Note: This is a long piece, the second half is contained below the fold.
Rankings are probably the most often-debated topic among MMA fans. Whether it is within a division or the ultra-meaningless pound for pound rankings, the time wasted debating relative positions is astounding. Here are four reasons any attempt at “objective” rankings make no sense in MMA, which is one of the key reasons WAMMA is a joke.
1) Four ounce gloves: In major sports like baseball, basketball, and football, games have a set period of time, and the score at the end determines the winner. That can be the case in MMA, but it often isn’t. Due to the nature of four ounce gloves, the fact that one fighter would beat another nine out of ten times is not as meaningful as it is in boxing. Keith Jardine’s loss to Houston Alexander is a great example, Jardine would probably beat him 99 times out of 100, but this loss is still held against him in rankings. Finishes in MMA often don’t actually reflect who the better fighter is, the potential for getting caught with a punch or a miracle submission attempt make it very different from other sports.
Lyoto Machida has admitted he almost passed out in Tito Ortiz’s triangle. If Ortiz held on he very well may have won. If that had happened, it wouldn’t change the fact in my view that Machida is multiple levels above Ortiz as a fighter, but it would be used as a noose around Machida’s neck in rankings discussions for years. In MMA the ratio of “shit happens” finishes are much higher than other sports due to the instantaneous nature of the finishes, making logical ranking much more difficult.
2) Top fighters fight rarely: In 2008 Lyoto Machida had one fight. He would have had two if not for Silva’s injury. We don’t have nearly enough footage of him recently in comparison to other fighters to really say who is better right now. Rampage Jackson had two fights, Chuck Liddell had one, Wanderlei Silva had two, Rashad Evans had two, and GSP had two. Unlike a sport like basketball or baseball where we see tons of games, we see them once or twice in a year, and most of what they do goes on in private training camps.
We hear reports, but they are unreliable, but the report that Cain Velasquez reportedly gave Machida problems in camp is the kind of story that makes the rankings discussion so frustrating. If true it is a great sign of his talent, but we don’t know if it’s true, and if we dismiss any training stories then we dismiss the vast majority of fighting that these guys do. Frankly, how can one tell if Heath Herring should be ranked above Cain Velasquez if they don’t fight? If you had to decide, knowing how they do in regular sparring sessions with other fighters would really be quite helpful, especially considering how hard these guys spar. But we don’t know, and we’re therefore missing a crucial bit of information.
3) Most top fighters don’t fight each other: In MMA Weekly’s current top 10 list at 205 pounds, Lyoto Machida has fought exactly one guy there, and it’s a guy I don’t think has any business being considered one of the 10 best fighters in the world.
This is completely different from a sport like baseball or basketball where teams play each other multiple times in a season. We simply do not have the proper information to rank these fighters. Most have not fought each other, let alone multiple times. Any attempt to rank one over another is either based on subjective conjecture or finding reasons to boost certain wins or discount certain losses. In other words, it’s completely subjective, which is why threads about this stuff go on for 30 pages.
4) Fractured nature of the industry: This is similar to the last point, but the performance of some Pride fighters in the UFC makes old rankings look even more silly. Rampage was completely discounted as over the hill after his fall in Pride, but he has performed very well in the UFC. Anderson Silva has also done incredibly well. On the other hand, Mirko and Shogun looked terrible. The fact that they were fighting different people in a different environment made good rankings completely impossible. Prior to his loss to Gabe, any suggestion that Randy Couture should be above Mirko would have been greeted with claims that the person that suggested it is an idiot.
Fedor is outside of the UFC. How can we really compare him to Randy Couture in terms of ranking? I guess we can compare their performances against a common opponent, Tim Sylvia. This is where the frustration starts. One person points out the fast manner Fedor dropped Sylvia in, then another points out that Randy did the same and just wasn’t able to get the choke. Then the original person points out that is the difference between them, but then someone else raises the point that winning is really all that counts and Randy dominated Tim in his own fashion, seeing as he’s not a choke specialist.
At this point the argument descends into about ten thousand distinctions, with each party bringing up past performances, discounting poor ones and focusing on ones that help their point. By the time the analysis is done each side has made a bunch of easily-contradictable points that go on in a vicious circle that goes on until everyone just gets exhausted. Try Kevin Randleman as a common opponent and compare their performances and you get even more of a headache.
Rankings make for fun MMA discussion for some, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I believe that given the points above attempts to rank fighters in linear fashion are pointless. Any list can be torn to shreds, and it’s easy because every ranking list lies on a set of easily-rebuttable presumptions. The better way to analyze the sport is on a fight by fight basis, looking at a fighter’s entire body of work, the stylistic issues, and recent performances in order to determine which fighter will win that specific fight. General rankings are an exercise in futility.
Disclaimer: I’m very aware we publish meta-rankings, which are an aggregate of the online MMA community’s rankings. I think they give a good idea of the general line of thought among hardcore fans as to where fighters stand relative to one another, but I don’t think the rankings tell us anything meaningful about the actual sport of MMA.
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