Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Rubik's Cube that is the UFC Rankings

When I was ten years old I asked my parents to let me take martial arts classes after I saw a Bruce Lee film and an amazing journey began for me.  My love for Martial Arts has grown over the years and led me to start watching Professional Mixed Martial Arts almost two decades ago.  I remember watching online replays of Bas Rutten Pancrase matches and Royce Grace vs Sakuraba PRIDE Superfight. I also watched the nights Vitor Belfort’s speed blitzkrieg of Wanderlei Silva and Tank Abbott, when Rich Franklin defeated Evan Tanner to become the UFC Middleweight champion, and the amazing technical war between Cung Le and Frank Shamrock in Strikeforce. 

I have been allowed the privilege, thanks to my many years in the radio industry and background in MMA, to cover several Bellator and UFC events.  I have seen the sport grow from a misunderstood “combat sport” to one of the top five highest grossing professional sports in the world.  But along the way a lot has changed, for better and for worse.  The “better” is what gets frequently publicized such as major sponsorship dollars MMA athletes have in today’s world and the mainstream acceptance of MMA.  That acceptance, thanks to fighters like Ronda Rousey, Randy Couture, and Ken Shamrock, paved the way for MMA fighters to crossover into the Television and movie industries.  The major television contracts that the UFC has with FOX, Bellator has with Viacom (Spike, CBS Sports), and World Series of Fighting with NBC Sports has put MMA on television on a weekly basis.

One common thread is that the UFC is the king of professional MMA world, where the most of the best fighters on the planet compete.  The UFC led the way in the 1990’s and helped bridge the gap to bring MMA into mainstream sports conversation.  But the UFC also has made promises to the casual and hardcore MMA fan bases that have loosely been kept.  When the UFC took over MMA organizations PRIDE, WEC, and Strikeforce, the plan was for those organizations to keep going forward and there to be crossover fights.  In each case the UFC slowly absorbed fighters into their own ranks and then dissolve the organizational structure, ending their existence. 

In 2015 the UFC is again giving something that frustrates fans and media alike, whether most of them are willing to admit it or not.  On the UFC’s website there are weight class rankings, allowing fans and media alike to have a gauge of where different fighters stand in relation to potential to championship matchups according to them.  Yet we have seen numerous times the UFC neglect their own rankings and put together fight cards headlined by title fights most people did not expect.

UFC Welterweight Champion Robbie Lawler is set to face Carlos Condit in November even though Condit has a record of 2-2 since his title fight loss to George St. Pierre in 2012.  Condit, the former WEC Welterweight Champion, is currently ranked 4th in the UFC rankings, so he leap frogged three men for his title shot.  Meanwhile Johnny Hendricks (number one contender ranking) and Tyron Woodley (number 3 ranked Welterweight) are facing off in October at UFC 192.  Both men have previously defeated Condit while also having better overall records over the last few years.  Woodley has a 5-2 record since arriving in the UFC in 2013, with his only losses coming via judges’ decision.  Hendricks has 3-2 record over the same time period, his only losses coming via controversial split judges’ decisions.  Yet the UFC chose Carlos Condit for the title shot despite him being ranked behind Hendricks and Woodley.

Another example of mixed messages from the UFC is with the evolving conundrum of the UFC Women’s Strawweight division.  Current Women’s 115 lb. champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk is set to face Valérie Létourneau at UFC 193 in November, yet Letourneau is the number 10 ranked fighter in the division according to UFC rankings.  Letourneau is leap frogging Claudia Gadelha (number one contender in the division), Carla Esparza (former champion and number two ranked in division) and Tecia Torres (number 5 ranked fighter and undefeated in her pro career).  Both Gadehla and Esparza are out of action due to injuries so many people expected Torres would be next in line to fight for the belt.  Instead Torres is scheduled to fight Michelle Waterson next; Waterson is the former Invicta FC Atomweight Champion.  Meanwhile on her way to a title shot Letourneau has a 3-0 record in the UFC, all victories over women who are currently not ranked in the UFC’s top fifteen for the weight class.

The reality is the UFC is an organization that signed multiple big money media contracts at a time when they MMA landscape was very different.  A few years ago the UFC’s biggest stars were Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, and George St. Pierre.  Whether people were fans or haters, they tuned in every fight to watch these men either win or lose.  The UFC was also building the brand of Cain Velasquez, Frankie Edgar and Anthony Pettis after their famous championship winning fights.  In recent years since UFC signed media and sponsorship deals grossing the organization billions of dollars here’s what has happened to their stars:

-Jon Jones is currently suspended indefinitely due to his legal problems after a Hit and Run accident; he has been stripped of his title.

-Anderson Silva lost his title for Chris Weidman and since then tested positive for steroids after his fight with Nick Diaz.

-George St. Pierre retired after his controversial win over Johnny Hendricks in 2012; St. Pierre has stated he is not coming back anytime soon.

-Cain Velasquez has won, lost, won again, and lost again his Heavyweight title all while dealing with injuries.

-Frankie Edgar lost his UFC Lightweight Title in 2012 and has moved down to the Featherweight division where is working towards another title shot.

-Anthony Pettis lost his title in 2015 to Rafael Dos Anjos months after being a featured athlete on Wheaties boxes.

In 2015 the UFC is attempting to bank their marketing power around three current champions:

-Ronda Rousey, A woman who has said she will retire by 2017 and wants to spend more time pursuing an acting career.

-Chris Weidman, A talented fighter from New York whose coach is former UFC champion Matt Serra.

-Connor McGregor, A brash Irishman coming from a boxing background who just recently won the Interim UFC Featherweight title.

So with this shortened list of marque marketable fighters, why is the UFC insisting on putting together title fights that conflict with their own rankings?  The whole point of having these rankings published and updated almost weekly is to attract more fans interest in upcoming fight cards. 

One of the UFC’s biggest media deals is with Brazil’s Globo and is potentially in jeopardy due to poor TV ratings.  It does not help that three years ago there were several Brazilian UFC champions and title contenders.  In 2015 only two Brazilians hold UFC titles, one being Jose Aldo who has been dealing with injuries.  The other is Fabricio Werdum who is not even in the top five list of most popular MMA fighters in Brazil.

Certainly it is perplexing the UFC’s reasoning for many of their recent fighter matchups.  The truth is that the UFC needs the MMA fans to continue their support for the king of MMA in order to maintain financial strength and media visibility.  Their current deal with Reebok is still unpopular in many MMA circles since it cut off many sponsors from the UFC arena and some fighter’s lifelines.  There is nothing wrong with calculated risks, but only time will tell if this Rubik’s cube the UFC has placed in front of the media and fans will continue to produce results or if it will be tossed away due to the inability to be understood.

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