The purpose and methodology of fighter rankings

Often times in the MMAsphere, no where are the shitstorms worse than rankings discussion threads. However, as often is the case with things people debate furiously online, the entire debate hinges on parameters which are not clearly defined for everyone involved, leading to endless and utterly pointless arguments which can turn oddly personal.

Rankings are often debated matter of factly, as if they're wholly objective and not formulated from subjective analysis. As if the philosophy used to calculate them is uniform and as if everyone adheres to the same one. But that is far from the truth.

Firstly, we should state and agree on the purpose of divisional rankings :

To populate an up to date, real time list of who the best fighters active in the division are.

I feel this philosophy is more useful from a competition standpoint, from a fans perspective, and easier to create than the alternate philosophy some have, which is :

A list of which current fighters have achieved the most in the division.

This view is problematic and the reasons for that will be addressed below as I discuss ranking methodology.

It should first be made absolutely clear that no rankings can ever possibly exist without a measure of subjective analysis. There is no way to objectively determine the best fighters. None. It doesn't matter if you start a website, post fanposts claiming you're statistically pure, and use only numbers. It is still impossible. There is an idea sometimes floated that a fighter's ranking should only be based on the ranking of the opponents faced and wins and losses, but this view is faulty for several reasons. First, the origin of ranking data came from lists tabulated using subjective analysis, meaning this view can never ever ever be divorced from subjective analysis. Secondly, it arbitrarily excludes significant data points in such a way it defeats the above stated purpose of the rankings in the first place - to determine who the best fighters are right now. The demonstrated skills and weaknesses of a fighter should also be considered, among other things. Relying only on wins and losses is further problematic because decisions are themselves calculated in a subjective manor by judges, who more often than we'd like, screw things up.

Rankings are most useful and accurate if calculated using the following factors :

1. Subjective analysis of the strength of schedule. The skill and ranking of opponents should be the first data point looked at. Fights in the weight class hold more value, but there is no reason to exclude fights out of the weight class. Again, the ideal goal is to determine who the best fighters are, so for example, there is no reason to exclude Daniel Cormier's HW performances over highly ranked opponents.

2. Subjective analysis of the skills demonstrated. The nature of victory(or losses), finishing ability, breadth of skills, weaknesses etc should all be factored in. For example, Jake Shields has an impressive resume on paper, but analysis of his UFC career shows an increasingly one dimensional fighter who lacks any real ability to change the completion of a fight. He isn't dangerous. He is declining. His ranking should reflect this. Another example of this is a comparison of Alexander Gustaffason's performance, in a loss, against Jon Jones, and Phil Davis' performance, in a win, against Lyoto Machida. Even if you agreed with the decision(which means athletic commissions should ban you from the judges table for life) it is hard to argue that Davis came out of that win over a top five fighter looking better than Gustaffson did against Jones. AG's loss, if analyzed correctly, should be worth more than that Davis win. This is also why fights outside of the weight class matter. We can make rational judgements on how Cormier matches up with other LHW's due to what he has demonstrated against HW's. We know about his power, we know about his striking, his cardio and his wrestling.

3. Recency. Does Jake Shields still get a pass for lackluster performances and an inability to takedown a gassed Hector Lombard because he took down a gassed Hendo several years ago?

This in my view is the most rational way to tabulate rankings. Disagree? Let me know in the comments. Include a rational argument for the difference in either philosophy or methodology.

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