Julie Kedzie: This is what it feels like to cut weight for an MMA fight
What It Feels Like is a new SI.com series featuring first-person stories directly from athletes across all sports.
In her forthcoming book My Fight/Your Fight, Ronda Rousey recalls watching Julie Kedzie fight. Long before Rousey won Olympic medals in judo and stepped into the Octagon to fight, Kedzie was a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and for Rousey, her famed bout against Gina Carano marked a seminal moment in her own decision to pursue a career in MMA.
While Rousey would go on to experience an exceptional level of stardom, cleaning out her weight class, Kedzie had tougher go as a fighter, working her way up the ranks for almost 10 years. She’s since retired but has not left the sport completely, now serving as a matchmaker and commentator for the Invicta FC.
Kedzie chronicled her last fight against Bethe Correia and shares this section, written with the support of the Kansas City Writer's Salon, about the anguish of cutting more than 10 pounds of weight in the week leading up to a bout.
I stared at Picasso’s La Belle Hollandaise and my throat tightened. So this is it, huh? My eyes felt hot and I shook my head a little, pretending I was holding off a sneeze.
But she just kept looking at me. It’s like she knows everything about me. She was naked and pale and delicately clutching her sides. Exasperated with the imbalance of her unconstrained flesh and her traditional Dutch hat, she stared at me with a look of infinite patience. And she said, OK. It’s time now. You know it.
The museum was freezing. The flimsy, short dress I was wearing was a castoff from my friend Colleen and I had hoped that its brown and mauve stripes would glide gracefully over me the way it did her 5’8” frame. Unfortunately, I am 5’5”. And thick. Instead of creating the same tiger-like effect on my body as it did on hers, it bulged out at strange angles and clung to me in weird places. I kept tugging at it uncomfortably and slipping on the marble floor as my sandals scratched the tops of my feet. My coach, Greg Jackson, looked at me in alarm and hissed, “Don’t you dare fall down and hurt yourself, Kedzie.”
The dress was perfect for the walk from our hotel in the baking Australia sun, but here in the Queensland Art Gallery, this outfit was about as warming as the little white hat perched on top of La Belle’s head. And hell, from the way she was looking back at me, I felt as naked as she was painted. I shivered and a sob caught in my throat, surprising me. How do you hide the moment when you decide that everything is over? How do you hide the moment when everything you’ve dedicated the last decade to—every drop of blood, every ripped-out chunk of hair, every broken bone and skin infection and mat burn and crushed heart—is suddenly over, like some imaginary person had snipped the thread of your passions?
Turns out you go ahead and pretend to sneeze after all.
I was nervous as hell for my upcoming fight. It was normal, though. Edgy, tired and uncomfortable, I had just flown 20-plus hours from the U.S., slept four and gone three days without carbohydrates or salt. I was as bloated as a hippo from drinking gallons of water—water loading, as we call it—to help make the weight cut easier. To do what I love, I became a walking urine tank, stopping every five minutes to find a pee. As the lack of salt gives the water nothing to cling to, it pauses in your stomach and intestines and then strips your weight down through your body when you pee. It’s immensely irritating to force your bloated body to drink when all you want is food. I felt like I was peeing out all of my body, so that my feelings were directly on the surface.
But the absurdity of being talked to by a nude painting in an a little hat on the other side of the world was blurred by the anticipation of what was to come. I was about to drain eleven pounds of water from my body, climb on a scale in front of thousands, pose in my underwear and then face a woman whom I would then try to smash in a cage.
So there in front of me was a painting of a naked person that I imagined was talking to me. And she said, It’s time to quit.
Hearing that was like a balm on my brain—I felt so f---ing relieved. It’s done, done, done, my heart thumped.
But I had to grab this thought and jam it back down inside of me. I swallowed hard looked at the people around me: Greg, exhausted but implacable, was enrapt in conversation with Peter, his friend and museum employee, who gesticulated wildly as he spoke. They couldn’t see the shift in me. They couldn’t see me talking under my breath like a crazy person. They couldn’t see how La Belle had just become part of a dialogue in my head.
As we walked toward the next exhibit, I craned my neck and looked over at La Belle in the adjoining gallery. Even in the next room she still held my gaze, quietly and smoothly understanding my need to protect myself and remain silent. We both knew that if I acknowledged my compulsion to let go—to quit fighting—I wouldn’t survive the week in front of me. I wouldn’t be able to generate the drive to make weight and pretend I still care about it. As Greg and Peter happily chatted about shared past experiences and new ideas, I told myself, Stop, stop, stop. Focus in. Listen. Be in this moment—stop talking to your new make-believe friend.
Peter kept bringing up the beauty of the intersections of physicality and art; how he admires Mixed Martial Arts because it is art in action. “What you make with your fights is a beautiful art. The human form engaged in purposeful action. Such high art,” he drawled in his Australian accent. Greg added that the art doesn’t just stop there; how it is all connected to math and if you disseminate it to its basic levels, combat can be linked to all things; chaos theory, game theory, evolutionary biology.
Love, I added in my head. And then thought, But damn, combat is also about trying to hurt another person. Hard to be quite so esoteric and removed when someone won’t stop smashing her elbow in your face.
But you’re done fighting, Julie. You’re done. Be done now.
As we exited the museum, Peter pressed books into our hands as gifts and asked if there was anything else from the gift shop we’d like.
“Can I please have a print of La Belle Hollandaise?” I asked. “I’ll pay you for shipping.”
I didn’t want to forget her face, though I had already translated her into my brain. He took down my address and refused my money, promising she would be shipped to me within a month. There were so many good people that this sport had brought me. Could I walk away?
The next day was the day before weigh-in: the official day to cut water weight. In other words, the worst day of fight week. My nerves were in full swing. With eleven more pounds to sweat off, I had not been able to find any distilled water to complete the water load. (Distilled water is used at the end to flush the remainder of the water, like a final strip of remnants in intestines.) My period had started as well and I felt even more like a sausage, my skin as the casing, tightening up all around me, suffocating me. I couldn’t tell which cramps were making me more dizzy, dehydration or menstrual. I was jittery and weary. I wanted to rip a hole in the ground and crawl in it and sleep.
You see? I whispered to La Belle in my head. It still means something. If fighting didn’t mean something, I wouldn’t care if I make weight or not.
Shut up and be a professional, I scolded myself. La Belle winked at me.
The entire fight trip had been steeped in surreality . I had been so eager to fight in Brisbane. In a bizarre reflection of the small size of the MMA world, Greg had once coached fighters and athletes from here, including “The Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin and his bodyguards, who had both been MMA fighters. Though I never got to meet him, I heard Steve was an avid fan of the sport, even though he did not fight. He flew Greg out on multiple occasions for private training.
Like Peter from the museum, passionate people always seemed drawn to Greg, flocking to him and flinging ideas and experiences at him, in the hopes some genius or energy would bounce back to them. I gathered Steve was the same way. From all accounts, his passion for wildlife conservation caused the people around him to catch fire with enthusiasm. Through their deep friendship, Greg had accompanied him on conservation trips, wrestling crocodiles and rescuing exotic animals.
The loss of such a friend had profoundly altered Greg.
I was always spellbound by his adventure stories. “I want to feed a tiger!” I said when looking over his album of pictures from the Australian Zoo.
“I’ll take you to the zoo someday,” he responded. But I had doubted this—Steve’s horrific death had etched a deep groove of pain in his psyche, and though he had returned several times since his passing, it was clear that the memories of Australia were agonizing for him.
Yet here was my fight, bringing him back to this place. And we were going to the zoo like he had promised. But what should have been the trip of a lifetime was bogged down by my exhaustion and discomfort, by my schizophrenic conversation with a painting. My thoughts were all over the place: Am I sweating? Did I bring enough tampons? Don’t talk to La Belle out loud or people will think you’re nuts.
Slathered in Albolene—a grease that makes your pores open—and bundled up in spandex and sweats, I climbed into Greg’s friend’s Land Rover to go to the zoo. I instinctively made room for La Belle beside me and said a silent prayer that the extra layers of seat pants would hide the inevitable sweaty stain that my ass would make on the leather seat. It was blisteringly hot that December day and I was already drenched.
As I cut my first six pounds of water, I did get to pet baby tigers, along with leopards and wombats. And I muttered to myself—to La Belle—the whole time under my breath.
I held a python and pet an alligator and watched the crocodile show in amazement, all while wondering how I was going to tell to my coach, my mentor, my best friend, “Thanks for all of this. Now I want to quit.” Greg made MMA take on so much meaning for me, and for everyone around him. And he was so connected to it—would I also be walking away from a part of my best friend?
In the sweltering Australia summer sun, I bit down on this thought. We explored the zoo and tried to feed a rhino named DJ, laughing hysterically when he skittered sideways from us, spooked from something we never could discover. We dubbed him “DJ the Cowardly Rhino” and I wanted to grab him and stare into his wrinkled, concerned rhino eyes. To hug him and tell him it was ok. I wanted him to do the same for me.
When Greg walked off privately to visit with the Irwin family, I sprawled in the grass outside the compound, surrounded by kangaroos eating out of my hand. I had to admit—this was the best way to cut weight I’d ever experienced, even though my ribs felt like a corset.
This is a nice one to go out on, La Belle told me. I relaxed as much as I could and I agreed. It was.
But the euphoria didn’t last.
The next stage of cutting weight involved sitting in a hot bath with Epsom salt for 20-minute intervals. It’s known as one of the easier methods to sweat, as it drains the muscles of water quietly. It’s supposedly less taxing on the body than sweating in a sauna or running on a treadmill. But embarrassingly, I cried. I cried baby tears because I was hot; for DJ the Cowardly Rhino because he was so mighty and yet so scared. I cried for the loss of Greg’s friend. I cried for a future without his direct guidance.
I cried because as a fighter, I never quite “made it.” I sat in the bathtub and mourned a career that always fell short of greatness.
If you want to review every minute of your life, force yourself into the hottest bath you can stand and make yourself stay in for twenty minutes. You’ll relive every mistake, every lost opportunity. Sitting in the steaming hot water, your thoughts will begin to cook into a state of frenzy to match your overheating body as the minutes tick by slower and slower.
As the sweat poured off of me, I stewed, realizing that at every turn I had been given a chance to excel and had always failed. And now it was over. It really sucked.
With three and a half pounds left to lose, Greg finally left the room. He was baffled at my tears, but assured me that there would be enough time tomorrow.
“Get your head some rest and you’ll feel fresher in the morning,” he said. “We’ll make it. Don’t worry.”
I waited for him to leave and stretched out on the bed, drained. I sobbed, pushing my face down into the pillow to muffle the sound. But around 4:00 a.m., awake and resigned, I filled up the tub and finished the cut on my own. Half a bag of Epsom salt. Disgustingly-strong rubbing alcohol. Scalding hot water. Timer on. Twenty minutes. Go. Sweat.
I staggered into the elevator, leaned against its mirrored sides and stared at myself, gaunt and red-eyed. The ride to the second floor workout rooms seemed to last forever and I loathed the idea of encountering another person. I tripped getting off the elevator and caught myself on shaky legs, wondering if I had fallen, if I would’ve picked myself up or just napped on the floor.
The final stages of a weight cut are a lot like the worst kind of hangover. I stumbled down the hall and pushed on the heavy wooden doors leading to the workout room. Of course there was someone else here. I glowered at him. What’s his name? I asked myself. Nick. Nick Ring. Fighter from Canada. Nick Ring from Canada you better get the hell out of here if I’m not on weight, I though. Everything is so cold and I am not in the mood to be smiling at you.
“Well you’re up early, eh?” Nick asked. I sighed. Cheerful mother------.
“Ya, couldn’t sleep,” I croaked. “Just finished a bath. Can I check?”
He moved out of the way and politely turned his head as I disrobed. Oh, Canada, I thought. Like I could give a crap what my tits look like at 4:00 a.m. at 130-something pounds.
I climbed on the scale.
I stepped off and step back on.
Jubilantly I beamed at him. “I’m on,” I said, fumbling to get my shirt back on. My head and heart filled with the warmth that only a good shot of psychological reinforcement bestows.
“Oh, good work, eh?” Nick said. “I’m just on my way to early morning yoga to cut the rest of mine. Would you like to join me?”
“Ummm, no thanks,” I said. Yoga? I’m on weight, mother------, I thought. I’m going to lie down in my room, feel proud/sorry for myself and fantasize about eating…eating everything.
Impulsively I reached out and hugged him. Poor Nick Ring, I said to myself. I thought such mean thoughts about you being here, but now that I am on weight everything is magic. I’m glad you can share this moment with me, Nick Ring. Everything is good now.
He politely returned the hug (Oh, Canada) and nervously looked out of the side of his eyes at me as I followed him to the elevator. I pressed the up button. He immediately presses the down button.
“So, I’m, uh...going to go to my yoga class,” he said. “You’re sure you’re ok?”
Swaying and smiling absently, I nodded. Yes, I’m on weight now, I though. I’m on weight now and this is the last time.
Wait. Am I still thinking that?
Greg was a little surprised when he came back to my room a couple hours later and I proudly—if a little hoarsely—announced that I was on weight and ready to go.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I just made another bath and did it.”
He laughed, but I wondered if he was looking at me funny. Could he see La Belle sitting on my head, talking to me?
“Here, I’ll show you, “I said, dragging him into the bathroom, stripping off my sweats.
God I am so cold, I thought. You always forget that part—how sweaty you are, how clammy and dry you feel.
The bipolar nature of this sport is insane: Get in a bath to dry yourself out. Drop as much weight as you can; be the biggest one competing. Never give anything away to the press, but don’t be boring. Try to inflict as much punishment as you can on another person but be classy about it. Have your opponent scream at you and smash you into the ground while a thousand people boo you, but for God’s sake, don’t cry. Or complain. So when the reporters ask you, “What happened?” you always find a reason to blame yourself, unless you want to cause trouble, hurt your coaches and friends, or look weak. Never tip your hand to the reporters. Never complain about money. And if you are a woman, you better clean up well, or expect to be called unmarketable. It’s like being the one brave enough to walk down into a pit: The hole widens deeper and deeper and you have to circle it, smiling and waving up at the people watching from above. What was at first an adventure is now you hugging the sides of the crevice, bruising your fingers and just going down, down, down—still smiling, of course, so no one can see how hard it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other…
“Oh, sorry. I spaced out. Look—this is what I’m weighing in in. 135.5 on my scale. It’s even with the official scale downstairs.”
“Perfect,” Greg replied. “Good job—you’re a goddamn soldier. I wish you had slept though.” He paused. “Did you?”
We both laughed. If jet lag needed a spokesmodel, Greg would be on the short list. He had flown in from cornering a fight in Belarus. After the fight, he had spent two days wild boar hunting in a mountain range on the outskirts of Chernobyl, Ukraine. All for the fun of it. Which got me thinking—he can talk to art critics, wrestle crocodiles and hunt wild boars in the mountains of Eastern Europe, but what’s life going to be like when I don’t have to plan myself around this sport any more? When my body is no longer the chief object of my profession? Will I get to go on adventures too? Could I hunt down a wild boar? Or some kind of mutated scavenging Chernobyl beast?! Night closing in, lost in the woods, howls of unspeakable wild creatures getting closer…
“Oops, spaced out again,” I grimaced.
“You should probably try to take a nap or something before weigh-ins,” Greg said. “You’re a little out of it.”
I opened my mouth to ask him if I would be invited on his adventures when I quit, but instead swallowed around the lump in my throat.
The weigh-ins for this show were held at noon the day before the actual fight, to allow the athletes a chance to rest and recuperate. Fighters walk onto a stage, climb on a scale and have their weight read by an official before a crowd of media and fans. They come face-to-face with the person they are fighting the next day and the crowd gauges the intensity between the two combatants. It’s a great way to generate buzz for the next day’s event.
It’s also almost every fighter’s least favorite part.
The rest of my day passed in a blur. Before we boarded the buses for the arena, we sat in my hotel room and watched a reality show about an Irish couple that wanted to transform an old house in a French village into a dream house. Naturally, the process was horribly expensive, causing so much stress that it threatened to split the couple. Then, in formulaic mastery, the house was somehow completed in the allotted television hour for all of the new neighbors to come over for a party. Then the Irishman proposed to his girlfriend. In a house full of French strangers. Ugh, how romantic, I thought.
When the time came to get on the buses, I caught no glimpse of my opponent or her coaches. This didn’t bother me much—I don’t like interacting with people who I’m going to hit. She’s not real until we fight. At the arena, I checked my weight on the scale behind the curtains. 135 pounds even. I sipped some water, sloshed it around my mouth and spit it out. I chewed some gum and twitched around a bit, pretending to be not nervous and not hungry and not-feeling-the-horrible-cramps-in-my-back-and-diaphragm and not talking to a naked lady in a painting. I took off my sweatshirt and then put it back on over and over; hot then cold, hot then cold. I smiled at friends. I lied to the doctors that I felt perfectly fine and passed my pre-fight medicals. Greg and I stood in line and I shifted from foot to foot, grinding my knuckles into my lower back, trying to relieve pressure.
When they called my name and I walked onto the stage, the flashing lights and crowd overwhelmed me, as usual, and I blushed taking off my pants and sweatshirt. I hope my period didn’t bleed through, I thought to myself. I hope the crowd doesn’t think I’m fat, that they can’t all see the ringworm scars on my stomach. I hope the number on the scale is exactly right.
135 even. I grinned at the crowd and called “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” hopefully. I was greeted with a slightly puzzled but polite “Oi, Oi, Oi.”
Lame. Should have kept my mouth shut.
I walked to the opponent for the face off. She was built differently than the fight footage I’d seen of her; she was larger than I thought and as I stared into her eye—I can only stare into one eye at a time—I tried to quell the giggles bubbling up. It was her “mean face” that did it to me; I couldn’t help it. With that scowl, she looked like a grumpy toucan with Groucho Marx eyebrows. And bangs.
Our fists were raised as we stood facing each other and the matchmaker stood in between; as if to break up the fight that wouldn’t even happen until the next day. My opponent glared at me fiercely. I tried not to laugh outright. I had a feeling that even in repose her expression is affronted. Oh, settle down, kid, I thought. Her eyes widened at my smirk and she lunged at me, snapping her teeth.
But oddly, it didn’t occur to me that she had just jumped at me, that there was just a gesture of attack. Bemused, I stared at her. Then I woke up and realized that the crowd wanted some kind of response—this was the theater of fighting people paid for. I waited half a beat and put my hands over my mouth in mock horror, pantomiming fear: “Oooooooohhhh.”
The audience laughed appreciatively and she turned on heel and flounced off the stage.
“Thank you,” the matchmaker muttered to me. A tussle on stage garners up good pre-fight hype, but it’s also a pain for the staff to deal with.
Backstage she ignored me and I her. Tomorrow we would be locked in a cage together. And, after twenty-fours hours of no food or water, of smiling and pretending to be fine, it occurred to me: Fighting can be really, really dumb.
The best part of making weight is the first bite of food, the first sip of liquid through parched lips. As I ate my fruit and sipped on water, the adrenaline faded and I let the crankiness wash over me. I started to get mad at this b---- for getting in my face. Who the hell does she think she is? I started to get mad at my brain, too, for inventing an imaginary friend who was trying to talk me out of fighting.
I grabbed a handful of animal crackers and got mad that they kept sticking in my throat.
Friggin’ cookies, I thought. I glared and snarled at everyone when we boarded the bus back to the hotel and eventually dozed off on the ride back.
At the hotel I woke up disoriented, still feeling tense and groggy. Greg patted me on the head absently. “Still got cramps?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Also, everything is stupid, I thought.
“You’ll feel better after an IV,” he said.
We headed back to the room for rehydration. Greg had arranged for his friends to come by with a couple of EMTs to administer the bags—two of saline and one Lactate Ringer’s solution—that are basically cocktail of vitamins, administered intravenously. I watched absently as the needle glided into my skin and blood leaked out the side—I’m a bleeder—and melted into the back of the chair in relief. As the cold liquid entered my veins and skin, my body began to fill out more, to soften. My grumpiness subsided and although my ribcage still felt too tight, I began to relax. I looked around the room, happily buzzing with the conversation of friends and well-wishers who had come by. They weren’t really friends of mine; just more moths attracted to the light my coach gave off. But they made me happy. These are the surreal moments that made this all so special—the random moments of intimacy with strangers. Ironically, a repeat of the reality show came on and everyone gave their thoughts on the Irish couple, on how the house had changed. Then the conversation turned to dinner.
I didn’t really want dinner. My stomach had shrunk over 24 hours of fasting and the cookies I had shoveled in made it hurt in a weird way. Maybe I ate too fast, I thought.
“Peter invited us back to the museum restaurant,” Greg said. I stared at him. Is it possible that I haven’t spoken to La Belle for over two hours?
“Julie? That ok?” he asked. I smiled and nodded at him and my stomach lurched.