’ve had enough of your BS. One word led to another and grandfather, I think my dad hit him with his left hook but he hit him on the head and broke his hand.
Kaufman: The rematch with Joe Louis had been all set. They were expecting a million-dollar gate. As soon as Billy hit his father-in-law, he knew he’d broken his hand and blown his chance. Maybe for a long time. Pearl Harbor had happened. Billy and the champ were both all set to go into the service. He was so mad he put his other hand through a window.
CONN: He was really young then. He had a real good chance of winning. But it was all over that kitchen brawl.
Kaufman: The rematch was delayed four years. By the time it finally happened in 1946, they’d both lost a lot physically, but Conn had lost more. Louis knocked him out easily. As memorable as that first fight had been —one of the greatest of the 20th century — the rematch was forgettable except for one thing, something Louis said about Conn’s speed that’s so familiar now, it’s hard to believe it’s a quote that can be attributed to one person: He said he can run, but he can’t hide.
It worked out OK for Billy. He and Mary Louise had a happy marriage for more than 50 years until his death in 1993. She died in April at the age of 94. Frank Deford told their story in 1985 in his most famous article for Sports Illustrated: The Boxer and the Blonde.
Another great sportswriter wasn’t so charitable to Billy Conn. The legendary Red Smith wrote a column for the New York Times in 1981 headlined “The Myth of Louis-Conn.”
He argued that based on the scorecards through 12 rounds, Conn couldn’t have coasted through the last three rounds. Louis could have still outpointed him. And also, quoting: “as viewed from my seat in the press row, there was no visible change in Conn’s tactics. He had been living on the brink of disaster from the opening bell, and he just got caught.”
Andrew O’Toole: I don’t want to argue with Red Smith.
Kaufman: Andrew O’Toole is the author of “Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn.”
O’Toole: But I went through dozens of accounts of the fight and everybody that was there at the Polo Grounds that evening all saw things that way. It wasn’t a myth. This is the next day. It was the reaction at that moment, and having watched the fight myself while I was researching the book. I saw it several times and I saw it the same way.
Kaufman: Red Smith is a hero of mine, but I gotta say, I’ve seen the fight a million times and it looks that way to me too. Conn went for the KO.
So, Billy and Joe. Rivals in the ring? They became great friends. And they both loved to talk about their first fight. But they were interested in different parts of it.
O’Toole: Him and Joe Louis used to go and show the fight to different organizations. And Louis would be gone for the first 12 rounds. And at the 13th round started Joe would come back in the room and Billy would walk out.
Kaufman: It’s a shame Billy Conn is best remembered for a fight he lost. The Associated Press ranked him as the ninth best pound for pound boxer of the 20th century. When the international Boxing Hall of Fame opened, he was in the inaugural class.
Then again, maybe it isn’t a shame. Tim Conn has a theory about that. He can rattle off the names of lots of heavyweight champs hardly anybody remembers. But people remember his old man.
Conn: The way he had it won and lost it. It’s the old story: You had everything and you lost it. Just the way you lost it. It’s always brought up. Here’s the guy who had the fight completely won, and threw it away. And he’s maybe remembered better that way.
Kaufman: Again, biographer Anrew O’Toole is not so sure.
O’Toole: He would have defeated perhaps the greatest champion boxing has ever seen. Joe Louis in 1941 was I think indisputably the most famous black man in America if not the whole world. It would have been a huge, huge thing for him to have taken Joe Louis out.
Kaufman: In 1991, USA Network’s weekly boxing show did a feature on the 50th anniversary of the first Louis-Conn fight. Sean O’Grady asked the question Billy Conn must have asked himself a million times.
Sean O’Grady: If you had it all to do over again, Billy Conn, what would you change?
Billy Conn: If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. What the hell’s the difference?
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The song you’ve been hearing is The Pittsburgh Kid by the Biblecode Sundays. We’re using it with their permission. Thanks to Andy Nolan. Find them on Facebook: Biblecode Sundays.
The official Billy Conn website is BillyConn.net. There’s an ESPN Classic documentary about Louis-Conn that Tim Conn appears in. There are two biographies: Billy Conn: The Pittsburgh Kid by Paul F. Kennedy, and Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn by Andrew O’Toole. You can find links to all of that and more in the show notes at CantWinPodcast dot com.
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