At 4 p.m. Friday, Jesse Ronson will strip to his underwear before a crowd in Toronto's Maple Leaf Square, step on a scale and hold his breath as his mind races, "Please be on. Please be on. Please be on."
"On" means 156 pounds (70.8 kilograms), the upper limit of the Ultimate Fighting Championship's lightweight division and the target of a gruelling process – called "the cut" – to drop weight.
Over a month of tireless gym work, strict dieting and a final fast, the man who fights under the moniker The Body Snatcher dropped 31 pounds in 32 days. He will then pack 20 pounds back on in the 24 hours before he steps into the octagon Saturday for his debut with the biggest mixed martial arts company in the world.
Cutting weight, and putting much of it back on quickly, is an extreme but crucial routine for athletes in combative sports such as boxing, wrestling and MMA, as much part of the job as lifting weights, hitting the treadmill and combat training. Making it in the UFC means being able to shed a significant portion of your body weight in the weeks leading up to a fight. The extra challenge for Mr. Ronson was an invitation to fight on short notice – giving him half the usual time to train and cut.
"The cut" is an aggressive method of water manipulation most MMA fighters use to fit into a weight class. Mr. Ronson will drop nearly half of those 32 pounds in the final 72 hours before the weigh-in. He will trick his body into losing every available ounce of water, either through sweat or urine.
If he and his opponent – a Brazilian named Michel Prazeres – weigh 156 on Friday, they can fight at whatever weight they want Saturday.
Not making weight is considered unprofessional and can result in cancelled fights or a fighter forfeiting at least 20 per cent of his purse. But regain the pounds properly and fighters step into the cage believing they've done everything possible to maximize their size and strength advantage.
The 27-year-old from London, Ont., was enjoying the last weeks of summer when the UFC called Aug. 20 with the offer he'd been working toward since his first fight nearly four years ago: a multifight contract, starting with a spot vacated by injured Canadian Mark Bocek on Saturday night.
"I was so excited when my manager called that I could barely breathe," Ronson said. "I knew I needed to get my ass in gear to be ready to fight in four and a half weeks."
He began spending hours in the gym and eating clean – essentially protein and vegetables – a plan designed by Halifax-based MMA fighter and nutrition coach Ricky Goodall that measured every morsel to the ounce and tablespoon. Three meals and three snacks a day, plus three to four litres of water. Mr. Ronson dropped 11 pounds in seven days.
"I like to put my fighters on a good, clean nutrition plan that will let them retain the muscle they have and burn fat while still having enough energy to be training two or three times a day like we do as fighters," Goodall said.
Tuesday night, he checked into a downtown Toronto hotel, armed with a Tupperware bin of prepared chicken breasts, protein pudding, a lot of almonds, numerous four-litre jugs of water and an Xbox 360.
He ate four ounces of chicken and 15 almonds every two hours, increasing his water intake in the first few days, then tapering it to almost nothing. The final three days he will have spent time in the sauna or submerged in hot baths to shed weight.
If you think of the body as a wet sponge, this is where every last drop of moisture gets squeezed out, along with key electrolytes such as sodium, potassium and magnesium. Extreme fatigue, cramping, irritability and nausea are common.
Mr. Ronson is slightly less scientific. "It literally feels like you're dying," he said. "You want to drink and you can't. Your stomach is grumbling, but you can't eat. You're weak and short of breath, but you just have to tough it out."
He woke up Wednesday morning at 169.6 pounds, having taken off as much body fat as possible through training and clean eating. In the final 19 or 20 hours before weigh-in, Mr. Ronson planned not to eat or drink at all.
While taking a fight on short notice is less than ideal, fighters pride themselves on the ability to adapt quickly and push their bodies to limits most of us can't fathom.
"As an athlete, it is your responsibility to stay in shape – especially if you're looking to get signed by the UFC," said Mark Hominick, a retired UFC fighter and part owner of the gym where Mr. Ronson trains. "The second you get that call there is no thought process. It's a definite yes. Whatever weight they want you to fight at, whatever time, in whatever situation, it's a yes. Otherwise you'll get overlooked and maybe never get that call again."
On Friday, Mr. Ronson and the rest of the fighters on the card will undergo a prefight medical examination by a physician appointed by Ontario's Office of the Athletics Commissioner (OAC) before the weigh-in. While there are no specific rules regarding the amount of weight that can be cut, a fighter will not be allowed to participate if the doctor determines he or she is unfit to fight because of dehydration or any other medical reason.
A welterweight fight between Nick Catone and James Head was pulled from the UFC 159 card in New Jersey in April after Mr. Catone was hospitalized for dehydration. He had missed weight by two pounds.
Brian St. Pierre, a Maine-based certified sports nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist who has worked with professional and Olympic athletes, says competing in a sport with strict weight classes requires an extremely precise plan that is taxing on the mind and body.
"I wouldn't ever say people should do this for health purposes," Mr. St. Pierre said. "It's not really a great idea, but it has become such the norm in the fighting world that if you don't do it you're going to get your ass kicked."
Seconds after his weight is announced, Mr. Ronson will gulp 250 millilitres of water and eat a banana. He'll aim to return a litre of fluid to his system every hour, alternating between water, Powerade and Pedialyte. He'll eat some cheesecake to coat his stomach, then barbecue chicken pizza.
"It's all salt and carbs and with the chicken on there I get a bit of protein," he said. "The sauce is also full of salt, which helps my body hold on to the water and my strength comes back."
Saturday morning he'll eat a greasy breakfast and take in liquids through the day. Then, a sandwich before the fight.
He expects to step into the octagon at 175 pounds, intent on making a big first impression on the UFC brass.
"Obviously I want to impress and showcase my skills and make them happy that they signed me," Mr. Ronson said. "It's a stepping stone to prove myself and start working my way up the ladder to being the best."
Then, after the fight, he plans to devour a steak dinner, a meal he feels he will have earned, win or lose. But first, he must make the cut.
UPDATE: Ronson weighed in at 155.5 pounds on Friday afternoon, while his opponent came in at 155. Their bout will be the third of four early preliminary fights that begin at 6:15 p.m.