This past Thursday, Bellator MMA President Scott Coker announced that – in the coming weeks – the promotion would be releasing its first edition of their own fighter rankings. I think I speak for a vast majority of MMA onlookers when I say nothing, but rather shrug my shoulders instead. Bellator has rankings now? OK. That’s… fine, or whatever.
The pervasive indifference to the announcement isn’t necessarily surprising. Even for people who have long found entertainment, intrigue or even education in MMA top-10 rankings, it’s safe to say that internal promotional rankings never quite have the same impact or relevance. Theoretically, the concept is touted as making MMA companies more legitimate in a sporting sense, while offering transparency and forcing accountability on the promoter to create justifiable and cogent matchups that pit appropriately ranked fighters against one another. However, as we’ve seen over the last eight years with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s in-house rankings, virtually none of these things hold true.
To my mind, the relative uselessness of Bellator’s rankings is different from the pernicious nature of the UFC’s. Still, the headaches around the UFC system – since its introduction in February 2013 – illuminate many of the hallmark problems with any such undertaking. While the UFC initially hoped to have 90 panelists or so when their rankings debuted, they wound up with 28 ballot casters instead. In the subsequent months and years, nearly all of them opted out of the vote—until at one point in late 2019, there were only 14 voting members.
Last count had the panel at 22 members, before the UFC began actively concealing the names and publications of its voters, but even that seems to have hardly been an improvement. BloodyElbow contributor Trent Reinsmith has hit on many of the structural issues involved in past pieces for this site, which I encourage you to read if you’re curious how truly desperate, surreal and unsuitable the rankings committee has become. After eight years of this shoddy structure and nonsensical output, fans have become disillusioned and disenchanted with the concept and merely tolerate it as some sort of unnecessary-but-prevailing evil. Eight months ago, one panelist, MyMMANews’ Eric Kowal began releasing the promotion’s pre-event rankings ‘notes’—essentially showing that voting members were being presented with how to position fighters in the event of various outcomes without necessarily telling them outright how to vote. Despite how coercive the documents seemed, fans still couldn’t muster the will to care.
When the MMA world does find itself paying any mind to the UFC’s rankings, it’s only for the most irritating, lamentable and shady of the project’s outcomes. Those points when the company seemingly uses the rankings as leverage over their talent, as best illustrated over the last year and a half or so with welterweight standout Leon Edwards.
Edwards, ranked No. 3 in the UFC’s 170-pound rankings, hasn’t fought in 19 months since winning a handy unanimous decision over Rafael dos Anjos in July 2019. Part of that has been due to the promotional turmoil caused by COVID-19, but the larger and more crucial element is that Edwards has lobbied for a highly-ranked opponent that he feels could vault him into a title shot. He is 10-1 over the last six years or so, with his lone loss in that span coming to current UFC champion Kamaru Usman. While Edwards was open to fighting several of the promotion’s ranked fighters, the UFC were bullish on him facing breakout star Khamzat Chimaev—someone Edwards felt was undeserving of the high-profile bout, and placed him in a lose-lose scenario. When White & Co. couldn’t ink the bout, they arbitrarily removed Edwards from the rankings due to inactivity, for which the company has no firm guidelines. Finally, Edwards caved, and was immediately slotted back into its rankings at No. 3; the machinations of an insane, broken system, operating at its nefarious worst.
Bellator’s potential problems, as mentioned, would appear to be a bit different. The company has already done a decent job offering clear methodology and rules for fighter eligibility, including the mandate that a fighter have already fought for Bellator in their current contract cycle, are eligible to be ranked in multiple weight classes, and may be declared ineligible if they’re inactive for 15 months or face a non-medical suspension of longer than six months. Its panel is comprised of only 15 journalists who are, by and large, individuals who actively and actually cover the sport, many of whom have long histories in MMA journalism. These are certainly pros.
The real issue I see with Bellator rolling out rankings is that it’s a ‘solution’ to a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Due to the promotion’s lack of comparable depth at any given time, it’s typically clear who the next challenger on deck for a particular championship is. Fans seldom find reason to complain that Fighter X got a Bellator title shot over Fighter Y. The kind of dilemma that the UFC is presently facing with its lightweight division – and what step to take next if Khabib Nurmagomedov doesn’t reconsider his retirement – isn’t one that is Bellator is commonly, if ever, faced with.
On the flipside, are we really to believe that Bellator will hold hard and fast to using their rankings to consistently match ranked fighters with ranked fighters? If that was truly an earnest goal of the company and this is simply a codification and expression of that philosophy, why have we been subjected to the Michael “Venom” Page rehabilitation tour over his last four fights? Does anyone believe that the existence of a promotional ranking system would’ve seen ‘MVP’ take on consistent top-10 talent in the wake of getting dusted by Douglas Lima nearly two years ago?
It’s hard to imagine that the implementation of rankings will do anything to alter how Bellator utilizes its European talent, who are needed to help the company’s continued expansion efforts across the Atlantic, or do anything to change how slowly and steadily its fledgling prospects with amateur wrestling backgrounds are brought along via undercard bouts, even if they’re in a thin division.
More critically, I think it’s safe to say that in the present moment, the most interesting thing that Bellator is doing – both in terms of outright entertainment and adding unique flavor to its product – is its use of tournaments. Currently with the ongoing featherweight grand prix, and the forthcoming light heavyweight bracket. Given what a staple these tournaments have once again become for Bellator, on the surface, it would seem logical that going forward that the promotion would use its rankings to select fighters for those GP events. Or perhaps even use the rankings to seed the athletes in the bracket. In practice, however, I think this would be a terrible idea.
Take for instance the forthcoming 205-pound tournament: if Bellator utilized this system, it would immediately disqualify recent free agent signings Yoel Romero and Anthony Johnson, whose presences are the most interesting and enticing component of the whole endeavor. There’s a reason why, during its heyday, Pride Fighting Championships never used an actual firm bracket for its grand prix events—and often relied on the highly dubious ‘fan voting’ to determine semifinals pairings. Or why Bellator was clever to put champion Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire and undefeated future star A.J. McKee on opposite sides of its 145-pound bracket. While tournaments might be unpredictable, promoters still want some ability to architect them in such a way to maximize appealing matchups and hopefully build towards the most compelling finale possible.
Given the less than tepid response to the announcement, it wouldn’t even be fit to call Bellator’s rankings a ‘dog and pony show’; people still get at least mildly excited by dogs and ponies. This is simply anodyne window dressing, likely dreamt up from the corporate and marketing side of the company and Showtime execs as a way to seem ‘legitimate’ and mirror the competition. It does nothing to illuminate an uneducated viewer or motivate a more dedicated fan. After all, the UFC’s implementation of its own rankings system, which many of its brass were not in favor of, was largely at the behest of former television partner FOX.
In the end, I can’t imagine Bellator’s rankings changing absolutely anything, other than giving fans and media another bit of minutia to kvetch about and another on-screen graphic for Mike Goldberg to awkwardly fumble through. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we already have plenty of both as it is.