The UFC ranking system has courted continuous controversy since it came to fruition at the beginning of 2013. They were initially created to allow fighters and fans alike have a clear, visible path to championship contention within the UFC, ridding MMA forums of the “who should get the next title shot” talk.
It’s almost three years down the line and the rankings are still experiencing some issues. While the ranking pool has grown from a top 10 to a top 15, not much has changed in its workings. Respected MMA journalists are called upon to send over their top 15 ranked fighters in all UFC divisions as well as submit their opinions for a hypothetical top 15 pound-for-pound list of active fighters and this process is has remained the same throughout the rankings’ existence.
The UFC’s problem is they cannot rank their own fighters as they are both the organization and body that house the fighters as well as the show promoter: there is a clear conflict of interests. Compare this with the various boxing organizations who provide their own rankings such as the WBC, WBO and the IBF—they have no direct link with the fighters retained by separate boxing promotions such The Money Team, Golden Boy and more.
However, it’s clear the journalist-lead rankings have issues of their own. It’s inevitable that fighters will get their noses put out of joint if they’re not ranked as high as they believe they should be—after all, they are based on opinion. But, this past weekend indicated that the journalists themselves could be guilty of bias and perhaps a conflict of interests.
After Conor McGregor decimated former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo this past weekend at UFC 194, the official UFC rankings were announced at the beginning of the week subsequent. They appeared normal and fairly run-of-the-mill. But, fortunately for us, one positive aspect of the rankings is that the journalists involved in the process are held accountable as their selections are made public.
Brazilian journalist Marcelo Russio of Canal Combate fell afoul of this with his pound-for-pound rankings, of which are as worrying as they are absurd. Despite McGregor beating former #1 pound-for-pound fighter of the world Aldo in the space of 13 seconds, Russio actually ranked McGregor four places below his previous entry from 11th down to 15th while Aldo only dropped one place. Russio has consequently come into a lot of criticism for this scoring and has denied being biased against the Brazil-baiting McGregor on Twitter. But, it’s hard to think there’s any other reason for such a strange ranking.
Pound-for-pound rankings are stupid and are purely hypothetical—they’re created to stoke interest and debate among critics and fans of the sport. But, this isn’t the first time Russio has been called out for his odd choices—he's even appeared in a ranking himself. MMA outlet Cage Potato reported last year that Russio is in their top 10 worst journalists tasked with deciding the UFC rankings, coming in at #6. One of his charges is having the highest amount of fighters appear in his top 10 to not appear in any other journalist’s. One of those fighters include light heavyweight Brazilian compatriot Fabio Maldonado.
Nationalistic bias can even be thrown Sweden’s way. Swedish journalist Christoffer Esping was the sole member of the media to have Stockholm’s Alexander Gustafsson on his pound-for-pound top 10. This is despite him going on a two-loss run in the UFC—a crushing KO defeat to Anthony Johnson and a close decision loss to UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
All this comes just a couple of days after Russio’s fellow Brazilian Demain Maia criticised the present system, pointing out its flaws both in the octagon and in the post-fight presser after his impressive domination over opponent Gunnar Nelson.
Maia stated: "People are influenced by marketing and whatnot. But, I think the ranking system should be defined with a mathematic formula or something similar - not just someone's opinion over who's the better fighter.
“I have beaten Neil Magny with a Performance of The Night bonus. After that, he fought twice and defeated Erick Silva and Kelvin Gastelum. But, Gastelum, who lost to him, moved up the rankings two spots. I don't know what's up with that.”
Maia’s right. At times marketing rules and the UFC rankings have been totally ignored in favor of a more compelling contest between two “enemies” for the casual fan.
A good example of this was when Brazilian brawler Bethe Correia bypassed the contenders of the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division to face off with Ronda Rousey for the belt, having beaten the rest of the “Four Horsewomen” group attached to Rousey. I’d challenge anyone who watched that fight to say Correia was equipped to face off against Rousey at that time. Though that match-up is emblematic of the shallow pool of title fight-worthy fighters that division suffered from until Holly Holm arrived on the scene in such dramatic fashion.
Luckily for McGregor, though I can’t exactly picture him mulling over insignificant ranking talk, Russio’s strange scoring didn’t affect his final placing in the pound-for-pound stakes, coming in third with all the assembled journalists’ rankings combined.
However, this incident and Maia’s post-fight talk brought the flaws of the current system back in the spotlight. What is the best way to decide the rankings? That’s for the UFC to decide. But, it’s clear the present arrangement isn’t fit for the best fighters on the planet.
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