Rankings in sports are one of the easiest ways to determine the strength or weakness of a player or team based on their record often with some sort of factoring system built in based on the “strength” of the opponent. We’ve seen in other sports, primarily college football, that these systems aren’t always entirely accurate, but in MMA the problems run much deeper in my opinion. The UFC touts weekly updates of their fighter rankings, but the way they determine ranking is a bit of a mystery to most fans and over at Bellator they may have internal rankings, but nowhere on their website can you find any sort of ranking and they also don’t display a ranking in the tale of the tape for their fights. In this article I am going to attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding rankings and if they actually have any impact on fight cards.
How are Rankings Determined?
According to www.ufc.com “Rankings were generated by a voting panel made up of media members. The media members were asked to vote for who they feel are the top fighters in the UFC by weight-class and pound-for-pound. A fighter is only eligible to be voted on if they are in active status in the UFC. A fighter can appear in more than one weight division at a time. The champion and interim champion are considered to be in the top positions of their respective divisions and therefore are not eligible for voting by weight-class. However, the champions can be voted on for the pound-for-pound rankings.” There is nothing in that statement that says anything about wins or losses, winning streaks, opponent “strength” or how fights were won or lost. Essentially the UFC has made their “rankings” a popularity contest. Bellator as I mentioned doesn’t have any information on their website about fighter rankings or how they are determined. I do recall seeing graphics on occasions on the show, but all I can find on the web are outside sources giving their rankings and even there I can only find top 5 rankings. I’m going to make an assumption now that Bellator probably “ranks” their fighters based on a similar system to the UFC, in which case the same inherent problems will arise.
The Problem with the “Popular Vote”
The way I see it, there are a couple problems with “ranking” MMA fighters in this way. Firstly, the company responsible essentially passes the buck off onto reporters. The UFC can step back and say hey you don’t like our rankings well these 18 people are responsible. They even go as far as to show you who voted and how they voted. For the sake of transparency, I could actually request to be a panelist as I am the owner/operator of this website and have a podcast that features MMA. I may actually be overqualified as my potential reach is much larger than CFMU 93.3 campus/community radio in Hamilton Ontario Canada, which is the “news” organization of one panelist. I actually just took a break while writing this article and applied. My second problem is that seemingly wins/losses aren’t as heavily factored in as they should be, which ties in with my first point. As I was looking through individual panelists rankings, it seemed clear to me that some of them aren’t really looking at this. I love Rhonda Rousey, but she shouldn’t be the #2 ranked bantamweight fighter. She has lost her last two fights and has only had two fights in since November 2015. She is a great fighter, but her stats don’t match up with her ranking. I’m also not sure how Francis Ngannou jumped Derrick Lewis in the rankings when Lewis just beat a higher ranked fighter. These are just a couple of examples and I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could easily find more.
Do the Rankings Even Matter?
The short answer to my question is no. In Bellator you can say that clearly rankings don’t matter as they seemingly can’t be bothered to even post them on their website or fight cards. Essentially, Bellator has carte blanche to pick who fights for titles/as headliners and can make anyone they want seem like a big deal without needing any real backing. I’m not trying to discredit any Bellator fighter by saying this, I’m just stating facts and as someone who writes previews/recaps of many of their events it is often difficult (nearly impossible) for me to say why a match was put together the way it was or who a potential next opponent for the winner would be.
The UFC is a different story, but is becoming more and more of the same situation. Case in point the recently announced fights of Demian Maia vs. Jorge Masvidal and Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping. Maia deserves a shot at the winner of the Woodley vs. Thompson fight for the welterweight title. At the very least if the UFC says he has to have a fight then it should be against #2 ranked Robbie Lawler to determine a new #1 contender and not against the #6 ranked Masvidal. For my money, the fight with Masvidal is a no win for Maia. If he wins it doesn’t bring him any closer to a shot at the title than he already is and if he loses or gets hurt it would likely mean that he would have to wait even longer to get a title match.
The Bisping situation is a bit different, but essentially, to me at least, shows that the UFC doesn’t think Bisping vs. Yoel Romero or Jacare Souza is a big enough draw right now. St-Pierre is a legend, there is no denying that. He had won his last 12 fights before going down with an injury and then having contract disputes with the UFC. Here’s the issue, he was/probably still is an amazing welterweight, but he’s getting a shot at the middleweight championship, which is a weight class he’s never fought in before. I realize the UFC wanted to give him a headline match but why not have him fight the winner of Bisping vs. Romero or Souza? Or fight the winner of Woodley vs. Thompson, you know the champion in the weight class he dominated and never lost the title from. I think essentially the issue a lot of people have is why is he jumping the line when the “rankings” and the UFC’s website for that matter don’t even have him listed. (Side Note: Josh Koscheck who just made his Bellator debut and hasn’t fought for the UFC since March of 2015 is still featured on the website.)
I’ve sort of touched on this issue before when I talked about champions wanting to or actually fighting the champion in another weight class and how I wasn’t a fan unless they were really willing to fight and defend the belt in both classes. That’s not the case here. For the sake of argument, imagine what would have happened if Brock Lesnar would have made his return and instead of defeating Mark Hunt he beat Stipe Miocic for the title and then had everything play out the way it did. It’s not fair to any of the other heavyweights and to me it seems like the UFC concentrating much more on trying to get a big payday now from a fight between two “big name” fighters rather than rewarding fighters for winning and working their way up the rankings in order to become a “big name” in the future. With fighters already being upset with the UFC after getting their sponsors pulled from them in favour of Reebok, I will be very interested to see how much dissension grows if this trend of having guys jump the line continues to cost high-ranked fighters the chance at making a big payday.
Image from http://www.ufc.com