Joseph Benavidez, Dominick Cruz, Max Holloway, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Stephen Thompson, Yoel Romero, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, Fabricio Werdum, Claudia Gadelha and Valentina Shevchenko.
What do these fighters have in common, besides the fact that they all compete in the UFC?
Well, they’re all ranked as the top contenders in their respective divisions. But how many of these top contenders are actually getting a title shot anytime soon?
Of the people on that list, only Thompson currently has a title fight scheduled. He will have his rematch against welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 209 in March. Rumble was supposed to face light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 206 late last year, but the bout was postponed after Cormier suffered an injury. Holloway won the interim featherweight title at UFC 206 and is supposed to face current featherweight champion José Aldo at some point. Maybe. Eventually.
However, out of the UFC’s 10 weight classes, only one knows for sure who its top contender is. Which begs the question: why have rankings at all?
To be fair, these rankings were last updated on Jan. 2. So it’s possible that those who vote on them will change their minds and shake things up. But for further proof that the rankings have little, if any, meaning, consider that fighters are increasingly finding out that they do have a voice and can try to exercise more control over their careers.
Thanks to the rise of UFC lightweight champion and former featherweight titleholder Conor McGregor, and his ability to make a lot of money through competing in “super fights” with the likes of Nate Diaz and Eddie Alvarez, it appears that other UFC fighters are trying to get in on the action and finally use their voice.
UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes wants to be like McGregor and try to win two belts by facing the winner of the inaugural UFC women’s featherweight title fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie. Woodley and UFC middleweight champ Michael Bisping seemed to recently agree, at least verbally, to fight each other. Before T.J. Dillashaw was named his first opponent, UFC bantamweight kingpin Cody Garbrandt called out both Aldo and McGregor.
Will any of these fights come to fruition? Probably not. But given that fighters seem to be more vocal about the course of their careers, it stands to reason the UFC’s fighter “rankings” are little more than window dressing based on a completely subjective criteria that likely comes directly from UFC President Dana White and company.
So, how would the UFC determine title contenders, if not for its rankings? Well, the company seems to have been doing that already. Garbrandt wasn’t the No. 1-ranked bantamweight going into his title fight against Cruz at UFC 207. Other fighters have received title shots while not being the No. 1-ranked fighter in their division. Remember when Holm shocked the world and upset Ronda Rousey for the bantamweight title in 2015? At the time, Holm was ranked No. 10.
Instead of relying on arbitrary rankings and meaningless “interim” titles to determine contenders, the UFC brass should just go by what they see. A perfect example is Tony Ferguson. He’s scheduled to face the aforementioned Nurmagomedov in an interim (there’s that word again!) lightweight title fight at UFC 209, with the winner presumably facing McGregor for the actual lightweight title.
However, Ferguson should have received a title shot a long time ago. He’s won nine fights in a row, with six victories coming via finish. While Nurmagomedov is undefeated, he’s only fought twice since 2014 while battling multiple injuries, and it remains to be seen if he can hang with some of the elite fighters in the UFC’s deepest division.
Given McGregor’s desire to only compete in “big” fights against other “big” names, it’s unknown if he has any interest to actually face the winner of the fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, even though both fighters present unique challenges and interesting match-ups for “The Notorious.”
The UFC’s rankings and recent love affair with handing out interim titles smacks of little more than public relations to gin up interest among a mainstream public that the organization is still trying to reach. But instead of taking cues from its fellow combat sport, boxing, and introducing so many titles that it threatens to dilute the product, the UFC should put its rankings on the sideline and rely on an axiom that is tried and true — to just go by what they see.