The punches and kicks and knees to the body hurt plenty. Getting choked, anaconda-style? Pretzeled into a neck-crank? Guillotined? That's no fun either. Neither is getting your face turned into tartare. But UFC fighters will tell you that real pain often comes before they clamber into the Octagon. The real hurt comes when they're battling to make weight. Cutting, as it's called, entails molting a not-insignificant percentage of body mass for the prefight weigh-in, only to load as much of it as possible back on before the bout. Failing to make weight is the ultimate act of disrespect and dishonor—toward your opponent, yourself, the entire sport. But the process of reaching the number can be grueling.
On Saturday, April 27, Gian Villante made his UFC debut in Newark's Prudential Center, at UFC 159. Seven days before his 205-pound light heavyweight fight against Ovince St. Preux, the 27-year-old Villante weighed 223. A former wrestler at Hofstra, he is well-practiced in the art (and it is an art) of cutting. Still, he spent the final 36 hours before the bout in a private hell.
Tapering down for days, Villante weighed 213 by Thursday, the day before the weigh-in. Marooned in his room at the Jersey City Westin, he ate only vegetables and a small steak, prepared on a George Foreman Grill propped next to the bathroom sink. He spent Thursday and Friday running on the hotel treadmill while clad in a sauna suit—"a big condom," he says, "nothing's coming out"—beneath a hooded sweatshirt. He also spent oceans of time in the hotel sauna, where sweat puddled at his feet. While Villante experienced some dizziness when he stood up, he was quick to assert that he'd had it worse in the past. "The more I've done it, the more [I've learned] to do it smarter," he says. "It's like wringing out the towel."
On Friday afternoon he headed to the Prudential Center for the weigh-in. By the time he stepped on the scale early that evening—stripped to little more than his courage—he was down to 206 pounds, same as St. Preux. (For nontitle fights, UFC competitors are permitted a one-pound allowance.)
No sooner had Villante stepped off the scale than he began to reload, inhaling a vat of pasta, having two 2½-pound rehydration IVs administered and eating a 16-ounce slab of beef with his team at Arthur's steak house in Hoboken. "My eyes say I want to eat a porterhouse," he said of the restaurant's 48-ounce specialty, "but I had to control myself." The $500 in spending money the UFC provides fighters? "It was pretty much used on that meal," says Villante, who estimates that by the time he fell asleep on Friday night he was up to 219.
On Saturday, his digestive system back to working order, Villante dropped a few pounds. When he entered the Octagon at 9 p.m., he was at 217, his midsection conspicuously thicker than it was the day before. In the third round St. Preux accidentally poked Villante in the left eye. The referee immediately called the fight. Because of the injury, the bout went to the judge's scorecards—a majority technical decision for St. Preux. Both fighters were dissatisfied. "One of those things," Villante said a few days later, by which point he was back up to 228. "I wasn't hurt at all, so I can't wait to get back in there soon." Which is to say, he remains hungry.
Photographs by Eric Thayer for Sports Illustrated