Opinion: The Many Faces of Pound-for-Pound

By Eric Stinton Apr 25, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

For the most part, all went according to plan at UFC 197 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Four out of five betting favorites on the main card won comfortably, and the only upset -- Edson Barboza’s win over Anthony Pettis -- was the closest betting line of the night. At a closer look, how the favorites went about winning led to both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, namely how Yair Rodriguez and Demetrious Johnson won easier than expected while Robert Whittaker and Jon Jones took longer than anticipated. Overall, though, it was what we thought it would be.

As such, the post-fight atmosphere didn’t offer much in the way of new information. Jones will go on to fight Daniel Cormier as was originally planned; Johnson is still untouchable at flyweight; and Barboza, Whittaker and Rodriguez are still at varying points on the continuum of prospects and potential title contenders.

The absence of buzz was probably due to a mixture of things: the ongoing tug-o-war between Conor McGregor and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the lost luster of a Cormier-less headliner and the fact that the substitute main event was a dud of a fight. Whatever it was, the discussion after the fight centered on the mythical pound-for-pound rankings, specifically who deserved the number one spot between Jones and Johnson.

It goes without saying that pound-for-pound rankings are a little silly. To be fair, the entire light heavyweight belt situation is pretty silly right now, and that doesn’t seem to stop people from taking it seriously. There’s no need to be That Guy in the movie theater reminding everybody that what they’re watching isn’t real; everybody knows pound-for-pound talks tend to be self-validating opinions and immeasurable exercises in debate, but such is the reality of all sports. After all, UFC 197 did offer a lot of conversation fodder when it comes to how we evaluate pound-for-pound greatness.

In terms of fighters from the main card, we have the Great, the Good and the Ugly. On the one hand, the best performance of the night was authored by the most maligned UFC champion on the roster, while the most celebrated talent in the history of the sport coasted to a placid win. The third wheel in this discussion is former lightweight champion and former pound-for-pound mainstay Anthony Pettis, who continued to streak in the wrong direction with a third straight loss.

At the beginning of 2015, word surrounding Pettis was not if he was great but rather how great he would be. His free-flowing offensive dynamism was multifaceted and lethal, and it looked as if he was getting ready to run roughshod over the lightweight division. Then Rafael dos Anjos happened, and it has been all downhill from there. Dos Anjos didn’t outright expose Pettis’ technical deficiencies -- credit belongs to Clay Guida and Gilbert Melendez there -- but he demonstrated the extent of how exploitable the holes in the Roufusport star’s game are.

Getting beat from bell to bell because of physicality, aggression and smothering pressure should have been the red alert for Pettis that his existing style had been figured out, as well as an indicator to shore up those weaknesses through technique and game planning. Even though he probably deserved the nod against Eddie Alvarez, the fact remains that his inability to deal with pressure was not improving, and Edson Barboza cemented that notion. Pettis went from divisional supremacy and consideration as one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters in the world to a cautionary tale on the fringes of divisional relevance in record time, showing that developmental stagnancy is anathema when it comes to pound-for-pound greatness.

That brings us to our Good and Great pound-for-pound performers from UFC 197. Forever underappreciated, Johnson has been getting more aggressive and dynamic in his championship years than he was beforehand, whereas Jones has done the opposite. Prior to winning the flyweight belt, Johnson was 5-2-1 in the UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting, with one finish. In his eight title defenses, he has gone 8-0 with five finishes. Against Henry Cejudo, who was supposed to be his stiffest test to date on paper, Johnson looked like a wood chipper in a wicker furniture store, utterly walking through the Olympic gold medalist in what was his second-fastest title defense ever. On top of that, he did so by dominating Cejudo in the clinch, an area of strength the challenger thought was his best chance to dethrone the champ.

Let’s compare that to Jones. Even if we count his disqualification loss to Matt Hamill, which really should be a TKO victory, his pre-championship record was 6-1 with four finishes. After becoming the youngest UFC champion ever, he has become more measured, going 9-0 with four finishes. You can’t argue the rationale behind this pivot, especially since part of it is explained by the fact that his opponents have been unprecedentedly tough; George St. Pierre made a similar transformation, and he’s considered one of the greatest ever by a wide consensus. However, when it comes to pound-for-pound talk, compared to “Mighty Mouse,” Jones has less of a claim to that number one spot. Jones has dropped more rounds than Johnson and finished fewer opponents.

Such dominance unearths a weird paradox, though. People continue to doubt Johnson because they claim his record-setting run is a result of a weak field. How do they know the field is weak? Because Johnson beat everybody! It’s obviously circular logic to say that Johnson wins all the time because the division is thin and the division is thin because Johnson wins all the time, but this notion has been stubbornly adhesive and corrosive to our ability to appreciate the easily identifiable brilliance of Johnson’s abilities in the cage. Notice how this rationale does not apply to the equally dominant Jones.

Ultimately, you can go back and forth all day about who deserves which spot on the pound-for-pound list. That’s the point, though; it’s an untestable hypothesis, and it’s fun to think about. What these three fighters do, however, is speak to the short memory and mercurial palate of pound-for-pound talks. How fighters grow and evolve -- or whether or not they do at all -- is the surest way to continue to be a part of this weird, imaginary corner of combat sports cross-analysis.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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