The Allure, Futility of Pound-for-Pound Rankings

By Patrick Auger Aug 21, 2019

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 241 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

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

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When all was said and done, UFC 241 lived up to every bit of the hype. Yoel Romero and Paulo Henrique Costa put on a Fight of the Year contender, Nate Diaz returned in prime form to dismantle Anthony Pettis and in the main event, Stipe Miocic made an incredible comeback to dethrone Daniel Cormier and reclaim the heavyweight crown. Pulling in the largest gate for a mixed martial arts event in California and with several post-fight interviews trending on YouTube, it was certainly a pay-per-view that got the casual fan’s attention and felt like a party that really delivered.

Just like any good party, however, there’s always some cleanup to do afterward, which in this case means adjusting fighter rankings. While media sites with their own rankings system debate behind closed doors and those on the panel of the official Ultimate Fighting Championship rankings cast their votes to be tallied, most of the changes made to any rankings list after UFC 241 will be pretty straightforward. Miocic and Cormier will likely swap spots at heavyweight, Costa will rise into the Top 3 at middleweight and Nate Diaz will be inserted somewhere in the middle of the welterweight rankings, along with other movements from the prelims.

But there’s one set of rankings that will be debated about far longer than the others amongst media members and have a wider range of differences between each media outlet -- the pound-for-pound list.

Historically used in boxing as a way to distinguish lighter fighters that were deemed to be the most skilled competitors of their day, it only made sense for the pound-for-pound rankings to make their way over to mixed martial arts as well after the open-weight tournaments in promotions ended, given the sports’ similarities. Although each media outlet has its own set of criteria for pound-for-pound rankings, the most common ones are quality of opposition, technical abilities, and who would win if all those that are ranked were the same size (Sherdog’s own P4P rankings are based on accomplishments and comparing resumes). Almost all those in the pound-for-pound rankings are either current or former champions of their respective divisions, and in MMA it is rare to see anyone in a promotion outside of the UFC ranked in the Top 10.

Related » Sherdog’s Pound-for-Pound Top 10 Rankings

While in other lists you can make arguments regarding who has wins and losses against each other, point to how certain fighters fared against common opponents, and will almost certainly see two top competitors eventually clash at some point, in the pound-for-pound rankings all of that goes out the window. Yes, there are multidivisional champs or fighters that have moved between a weight class or two (or five if you’re B.J. Penn) but ultimately most fighters will never test their skills against opponents in different divisions. In other scenarios it simply wouldn’t make sense from a physicality standpoint --just imagine what Demetrious Johnson vs. Jon Jones would actually look like.

So, if we’ll seldom actually see a matchup between two pound-for-pound ranked fighters, this begs the question -- what’s the point of having them? In the aforementioned example of Johnsons vs. Jones, the two will never come close to fighting a common opponent, let alone anyone who is in between them in size. Why even have a pound-for-pound rankings system if it will be nothing but endless debate with the rare data point of objectivity?

In a word, it's fun.

Related » Sherdog’s WMMA Pound-for-Pound Top 10

Just like any other sport, anybody who watches MMA ultimately has their favorite fighters, as well as an opinion on who the best fighter is. Even though the majority of pound-for-pound fighters will never cross paths in competition, the questions posed from potential matchups are exciting to think about. How would Khabib Nurmagomedov’s heavy wrestling style work against someone who can’t seem to be held down in Jon Jones? How would Robert Whittaker’s boxing fare against Henry Cejudo’s well-rounded style? Who would actually win the fight if Valentina Shevchenko answered Henry Cejudo’s ridiculous callout?

These are just some of the questions that come up for debate when discussing the pound-for-pound rankings, and frankly, they’re fun to think about. Part of what many people enjoy about the sport is the analysis of a fighter’s skill set, the legacy of a combatant’s career and the nostalgia that comes with discussing an athlete’s old fights. The list also applies when comparing two fighters from different eras, speculating how a prime Fedor Emelianenko might have faired against a prime Stipe Miocic.

When it comes to the questions above, most of the time we won’t get any definitive answers. On the increasingly normal occasion that a fighter moves up or down a weight class for a super fight, we end up with some clarity, but hardly enough to put together an entire list, especially if you take multiple promotions into consideration. The fact of the matter is that the pound-for-pound rankings are both an exercise in futility and amusement, and until science gives us a way to grow or shrink people with no side effects so that these matchups can actually take place, MMA fans will have to continue the great debate of who is the greatest of all time, even from their rocking chairs. Advertisement


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