LAS VEGAS -- Chael Sonnen, the motor-mouthed challenger to the UFC middleweight title held by Anderson Silva, weighed 205 pounds on Thursday afternoon.
When he stepped onto a scale less than 24 hours later, Sonnen weighed 185 pounds -- thus making the division limit for Saturday's UFC 148 main event.
Watching from backstage at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, where nearly 8,000 fans congregated for Friday's weigh-ins, was Mike Dolce. Casual fans might not have recognized him -- he doesn't fight in a steel cage, at least not anymore -- but he'd just scored a high-profile victory.
Sonnen's weight cut is the latest resume bullet in a body of work that's earned Dolce a reputation as one of the top nutritionists in mixed martial arts, a weight-loss guru whose efforts with such fighters as Vitor Belfort, Thiago Alves, Rampage Jackson, Gray Maynard and Jake Ellenberger have drawn hearty praise around the sport.
Such a rapid reduction in mass could raise concerns with anyone familiar with the well-publicized medical dangers of cutting weight. Athletes in weight-restricted sports like boxing, wrestling and MMA have subjected themselves to severe dehydration, caloric restrictions, diuretics, laxatives, vomiting and rubber exercise suits. Consequences have ranged from impaired muscle recovery, cardiac complications and even death.
Yet the 36-year-old Dolce, who defines himself as a longevity advocate rather than a sports performance coach, views such methods as barbaric. He bemoans the practices prevalent in boxing, where fighters start cutting weeks ahead of the weigh-in, sometimes training in plastic suits to shed water weight they'll only gain right back.
"It makes no sense because as soon as they lose it, they're suffering," explained Dolce after Friday's weigh-ins. "And then they're starving themselves, they drop their calories and now they're malnourished. Then they drop their fluid intake, so now they're dehydrated. But they're pushing themselves constantly and the body can't recover, it can't repair, it can't rebuild. Their bodies just give out before they even get on the scale.
"I step into these guys' training camps and their lifestyles and try to teach them how to eat properly and how to get rid of all those old serial bodybuilder sadomasochistic methods of torture and destruction as a means to lose weight. We start feeding the body again and treating it in the right manner."
Dolce said Sonnen woke up at 205 pounds on Thursday morning, ate four meals (mostly "earth-grown nutrients" like blueberries, chia seeds and avocado) and drank two gallons of water. Although he'd consumed four pounds of food and 16 pounds of fluid, Sonnen woke up Friday at 192 pounds. He was able to shed the remaining poundage during a morning workout -- after breakfast, of course. Dolce's tenets of proper nutrition and electrolyte manipulation, which increase the body's metabolism and core temperature, help purge the weight in the healthiest manner possible.
"We don't sauna, we don't take any drugs, we don't take any supplements, we don't do any of that garbage," Dolce said. "The body does what it's supposed to do if it's working with them. It's a very calm, serene state, you have a vital level of health, and that's the way we're able to do it."
A former fighter himself, Dolce competed on the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter, the reality TV series to which the UFC's dramatic rise from near-bankruptcy to lucrative mainstream attraction is widely attributed. Yet his experience with weight cutting began decades earlier in a more improbable venue: the clubhouse at the old Keystone Racetrack in greater Philadelphia, where Dolce's father owned and trained thoroughbred racehorses.
"The jockeys used to baby-sit me," recalled Dolce, a native of Bellmawr, N.J, who regularly joined his dad on trips to different tracks on the East Coast. "I used to sit in the saunas with the jockeys. They're spitting and cussing and chewing on Jolly Ranchers, just like wrestlers were doing. So all those conversations they were having [about cutting weight] and I was kind of a fly on the wall, that absorbed into me when I was 5, 6, 7, 8 years old."
He was 9 years old when his father suffered a massive stroke that Dolce attributes to his workaholic lifestyle -- "burning the candle at both ends," as he describes it, and not minding his diet on those early 4 a.m. drives to the track -- after which Dolce became compelled by the concept of longevity through nutrition.
A standout powerlifter as a teenager, Dolce orchestrated the weight cuts and ran the conditioning classes for his entire high school wrestling team as the captain, then moved into nutritional consultancy on a local then national basis. By the time Dolce started as a consultant for Sonnen in 2007, he'd already put in time as a strength and conditioning coach for several MMA teams in addition to basketball players at the college and NBA levels.
Since collaborating with some of the UFC's biggest names, Dolce's results have spoken for themselves. When Jackson needed to slash 45 pounds over eight weeks after a 14-month layoff, Dolce was the architect and Rampage's conditioning shone even in defeat. When Thiago Alves found his UFC contract in jeopardy after twice missing weight, it was Dolce who helped turn his career around. He takes a great deal of pride in conjuring "career-defining performances" from his charges.
To prepare for Saturday's highly anticipated rematch with Silva, Sonnen paid Dolce a weekly fee plus expenses to move into his Las Vegas home for the past month to manage his diet. The results paid off Friday afternoon, when Sonnen appeared healthy and energetic on the scale -- no sign of the sunken cheekbones or sickly pallor common to those athletes who drain themselves to make a weight limit with one of the most important physical competitions of their lives just a day away.
Dolce, who is bullish on Sonnen's chances in the title fight, was highly specific about what to expect on fight night.
"He'll weigh 218 tomorrow night in the cage, and he will be the epitome of what a world-class athlete should look like," he said. "It's easy."