When the UFC announced their intention to bring in an official ranking system back in January for each of their weight classes, as well as a pound-for-pound list, UFC President Dana White proclaimed that this would provide fleeting fans with a simpler way of understanding whose where and what’s what in each division. “We thought as the sport continues to grow and reaches out more into the mainstream, mainstream people understand numbers,” White noted. “We think it would be a lot easier for casual fans just getting into the UFC to understand the sport a little better.” So far, so good.
However, it was only last week, and after the best part of 9 months of the rankings being in existence, that as an avid follower of the sport the rankings baffled me.
At the recent UFC 167, Rory MacDonald took on the resurgent Robbie Lawler and the two battled to a closely contested split decision that Lawler triumphed in. When the official UFC rankings had been updated to reflect the changes in the weight classes post-UFC 167, Lawler was expectedly ranked above his previous opponent, #3 to MacDonald’s #4. Yet just the one event and two weeks later, Lawler and MacDonald had somehow swapped places with neither fighting in the interim nor any other welterweight of significance and the result of their shared performance still intact.
This is not the only glitch in the rankings matrix, with welterweight a particularly contradictory division. Demian Maia (#6) is above Jake Shields (#7) despite the pair facing off in their last outings with Shields taking home the decision; Matt Brown is languishing in ninth place despite being on a six fight winning run and is even placed behind Martin Kampmann (#8) who has dropped his last two fights. Propping up the welterweight division is Nick Diaz, and as big a fan of the Stockton native as I am, there is simply no place in the top 10 for a fighter who, for all intents and purposes, is retired, sitting on a two fight losing streak and not won a fight since 2011.
Potential issues do not stop at the door of the 170lbs weight class either. The middleweight division has Lyoto Machida ranked at #4 despite only competing the once at 185lbs, Frankie Edgar (#3) is placed above Cub Swanson (#4) having only achieved the one victory in the featherweight division compared to Swanson’s current run of five victories. Even the heavyweight division was affected by these abnormalities, as before his showdown with Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva this past weekend, Mark Hunt was not even ranked in the top 10 having compiled a 4-1 record in the UFC prior to this matchup. After his fabled performance against Silva, Hunt has now been instated in to the top 10 of the division, but even that raises eyebrows n regards to the legitimacy of these rankings as in this case a draw has been enough to provide a boost in the table, yet in other cases and other divisions, a win can sometimes result in a drop.
Right from the start it was made clear that the rankings will serve purely as an indicator of how a division stacks up, not necessarily dictate how that division plays out. “Here’s the thing, no matter what the rankings are, I’m going to put on the fights fans want to see,” White added at the original announcement of the UFC ranking system. While this mantra is understandable as well as being admirable and confusing at the same time for fans, this can, and has, delayed expected title fights from happening. The primary example here is Johny Hendricks. The future contender was made to wait and compete, risking his deserved shot at the title having defeated Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Martin Kampmann, as the UFC chose to match Georges St. Pierre up with the ratings draw Nick Diaz, despite Diaz losing his previous fight.
While in this case everything turned out as it should and Hendricks eventually received his shot at the title, a future competitor that is just as deserving of a title shot could well see their chance vanish due to more bankable, appealing alternatives. With this situation a very realistic possibility considering the previous form of UFC matchmaking, the official rankings that they chose to introduce would be rendered meaningless.
Of course the misnomers and impracticalities of the official UFC ranking system is not down to Zuffa brass, but more so to whom they entrusted the selection process to, the media. The 70+ contingent of voting panellists have for the most part constructed a reasonable, understandable and credible list on which the fighters can be judged against. However, as they are required to submit their votes after each show, in the event that a panellist forgets to do so, their vote does not count in that particular round and then they have to wait for the voting cycle to restart. Having been chosen to carry out this worthy task, just plain forgetting to submit a vote does not quite cut the professional mustard. In order for the rankings to carry the required authority and weight, there needs to be a stricter level of control over the selection process with the UFC playing a more significant role in the ordering of fighters, as the simple task of having the media judge a fighter based on their recent accomplishments has clearly proven too difficult for some.
I am in favour of the rankings and feel that they could serve a useful purpose within the UFC other than to show a casual viewer if the fight that they are watching has any meaning to it. A ranking system that the UFC has more of a control over rather than dedicating to a mass pool of journalists, some of whom have proven to be too lax with their responsibilities, would be of far more relevance than the current superficial system. As flawed as the boxing model is, at the very least their ranking system offers some form of legitimacy, no matter how small it might be, as the introduction of a mandatory title challenger based on any particular fighter’s form can attest to.
While the ranking system is on the whole all present and correct, the glaring errors as a result of either judging on past reputation or even forgetting to vote is casting a shadow and making a mockery of the understandable intentions that the ranking system was formed around – to make the sport easier to understand. At the moment this simple goal is not being achieved and is only serving to muddy the waters of a system that was designed with clarity in mind.