UFC fight press conferences generally aren't known for the quality of the fielded questions. However, a recent presser threw up one hidden gem. One perspicacious chap asked UFC Grand Poobah Dana White if he (Dana) didn't think it was about time for the UFC to have a public and standardised ranking system. I eagerly anticipated Dana's answer, because I had been thinking the same thing.
Dana alas, flubbed his reply. But before I explain how White clearly didn't appreciate the import and thrust of the question, consider these recent events:
- Frankie Edgar just completed a rematch against Lightweight champ Ben Henderson, despite Dana White's (and much of the MMA community's) initial feeling that he didn't deserve one. How did he secure this? By calling up the boss and lobbying intensely. He squeaked, and he got the grease.
- Michael Bisping put on a bizzare public show in which he called Hector Lombard a 'poison dwarf', and proceeded to launch similar mockery against other members of his division. His goal? To raise his profile, and trash-talk his way into a lucrative title fight against Anderson Silva. After all, if it worked for Chael Sonnen....
- Chael Sonnen, the Dean, Don and Doyen of trash-talk, fired a shot across the bow of Light-Heavyweight champion Jon Jones, soon after it was announced that Sonnen would be fighting Forrest Griffin in said division. The objective of the ploy was obvious: build interest for an eventual (lucrative) fight between himself and Jon Jones.
- Dana White promised that the winner of the recent Shogun Rua/Brandon Vera bout would win a title shot against Jon Jones. Following a lamentation of protest amongst the MMArati, he backtracked and decreed that the winner of the Machida/Bader battle would also qualify, depending on which winner won most impressively. His rationale for this volte-face? To please us, the fans.
- Middleweight Champion and Megastar Anderson Silva and his management have been imperiously dismissing potential challengers as not being worthy of his time. He apparently won't get out of bed to fight anyone without the star power to to generate a seven-figure payday.
Considered alone, each of these events is hardly more remarkable than the run of usual MMA news. Taken together (along with many other recent events I omitted for brevity), they paint a very unflattering picture of how the UFC makes fights. The impression is of a system that is unprofessionally arbitrary, opaque and driven by Dana White's whims, a fighter's lobbying power, fan revolts, crass commercialism (ahem, GSP vs. Spider), and a fighter's trash-talking nous.
This is unacceptable for an organisation that has been endowed with the leadership position in making MMA a global, professional sport. In order to gain credibility, attract new athletes into the sport, and keep existing fighters motivated, the UFC must follow the lead of other global sports organisations in creating a transparent, standardized, objective and meritocratic policy for matching up fighters, and enabling them climb the ladder towards a title shot.
Consider best practise elsewhere. In the PGA, your rankings are determined by the golf tournaments you play in, and your performance in them. Your ranking in turn determines your selection for certain tournaments. In tennis, the ITF/ATP has a seeding system that ranks and matches players based on their performance and winning records. In matchmaking, Serena Williams does not call out Maria Sharapova on Twitter, and Andy Murray does not threaten to slap Roger Federer's wife on the butt in order to build fan interest.
During Olympic athletics, we did not see Usain Bolt imperiously tell the officials that he did not deem Heat 3 worthy of his time, and instead would only run in Heat 5. He ran where the seeding system decreed he ran. The finals were not determined by fan revolts on Twitter, but by objective, professional rankings and a structured and transparent tournament qualification system. In Judo, the IJF has an objective, structured sytem for ranking professional Judoka. In U.S. basketball, the NBA Conference system is a structured way for teams to progress towards the championship.
There is however, another sport that is driven not by a professional and structured ranking sytem, but by the whims of promoters, considerations of which super-fights will make the most money, and horse-trading between the athletes' management teams. That sport of course, is Boxing. And this unprofessionalism is a large part of why it is dying a slow, unlamented death. In its heydey, boxing had proper rankings and a Contender system. Now, as Sugar Ray Leonard recently lamented, nobody talks about contenders in boxing anymore.
So back to Dana White's response to the question. He replied that the only way to know who is a better fighter is for them to fight. This showed that Uncle Dana alas missed the point. What the UFC needs from a ranking system is NOT a way to rank the fighters by 'who is better' (that exercise is fun but useless, and should be left to bloggers and fans). It needs a scientific ranking system for the purpose of properly matching up fighters, and giving them a transparent, meritocratic and structured way to climb up the ladder to a championship shot.
The UFC is not a scrappy startup anymore. If it wants to grow up, it needs more policies, structure and professionalism, and less reliance on the boss's whims, fan preferences, or fighter demands. The current system makes MMA seem too much like boxing for comfort. And we all know where that road leads.