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In February 2013, after pressure from fans and media alike, the Ultimate Fighting Championship teamed up with Fightmetric (now called UFC Stats) to establish a formal rankings system. The idea was that Fightmetric would poll in the neighborhood of 90 mixed martial arts media members worldwide, and the rankings would list the Top 15 fighters in each division as well as a pound-for-pound ranking of the Top 15 in the organization. The rankings would be updated within 24 hours of an event and would be integrated into live broadcasts when applicable.
“UFC Fighter Rankings are a great tool for new and existing fans alike to learn and better keep up with the fast pace of the UFC,” said UFC President Dana White at the time of the announcement. “We always look for opportunities to engage fans and media, allowing them to connect and voice their opinions, and this just one more way of doing that.”
Had White known what was to follow, he most certainly would have chosen different words.
Fast forward to 2019 and the UFC rankings is a shell of what they were touted to be. A mere 14 media members cast their vote for fighter rankings, ranging from local radio station hosts to defunct MMA website administrators, with many of the bigger media outlets abstaining. Each Top 15 is also incredibly diverse, with one member ranking Adriano Martins as the No. 9 lightweight in the world as late as June of last year. The reason that’s a big deal is that Martins was released by the UFC in November of 2017.
This reduced sample size of opinions coupled with a wide variety of preferences can result in some strange shifts. Following UFC Greenville on June 22, No. 12 ranked Chan Sung Jung moved all the way up to 6 after a first-round knockout of the fifth-ranked Renato Carneiro. While that move in itself isn’t surprising, No. 11 Yair Rodriguez also shot up the rankings to No. 7, presumably based on the fact that Rodriguez had defeated Jung in a literal last-second knockout seven months earlier.
These kinds of changes are not a new phenomenon either. Last year, Kamaru Usman sat at No. 7 while being undefeated in the UFC and on a 12-fight win streak, with notable wins over Emil Meek, Leon Edwards and Demian Maia. During that time Darren Till was ranked second, having four consecutive wins including a knockout over Donald Cerrone. He subsequently received a title shot at UFC 228 after winning a controversial decision over Stephen Thompson, where he missed weight.
Criticism of the rankings can be seen in just about every social media platform, with fans and journalists questioning their validity. Multiple fighters, including Cerrone, UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber and Michelle Waterson have come out and stated that the rankings don’t matter whatsoever. Even White himself has alluded to the fact that system does not surpass potential star power when it comes to earning title shots, encouraging fighters to “become a superstar” in order to earn the money and fights they desire.
With obvious flaws in the system and open discussion about their lack of value, you’d assume that while frustrating, the rankings don’t have any real effect on matchmaking or how a fighter views their position in the organization. However, that is wrong.
One of the biggest problems in the UFC right now is the fact that the majority of fighters are calling for opponents ranked higher than them and refusing to fight anyone ranked below them or not ranked at all. Think about it. Fighters often say, “I want a Top 10 opponent,” or “I’ll take a fight with anyone as long as they’re ranked above me.” While that’s something to be expected under a well-managed and accurate rankings system, in the current environment it prevents sensible matchups from happening and diminishes consecutive wins under the guise of false pretenses.
Although the UFC is not obligated to comply with giving into fighters’ requests when it comes to opponents, it can use the rankings as an objective source to deny matchups that would position them for a title shot. The aforementioned Waterson is a prime example of this, with Dana White stating that “The Karate Hottie” was ranked too low to receive a crack at the strawweight belt, despite being on a three-fight win streak over three ranked fighters. Instead, the UFC opted to give Weili Zhang the title opportunity, a fighter who somehow sits one spot above Waterson despite an identical win streak in the UFC with only one of those victories being over a ranked opponent.
Having made a significant investment in China over the past year, it’s not a surprising decision by the UFC. The goal of the promotion has always been to bolster its viewership and ultimately its revenue. As a result, it is more likely to push those that the company views as future superstars up the ranks over competitors who may have earned opportunities through less charismatic methods. As journalist Ben Fowlkes described back in April of 2018, the UFC rankings aren’t exactly democratic, which is why so many media outlets abstain from participating in them.
“There are a lot of things about the way the UFC’s rankings work that should (and did) make media members uncomfortable,” explained Fowlkes. “The UFC decides what fighters are eligible to be ranked. It has removed fighters from that list when it gets frustrated with them. It has simply declined to offer rankings in one other division.”
Ideally, the rankings are supposed to be an outside check to prevent the pushing aside of worthy contenders. In their current form they do nothing but allow the UFC to play whichever side is to their benefit. If a fighter the promotion wants to push is ranked lower than another deserving contender, it can claim the system is flawed and everyone knows it. However, if the fighter is ranked higher than another deserving contender, the system can be pointed to as to what “should” be followed.
Whether or not you agree with the UFC’s decisions in these matters, it’s clear that the official rankings haven’t turned out to be what the fans, media or the UFC itself hoped they would amount to. Only time will tell if any adjustments will be made to the way rankings are compiled, but in the meantime, they will continue to be a critical -- and sometimes bewildering -- part of the matchmaking process.