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UFC rankings and the meaning of meaningfulness

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At first, when the UFC rolled out its official rankings system, it was this fresh new democracy that media members felt gave them a say in the structure of "the picture." Turns out the media was right.

This past weekend in Boston Dana White gently yet pointedly laid into the voting press for placing Chael Sonnen as the No. 8 best middleweight (he was actually No. 9). This was patently absurd, he said. What baffled him was that such fighters as Yushin Okami and Michael Bisping were ahead of Sonnen, even though Sonnen had beat Okami soundly and Bisping with a proverbial grain of salt. How was it that Sonnen had fallen so far, when his only losses in recent memory were to Anderson Silva (twice) and Jon Jones?

Nobody could say. But the updated rankings, after White’s rant and Sonnen beat Mauricio Rua at 205 pounds in one of his most impressive showings, saw Sonnen remain at No. 9 as a middleweight. So much for taking White’s directive. Sonnen did manage to creep into the top 10 as a light heavyweight, just behind Shogun, whom he just beat. Sonnen himself, along with co-host Kenny Florian, pointed out this head-scratcher during Tuesday night’s taping of UFC Tonight. The suspected problem: Sonnen’s poly-divisional, which is hard to sort out for voting media.

Does any of this make sense?

Not really. But, if this thing is going to work, we’d better start making some sense of it.

Apparently the ranking system actually goes into matchmaking possibilities. Or, at least the UFC matchmakers would like to use the rankings as a reference point in which to back-up their matchmaking decisions. This is where things get a little haywire when media sends Sonnen on a southward trajectory for no good reason, while the UFC is trying to usher him up the rungs towards something more spectacular.

Not that the UFC’s intentions should factor in, either. They shouldn’t. It’s meant to be a meritocracy—more meritocracy than pin the tail on the donkey, anyway. It’s meant to lean more towards objective than subjective.

And in this instance, White has good reason to be miffed. If we are asked to vote Sonnen into the 185-pound top ten—which we were, even if he’s been fighting at 205 pounds—he should not be No. 9. He did beat Okami (No. 3) and Bisping (No. 4), but how can Ronaldo Souza, Mark Munoz, Costa Philippou and Luke Rockhold all be above him as well? Being tired of Sonnen’s shtick shouldn’t translate into his placement in the rankings.

The good thing about the rankings is that they aren’t real. Just a snapshot in time and all that. But if they are meant to put a structure in place for matchmaking and relevancy—which affects paydays and perceptions—better not to treat it as a blindfold/dart board transaction. Better to give it some careful thought, for whatever that’s worth.