Opinion: A New Way to Rank Champions

Over the weekend, I watched Bellator MMA middleweight champion Johnny Eblen dominate a terrific, world-class challenger in Anatoly Tokov. I consider Eblen the finest middleweight in the world and believe he would thrash either Alex Pereira or Israel Adesanya, though sadly neither fight will happen. However, upon further reflection, while beating Adesanya would be a tremendous achievement, defeating Pereira wouldn't. I love Pereira's striking and think his victory over Adesanya was one of the best fights of 2022, but one must be objective about his abilities. When an almost pure kickboxer in Adesanya repeatedly gets on top of you, keeps you down and pelts you with ground-and-pound, you wouldn’t survive against any good grappler. Not only would Eblen destroy Pereira, but so would someone like Roman Dolidze—or even Jack Hermansson, who is 2-3 in his last five outings. I thought about how unusual it is for the champion of a major organization to have so many matchups where I would favor the challenger.

And thus, a new way to think about champions was born: For every Bellator and UFC champion, how many fighters in their weight class, across all promotions, would I favor against them?

Before proceeding further, let's make two important observations:

1. These are only the number of challengers I would significantly favor over the current champion. It doesn't count the challengers who I feel should be even odds. For instance, I think Petr Yan would have a 50% chance of victory against Aljamain Sterling in a rubber match, but that's not the same as favoring him, so it doesn't count against Sterling.
2. Just because the number for a champion is more than zero doesn't mean they aren’t the best in the world. Styles make fights, and just because fighter A beats fighter B doesn't mean they would defeat the same fighters B has beaten by the transitive property. Adesanya and Pereira are perfect examples of this. Perhaps Pereira should simply be favored against Adesanya, but Pereira doesn't have the defensive grappling to survive against Robert Whittaker, Marvin Vettori, Derek Brunson, and maybe even Jared Cannonier, all men who Adesanya has defeated, most in dominant fashion.

Let's try this out with a few champions and see what we learn. Obviously, zero is the optimal number, and in general, the lower the better.

Former UFC Heavyweight Champ: Francis Ngannou (0)

I would favor the—until recently—undisputed UFC heavyweight champion over anyone on the planet right now. He defeated Cyril Gane despite already being injured, mostly through his wrestling. Given that Tai Tuivasa floored and almost knocked out Gane in his last outing, there is always a strong chance Ngannou would catch him in a rematch as well. Gane is a great fighter and could win, but I would favor Ngannou overall. As for Jon Jones, I think his chances would be even worse. When people think of Jones, they recall him as he was in his 20s, when he was possibly the greatest fighter ever, but that version is long gone. Jones is now 35 and hasn't fought in over three years. When he last competed, he lost to a one-legged Thiago Santos in many peoples' eyes and Dominick Reyes in most people's. More concerning is what Jones showed in those fights. His wrestling had greatly eroded, to the point where he could do nothing against Santos despite the injury and had only marginal success against Reyes. And his striking was even worse, being very badly outstruck and even hurt by Reyes, the same guy who would go on to be knocked out in his next three outings. If Reyes did that to a younger, faster Jones, what would Ngannou do to him now? I think it's safe to say that Ngannou would have nothing to worry about with Jones' grappling, either. As much as I like Sergey Pavlovich, Ngannou is simply faster and can harness power from more angles. Ngannou has already knocked out Curtis Blaydes twice, who has improved considerably since, but it's still likely a bad match-up. And I think Ngannou would overwhelm either Ryan Bader or Valentin Moldavsky in the striking.

UFC Light Heavyweight Champ: Jamahal Hill (4)

I emphatically picked Hill to defeat Glover Teixeira and feel he is a terrific champion, but there are four men I would favor against him, two in the UFC and two in Bellator: Vadim Nemkov, Corey Anderson, Jiri Prochazka and Magomed Ankalaev. Hill's defensive grappling has improved a lot, but against Teixeira, whose wrestling and top control looked far worse than they ever have—not surprising for a 43-year-old running on fumes—Hill still found himself taken down and mounted on two separate occasions. If that had been Ankalaev, Nemkov or especially Anderson, Hill would be downed far easier, kept there, and likely finished. All three men would at least be able to tread water with Hill in the striking before then, too. As for Jiri Prochazka, Hill has a tough beard, but his defense has holes due to his unique stance, with chin high and hands low. He makes up for this with a good sense of distance, quickly darting backwards, and nice instincts, but he was also hit flush by Teixeira on multiple occasions. Those same opportunities would result in knockout defeats against the much stronger and faster fists of Prochazka, attached to a taller, longer frame. On the right day, I can see Hill beating all four of these guys, but on average, I think he would lose. As a caveat here, Hill is 31 and still improving, so this might be a smaller number a year or two from now. Also, I would favor Hill against recent champions and still elite light heavyweights in Jan Blachowicz, Phil Davis and Ryan Bader, which is saying a lot.

Bellator Light Heavyweight Champ: Vadim Nemkov (0)

Nemkov has already defeated Davis twice, knocked out Bader to win the title and dominated Anderson. Ankalaev would be a good challenge, but I think Nemkov is a slightly better striker and a significantly better grappler. Also, Nemkov has brutal leg kicks, even stopping Liam McGeary with those alone, which is a weakness of Ankalaev’s, as he showed against Blachowicz. I've already discussed a possible Hill fight. The only real interesting challenge here is Prochazka. They faced one another at heavyweight all the way back in 2015, a fight which amusingly tells us both little and a lot. On the one hand, both fighters were mere shadows of their current selves, and the circumstances of the fight were even more unusual. Nemkov and Prochazka were both only 23. Furthermore, both had fought only two days prior as part of Rizin Fighting Federation’s tournament structure. Nemkov repeatedly took Prochazka down and inflicted heavy ground-and-pound. However, when Prochazka got up, he would hurt Nemkov with strikes. Nemkov actually appeared to win the grueling 10-minute first-round, but when he went to his corner, he was unable to continue. Prochazka was hardly better, barely being able to meet Muhammed Lawal in the finals that night and losing by knockout. Prochazka would not only avenge that loss but hasn't lost since, and neither has Nemkov. I think a fight between the two would be sensational and very close, but I still slightly favor Nemkov since his wrestling and ground-and-pound has become much better, and Prochazka would have a harder time exploiting Nemkov on the feet, as the Russian's defense has become very good in the seven-plus years since. While Prochazka's grappling has also improved too, it's likely not enough against Nemkov given that even Reyes saw considerable wrestling success against the Czech samurai.

Bellator Middleweight Champ: Johnny Eblen (1)

Wait, didn't I call Eblen the best middleweight in the world? Didn't I say he would destroy Adesanya and Pereira? Who do I think could beat him, then? That would be Robert Whittaker. I think Eblen has a much better matchup against Adesanya than Whittaker does, though there are plenty of people who thought Whittaker won the rematch. Whittaker's wrestling may be potent enough to beat Adesanya, but it would likely be good enough to mostly neutralize Eblen, easily the best wrestler at middleweight. On the feet, I would give Whittaker a considerable advantage. Eblen is a good striker, but Whittaker is a great one. At this point, I would favor Whittaker against Eblen.

UFC Middleweight Champ: Alex Pereira (14+)

As I've noted in a past column, Pereira's triumph over Adesanya was a stunning rebuke to how most think about MMA. It calls to mind Mark Hunt, then a recent convert from kickboxing who was only 2-1 in MMA, defeating arguably the second-best heavyweight in the world at the time, Mirko Filipovic, at PrideShockwave 2005. However, as with Pereira beating Adesanya, this by no means meant that Hunt could defeat the same men Filipovic had, as his defensive grappling was so much worse. Against Pereira, I would favor Eblen, Whittaker, Gegard Mousasi, Marvin Vettori, Derek Brunson, Tokov, John Salter, Roman Dolidze, Jack Hermansson, Dalton Rosta, Dricus Du Plessis, Andre Muniz and Brendan Allen. That's actually generous, since I think Jared Cannonier, Lorenz Larkin and Fabian Edwards should, at the very least, be even money against Pereira, too.

I could go on and on. Perhaps you strongly disagree with the particular numbers I assigned to each champion. That's fine, but also beside the point. What's interesting is that it's a new, creative way to judge champions. It's one thing to say that Francis Ngannou is the undisputed heavyweight champion. It's another to note that there isn't a single heavyweight in any promotion that one would favor against him. Alternatively, a great champion might still have one or two unfavorable fights, and a huge outlier like Pereira has over a dozen, which makes him utterly unique among either the UFC or Bellator.
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