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MMA Rankings Manifesto

By on March 30, 2011

Rankings are a strange thing. People love to make them, love to read them, love to argue about them. Do they really mean anything? No. However, that doesn’t keep the debates from raging on. I think that although rankings are a little silly by nature, it’s important to at least give people an idea as to how you make your rankings. Sure, most people won’t bother to read your reasoning, but at least you can point to it when they want to debate why you ranked Fighter A over Fighter B. There’s also something to be said for putting everything out into the open for discussion.

That being said, here’s my MMA rankings manifesto of sorts. You may not agree with how I do my rankings, and that’s fine. However, I hope you’ll find that my rankings make more sense if you understand the way in which I do them. Here’s what goes through my head when I think about ranking fighters.

Rankings can never really be objective

I’ve heard plenty of MMA writers– respected ones, writers whose work I admire– who struggle from time to time to put together their rankings because they’re trying so hard to be as objective as possible. It works out fine when you’re deciding whether Jon Fitch should be above Thiago Alves, but not so well when you run into tightly-grouped clusters of fighters who have beaten and lost to one another, leaving you with no real way to make sense of it all based purely on results.

This kind of issue exposes the folly of trying to make your rankings “objective”. Rankings are by their very nature a subjective thing. You may disagree, but eventually you’ll be put in a conundrum where Rampage Jackson beat Lyoto Machida, but lost to Rashad Evans, who in turn lost to Machida. You can’t rank that objectively. You have to think for yourself about who’s the best fighter.

Here’s the thing: rankings shouldn’t be objective, anyway? Who wants to read a numbered list that simply shows you who has beaten who? Anyone can write that. Rankings should have a healthy dose of interpretation, opinion and even a predictive element. I may sometimes place fighters higher than other writers would because I feel that they are better than they have had the chance to prove. In those cases, I expect the fighter to “earn” that spot in the future. Now, I don’t do this in too extreme a manner, but I do sometimes do it. I think it makes my rankings my own, instead of looking like everyone else’s. If your rankings don’t represent your opinion, what’s the point of doing them?

Okay, so how do you decide who is the best fighter?

So, we’ve determined that rankings should be about who the best fighter is, and not necessarily always who has the best resume or record. How in the world do you determine who the best fighter is?

This is where subjectivity comes in. It’s all up to the person, and I may think a fighter is better than what you think. In general, though, I try to look at it like this: how many fighters on this list could the fighter beat or be expected to beat? How many would he have serious problems matching up with? Fighters like Shinya Aoki take a serious dive in my rankings after being exposed the way that he was against Gilbert Melendez. Why? Because that fight made it clear that Aoki has most of his eggs in one basket and has serious trouble with anyone who has solid standup and great wrestling. There are a lot of lightweights, particularly in the UFC, who meet that description.

Believe what you see, not what shows up on Fight Finder

Anyone could look up fighters on’s Fight Finder and throw together some respectable looking rankings. If I’m going to do that, though, why watch all these fights? Why think about how one fighter would fare against another? I’ve already established that there’s no way to be completely objective in terms of ranking fighters, but certainly the results of the actual fights should dictate where fighters end up, right?

I remember when Matt Serra upset Georges St. Pierre at UFC 69, and a few well-respected websites immediately bumped Serra to the top spot in the welterweight division. Serra beat the top guy, so he becomes the top guy, right? It’s objective! It has to happen! At the time, I thought it was a farce, and I still do. What happened? Serra lost to St. Pierre in the rematch, lost to Matt Hughes in a close fight, then lost to Chris Lytle two fights later.

Now, Serra is a very good fighter and was a top 25 welterweight for most of his career thus far, but did anybody really believe that he was the best welterweight on the planet after beating GSP? What’s the point of ranking him there when nobody really felt he was the best, and he’s not going to hold the spot for long? This exposes the fallacy of letting fight results determine your rankings.

Another good example would be what happens in the case of a dubious decision. Should Sean Sherk have moved up past Evan Dunham when Sherk was handed a horrible decision over Dunham? Not in my opinion. I trust my own two eyes more than what the judges have to say. I judge fighters by the entirety of their careers, especially their most recent fights, not just by one performance or by how the judges saw a particular fight.

Again, once you have determined that you can’t just let the fight results and records determine your rankings for you, it’s just another small step to realize that the more you determine your rankings based on your own evaluations of how well fighters can perform, the better off you’ll be and the more interesting your rankings will be.

That’s not to say results don’t matter

Hey, don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not some kind of MMA heretic that’s going to tell you that the actual fights don’t matter or that continually putting on better-than-expected performances shouldn’t bump you up the rankings. I do take into account what happens in the cage or ring and I do bump fighters up or drop them down on occasion based up on their performances, even if I don’t expect them to perform at that level for long or if I feel that the performance may have been an aberration.

The key, in my opinion, is finding the proper blend of using what you see on paper and what you’ve observed with your eyes and processed with your head. I tend to favor my own subjective evaluations; other writers sometimes prefer to only resort to their opinions when the results or records cause a conflict that can’t be resolved by objective means. Whatever floats your boat. Let’s face it, it’s all imaginary journalist bullshit anyway.

*Sigh* And what about pound-for-pound rankings?

Let’s get it out of the way: pound-for-pound rankings are pretty stupid. If regular rankings mean very little, pound-for-pound rankings mean nothing whatsoever. I mean, rankings based upon what would happen in an imaginary world where the best heavyweight could face the best featherweight without any kind of size advantage? If regular rankings are imaginary journalist bullshit (and they are), pound-for-pound rankings are straight-up delusional.

And yet, I do them. Why? Well, I’ll admit it: they’re expected. They provide some of the best debates because the arguments involved can never be proven one way or another. Furthermore, I do think that you can often clearly define the top 3 or 4 spots of the pound-for-pound rankings. I’m extremely sure, for example, that at the time of this writing in March, 2011, Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva are the two best fighters on the planet. Where you rank them is up for debate, of course.

Once you get past the first few spots, though, shit just gets ridiculous. Then it seems to be all about tossing the top one or two fighters from every division in there somewhere, with no real meaning to be had from the process. Plus, so many people equate “pound-for-pound” with certain attributes, such as speed and technical skill. Strong fighters or those with overpowering styles can’t be pound-for-pound greats, right? A wrestler like Chael Sonnen or Jon Fitch is not the type of pound-for-pound fighter that a submission artist or quick striker is, right? And God forbid that a heavyweight who weighs over 240 pounds makes the list!

Point being: I’ll argue the top few spots of the pound-for-pound rankings until I’m blue in the face. Past that, though, you could put any of a dozen fighters in any conceivable order and what would be the difference? Is Rashad Evans a better pound-for-pound fighter than Joe Benavidez? Who knows? Who cares?

So, there you have it. Hopefully, dear reader, you’ll take the time to at least skim this before sending me hate mail or lengthy rebuttals to my rankings. I don’t mind if you disagree, as long as you know the philosophy that guides my choices.

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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