Posted 10/29/2013 by Marlene Taborda in Untethered MMA

Scattered Thoughts on MMA Rankings

By Mike Fagan, October 29th, 2013

The UFC, as is the custom these days, released their latest official rankings following UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Munoz. I’ve taken the red pill and followed the theory rabbit down the MMA rankings hole and won’t you join me and my thoughts because I think this may lead to mental paralysis on my own, thanks.

-The latest rankings include the following items:

1. Undefeated Chris Weidman finds himself behind not-undefeated Anthony Pettis in the pound-for-pound rankings. In his last fight, Weidman beat former-number-one Anderson Silva, who still sits in the four spot.

2. Jake Shields is the eighth-best welterweight in the world. That’s three spots behind the guy he just beat, Demian Maia.

3. Lyoto Machida debuted on the middleweight rankings at number five. Lyoto Machida maintained a spot on the light heavyweight rankings at ten.

At best, these are the result of an undefined criteria. At worst, these are the result of systemic poor, flawed, biased thinking.

-Speaking of criteria, here’s what the UFC website provides:

Rankings were generated by a voting panel made up of media members. The media members were asked to vote for who they feel are the top fighters in the UFC by weight-class and pound-for-pound. A fighter is only eligible to be voted on if they are in active status in the UFC. A fighter can appear in more than one weight division at a time. The champion and interim champion are considered to be in the top positions of their respective divisions and therefore are not eligible for voting by weight-class. However, the champions can be voted on for the pound-for-pound rankings. Rankings will be updated approximately 36 hours after each event.

You get the who, where, and when, but no how. Or no know-how. Hahaha.

-At its core, rankings are an attempt to create an ordered list on a limited/incomplete data set. Baseball and basketball, for instance, don’t need independent panelists. They have standings. Standings are 100%-objective (but not 100% perfect) rankings. They work well given baseball’s long season and basketball low-variance. Standings aren’t perfect for football’s high-variance, short-season. That’s why college football has polls. It’s also why the unbalanced divisional schedule works for the NFL. You only play a subset of the NFL, but you play the plurality of your games against division opponents to earn your way into the postseason.

MMA is high-variance. It doesn’t have a season or a set schedule. It maybe doesn’t NEED rankings – you could promote the sport without them – but they certainly help organize the chaos.

-Predictive rankings: based on forecasting future/hypothetical matchups, fights, games, etc. Power rankings. Fightlinker’s “who would defeat Zorgon the Wet for the fate of the Earth.”

Descriptive rankings: based on accomplishments, abilities. SBN’s meta-rankings. Top 100 Hairstyles in MMA.

-Both methods are valid in a vacuum, but official rankings need to be descriptive/accomplishment-based. Official rankings serve some purpose and effect on matchmaking, title shots, contract negotiations, sponsorship, fan perspective, etc. How much? That’s up for debate. The UFC’s willingness to cut their own top-ten fighters certainly sends a message. These official rankings aren’t in a vacuum, though, and you can’t base them on what happens in your fantasy world.

-Up until, well, yesterday, I believed the best/most optimal descriptive rankings took only wins and losses into account. That eliminates a lot of noise/subjectivity. For instance, maybe Lyoto Machida should have won a decision over Phil Davis. If we just look at results, though, we remove a lot of guesswork and subjectivity from the panelist.

I got to thinking though. In a broader sense and with some exceptions, I believe the more data available the better. Even if we do not disregard the official result, we know the Davis-Machida fight was close and competitive decision. We also know that Machida-Munoz was a dominant finish. Intuitively, we should value these things differently.

Taken further, is it wrong or invalid to take context into consideration? Phil Davis won on all three judges’ cards. He lost on every media card. Perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the result, but perhaps we shouldn’t “punish” the “losing” fighter?

Or perhaps it is OK to ignore the end result of the trial, but not the trial itself. If a panelist believes Machida beat Davis, why should the opinion of two or more men or women sitting cageside rob him or her of that?

-This could lead us down a slippery slope where we end up saying, “Well, however you want to do it is just fine by me!” That leads to the predicament we find the current UFC rankings in.

We want to allow for differences in values and judgement without allowing a Wild West atmosphere. We also want to narrow focus without forcing everyone to turn in the same ballots.

Let’s take a look at how The Ring Magazine does things:

RATINGS POLICY The criteria by which THE RING rates fighters is as follows (in order of importance):

1. Results. This is the most objective criterion and takes precedence over all others.

2. Performance. How a fighter performs in a victory or defeat can be a factor to determine his place in the ratings.

3. Track record: A fighter’s accomplishments in the recent past can be a factor to determine his place in the ratings. That includes quality of opposition.

THE RING Ratings are compiled by the magazine’s Editorial Board, with the participation of THE RING Ratings Panel of boxing journalists from around the world. To see the complete list of our panelists, click here.

This seems like a good start, no? Results take top precedence while allowing some room for interpretation.

Under these guidelines, it’s hard to understand ranking Maia over Shields. Maia is 3-1 at welterweight, with two solid wins over Rick Story and Dong Hyun Kim. He has what once might have been a great win over Jon Fitch, which looks less and less so in hindsight. In any case, it’s a solid resume. Shields is 4-2 (1 NC) in the UFC’s welterweight division. He hasn’t looked great in any of his wins, but his only losses come at the hands of champion Georges St-Pierre and top-ten guy Jake Ellenberger. Also a solid resume, except his includes beating Maia.


Mike Fagan is a weekly contributor to MMA Owl. He also hosts Untethered MMA every Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at, also available as a podcast via iTunes.




Marlene Taborda