A Change in Approach is Needed: Thoughts on Rankings and Prospects

A Change in Approach is Needed: Thoughts on Rankings and Prospects

This one has been percolating in my head for a while now and instead of crafting it all smooth and trying to lay everything out crisp and clean, I want to just get my thoughts on the subject out there as they run through my head.

We talk a lot about rankings in this sport – how they currently feel fraudulent and fictitious, how they could be very important and influential and what needs to happen in order to make the shift from the former to the latter. It’s all legit too; rankings don’t really carry that much weight right now and they do feel like a missed opportunity in many ways, at least to me.

But when I think about rankings and how I would lay them out, how I would make use of them, it goes beyond just the divisional hierarchies and a Top 10 list that lays out the top contenders in each weight class. It’s not just a matter of throwing the most familiar names and the “of the moment” fighters into some kind of order. I think about things like strength of schedule and try not to get caught up in who just had an electric performance and has everyone buzzing right now because those names change every week and I don’t think rankings should be a revolving door, even if we’re only talking about the bottom few spots.

It’s a difficult process because prior success plays a huge factor in trying to figure out where to position these athletes and try as we might, our impressions about their level of talent and star power undoubtedly creep into our minds as we’re debating positions as well. Competitors we know and like and respect and appreciate get the benefit of the doubt while lesser known athletes who haven’t put in as much time or don’t have the same resonance with fans get the short end of the stick.

It sucks, but it happens.

If we want rankings to really have value, we have to do our best to set aside those biases and influences and just focus exclusively on performances, accepting that some wins are going to look better with time and others will become less impressive.

For example: Dong Hyun Kim currently sits at No. 14 in the latest edition of the UFC Fighter Rankings. I know they’re not great, but they’re the easiest example to use.

The 36-year-old hasn’t won a fight since last December when he edged out Tarec Saffiedine, who is currently on a three-fight skid and is 2-4 since moving to the UFC. While he’s 13-4 with 1 NC inside the Octagon, he’s 4-2 in the last three years, losing to Colby Covington and Tyron Woodley while getting the better of Saffiedine, Dom Waters, Joshua Burkman and John Hathaway.

All of his losses in the UFC have come against legit competition and he’s beaten a few familiar names over the years as well – Matt Brown, Nate Diaz, Paulo Thiago, Erick Silva – but at what point do we stop looking at the whole of his resume and focus in on the here and now when determining if Kim is still a Top 15 welterweight?

What has Kim done in the last couple years that earned him that position while someone like Leon “Rocky Edwards is on the outside looking in? While Kim has been so-so, Edwards has collected four straight victories, starting with a win over Waters, followed by victories over Albert Tumenov, Vicente Luque (who has been really good of late as well) and Bryan Barberena.

For me, Edwards is far more deserving of a place in the rankings, but gets bumped in favour of Kim because the South Korean veteran is a more familiar name with more name-brand opponents on his resume and a longer history in the Octagon, though very little of that matters in the moment. Right now, Edwards in the better fighter to me and we should be ranking the best fighters right now because if we’re not, we’re stuck playing catch-up when guys like Edwards keep winning and start knocking off bigger names.

That leads me to the next piece of this, which is that we need to widen our focus and broaden our horizons when it comes to discussing up-and-coming fighters.

Edwards remains a perfect example.

Here’s a 26-year-old who is 6-2 overall in the UFC, on a four-fight winning streak and won six of his last seven after dropping his debut, with his lone setback coming against Kamaru Usman, who is on a 10-fight winning streak with a 6-0 mark in the Octagon and is on the come-up in the 170-pound ranks.

He’s beaten solid competition, including a guy who was once a critical darling (Tumenov), an emerging finisher (Luque) and a perennial tough out (Barberena), and yet no one is talking about him.

On the flip side, Mike Perry gets more press than most in the welterweight division because he’s a combustible, outrageous personality who has collected a few highlight reel wins over middling competition. His finish of Jake Ellenberger in April was violent, but beating Ellenberger in 2017 doesn’t mean nearly as much as it did between 2010 and 2013 or 2014.

Perry is 4-1 in the UFC with a pair of finishes on either side of a decision loss to Alan Jouban, the one proven, steady opponent he’s faced in the Octagon thus far. He’s facing surging Argentine Santiago Ponzinibbio Saturday night in Winnipeg on FOX and talked about like a potential player in the welterweight division when for me, he’s nothing more than a slightly unhinged brawler who still hasn’t proven to me that he can beat anyone of real substance, unlike the soft-spoken, more tested Edwards.

For me, this extends to debuts and emerging prospects as well.

When someone from a big camp that we’ve heard good things about from reliable sources debuts in the UFC, we’re often quick to turn a spotlight on them and tell everyone to pay attention.

Everyone from the “Iron Army” was raving about Zabit Magomedsharipov (rightfully so) and so we were quick to make sure everyone knew to check for this dude even though his debut and sophomore efforts came on Fight Pass cards that usually get panned and left for dead.

But Volkan Oezdemir somehow still caught people off guard when he trucked Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa even though he edged out a legit Top 10 talent in Ovince Saint Preux in his debut.

Or they had issue with Kevin Lee being slotted into the main event against Michael Chiesa in Oklahoma City even though “The MoTown Phenom” had won four straight and looked really damn good in the process.

Or they still haven’t said much about Shane Burgos or Gregor Gillespie or Cody Stamann or countless others.

It’s why a year before they ascended to the throne in the their respective divisions, Max Holloway and Robert Whittaker were fringe considerations in the title discussions even though they’d been putting in work and putting up strong performances.

To me, it should be like Major League Baseball where the diehards are talking about the Top 100 prospects every year and are tracking the progression of their favourite team’s top youngsters through every level.

I knew about Mike Trout and Byron Buxton and Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger before they hit the majors and turned into superstars because baseball people talk about emerging talent long before they reach the highest levels. Sure, some guys still sneak through and come out of nowhere every year, but for the most part, you can look two, three, four years down the road and pick out 10, 12, 15 guys with elite potential to watch knowing there is a pretty good chance a half dozen of them are going to come through.

We don’t do that in MMA – at least not to the same degree.

There are certainly some journalists who invest a lot of time and energy talking with and spotlighting prospects and regional talent, but we don’t have the same kind of “keep your eyes on this guy” conversations about fighters as they’re working their way to the highest levels in the sport or even beginning their careers in places like the UFC or Bellator or ONE as they do in many other sports and I think MMA suffers as a result.

Yes, the sheer volume of fight cards makes it difficult to pay attention to everyone, but there are 162 MLB games a season and multiple tiers in the minor league system and just about everyone who identifies themselves as a moderate Yankees fan or above can tell you how terrific it was that they didn’t have to give up one of their Top 3 prospects in the deal that landed them Giancarlo Stanton last week.

But how many MMA heads could tell you much about Andre Harrison right now or were aware of Aspen Ladd before she landed in the Octagon?

If we’re going to hype the hell out of Mackenzie Dern (understandably), we should also be hyping Aga Niedzwiedz, who lost a close fight for the flyweight title in the main event of the same Invicta FC event Dern was on last weekend.

Rather than picking and choosing a few prospect to talk about at select times, we need to be checking for the next wave of talent destined to land on the biggest stages well in advance of their arrival because that’s the only way they can potentially hit the ground running and start getting the attention they deserve right out of the chute.

And that folds back into the rankings idea because if we’re talking about more than just the established names and newcomers are getting air time and acknowledgement, guys like Edwards or Oezdemir or Gillespie or Burgos aren’t stuck needing to win three, four, five fights or more before they even become a blip on the radar and start getting a little shine.

I know it’s hard for everyone to pay attention to everything at all times – there are far too many events and we all have lives outside of our MMA fandom – but these are the steps we need to take in order for the sport to progress to that next level.

Everyone seems to want to get to a point where rankings matter, where champions defend against top contenders and you can easily chart and track a competitor’s rise up the division ladder.

Well, this is how we get there.

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