Why Ranking Fighters Hurts the UFC

Ranking Fighters
(Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The UFC system of ranking fighters is currently poisoning the entire promotion. This truth is inescapable when one looks at the state of the UFC’s lightweight division: Dustin Poirier, Al Iaquinta and Tony Ferguson are all waiting on a title shot. All three have been fairly adamant that they won’t take another fight without an opportunity.  Poirier and Iaquinta have gone as far as to call for release from their contracts this week.

The Problem

Poirier, Iaquinta, and Ferguson are ranked three, four, and one in the division. Each believes they have the best case for a fight with current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.  Yet Nurmagomedov insists he won’t be fighting until November. Consequently, the top of the division is in a state of perpetual flux.  Complicating things further is that Nurmagomedov’s return bout is unlikely to be against any of these three fighters. Rather a financially lucrative rematch with Conor McGregor seems the most likely outcome if you believe the chatter from individuals close to Nurmagomedov.  At the moment there’s no easy way to see how the UFC extricates itself from this logjam.

While the UFC’s lightweight division is the most glaring example of the issues inherent with the rankings system, this is not likely to stay an isolated issue.  At the core of the problem is how the rankings are determined: they are voted on by select members of the MMA media. Fighters are generally ranked based on their most recent performance. On the other hand, fighters that lose tend to pay the price as the voters pay little mind to their body of work or past performance.

This kind of volatility discourages fighters from taking risky fights against lesser ranked opponents. For instance, Poirier and Iaquinta are currently as close to title shots as they may ever be. Both would rather wait for a big money title fight than face off with someone lower ranked (cough…Gregor Gillespie…cough). The result of this methodology is what we’re currently seeing: a division that grinds to a halt when multiple fighters have strong claims for a title fight.

Some Potential Fixes

There are three options that come to mind when figuring out how to remedy this situation:

  • Point-Based Ranking. In this scenario, the UFC would rank fighters by a point system. Awarding points based on the quality of their victories.  These points would atrophy over time, thus forcing fighters to stay active to maintain ranking.
  • A Bellator-Style Grand Prix Tournament. Every couple of years, the top 8 ranked fighters would get thrown into a year-long grand prix with the winner being named champion.
  • Eliminate Rankings. The UFC could eliminate rankings altogether. This would simplify the issue and allow title shots to be given out strictly based on body of work. This would dramatically reduce the controversy around whose next.

While it’s unlikely that the UFC embraces any of these options, they’re truly the best ways to clear up messes like the one that currently exists at lightweight.  Continuing in a holding pattern where the sport’s best stars are inactive is bad for the UFC, fans, and athletes alike.  But until the UFC substantively changes the ranking system, one thing is certain: the more a given fighter wins, the less they’ll fight.

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