The Process: UFC rankings and their panelists

If there is one thing that I remember the most from high school in my mischief filled English and writing classes – from a writing standpoint – it was to never write in the first person. Well, that rule is about to be slightly tested… as it just was.

In February 2013, the Ultimate Fighting Championship created and released their official rankings. This coming after a continuous and never-ending debate between fans and pundits alike on if a system should be installed or not.

The inaugural pound for pound list saw the then reigning middleweight king, Anderson Silva, atop the totem pole. At this time, “The Spider” was awaiting his next challenger which would end up being the man to dethrone him in Chris Weidman. Thus snapping his legendary 16-fight UFC winning streak that included 10 title defenses.

UFC-rankings
?: Bloody Elbow

With Silva followed directly by Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre in that order, this would just be the beginning of what would remain to this day a constantly debated topic.

As interesting as the rankings themselves are, the system behind it all and who is determining things may be just as interesting if not more so. Anything in a certain spotlight is bound to attract criticism and this case is no different, with such an important factor to these professional athletes’ careers.

Last week, a Reddit user by the screen name of “kneeco28” took their own look at the UFC’s ranking panel.

Among the info provided, right out of the gate they state that “the UFC projected about 90 journalists would take part in the rankings.” This is true as was sourced to Bloody Elbow, however, it is then stated that the panel originally consisted of “about 50 people.”

According to the initial rankings reveal as presented also by Bloody Elbow previously, their article claims that there were 28 panelists to start.

Their source being the UFC’s official website which does, in fact, show the panelists.

Those first 28 and their outlets at the time were listed as follows.

  • Marcelo Alonso – Portal do Vale-Tudo
  • Jeremy Botter – Houston Chronicle
  • Steve Cofield – ESPN Radio
  • Mark Daniels – Boston Herald
  • Bob Emmanuel – Scripps Howard News Service
  • Paulo Favero – O Estado de S Paulo
  • Steve Feiti – Asbury Park Press
  • Joe Ferraro – Sportsnet
  • Mario Filho – OSS TV
  • Grant Gordan – Burbank Leader
  • Ana Hissa – Mundo da Luta
  • Case Keefer – Las Vegas Sun
  • James Koh – FOX 11 Los Angeles
  • Claudia Lima – VIP
  • Damon Martin – MMA Weekly
  • Franklin McNeil – ESPN.com
  • Guga Noblat – O Globo
  • Brett Okamoto – ESPN.com
  • Ken Pishna – MMA Weekly
  • Marc Raimondi – NY Post
  • Marcelo Russio – Canal Combate
  • John Silver – Chicago Sun-Times
  • Neil Springer – Sun Media
  • Jeff Wagenheim – SI.com
  • Chris Palmquist – MixedMartialArts.com
  • Mike Johnston – Sportsnet
  • Anthony Springer Jr. – FightNews
  • Andreas Hale – FightNews

Perhaps the most notable among those names are Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim, and Marc Raimondi who are all now with ESPN. For Okamoto, it’s “and still.” As of the start of this year, ESPN became the official home of the UFC and that’s where all of the fights can be seen until 2025.

Out of the 28 listed, only Andreas Hale and Ken Pishna are still on the panel.

Going from 28 to the current 14, fluctuation took place over the course of time to get to where we are now. And not addressed in the Reddit post was that prior to the UFC’s website update, members could apply by sending their credentials to the email that was listed on the rankings page. That email, no longer listed on the updated version of the UFC site, was “rankings@ufc.com.”

The only problem was that after an unknown amount of time, the correct email was eventually changed from “rankings@ufc.com” to another… but the UFC left the originally listed “rankings@ufc.com” up anyway.

I was able to find the new one early last year after some digging. Surprisingly in my attempt to get on the panel, I got one response. From others I’ve spoken to, that sounds like more than most.

Countless follow-up messages on my part led to no further responses.

Prior to the UFC’s inevitable birthing of a ranking system, I had already begun developing ranks of my own just for the hell of it as a passionate fan. Stats, rankings, and such were and have always been something I’ve been thoroughly interested in. No matter the sporting obsession it was with.

Fast forward to now and my rankings are a little older than the UFC’s as I remember ranking Strikeforce fighters. If we’re to go by the first public releasing of them, which came in May 2013 on the Sherdog forums, then no they aren’t older… but close.

Having gone from Sherdog to the now-deceased MMA Today to a private Excel page, they’ve remained updated on the overall scale of MMA. As that was how they started, they would go through changes over the years. Most notably, the comparative style.

Screenshot from Drake’s 7-5-2017 rankings update / Excerpt: “I have continually been attempting to construct the perfect set of MMA rankings for years now and the goal has always remained the same: to find the very best and most accurate rankings possible by comparing with the UFC’s official rankings also while looking at the best in the world overall. Everyone will always have some different opinions which is why feedback is ALWAYS welcome to help better improve and find the most agreeable and accurate rankings. They are updated monthly. Enjoy!”

While the option was there at a point for anyone to apply, that wasn’t the case to start things off in that first 28. At least according to one of the original panelists who has chosen to remain anonymous.

“I was asked to join the panel when it first started,” they said. “I requested to be removed. I didn’t get the chance to watch every fight from the past few events and, since I cover more than just MMA, I’d likely miss some more fights in the future as well. Plus, it wasn’t a huge priority for me and hadn’t been fun for a while so I decided to stop doing it altogether.”

Circling back to the Reddit post, its crux is that of examining the current 14 panelists. All of which had a label next to them that said if they’re in MMA or not with a small background check of sorts. The Reddit user listed nine of the 14 as “in MMA media” with varying degrees of how deeply invested they are.

I attempted to reach out to all 14 of the panelists but only five agreed to comment. One of which has chosen to remain anonymous. The others who received messages declined to comment or were simply unreachable.

They were all asked a basic string of questions; What is the UFC ranking process is like? Do you submit updates every week? After every event? How much contact do you have with the UFC?

UFC-Rankings
?: Munch News (May 28, 2018)

“The process follows after every event,” Rob DeMello of KHON shared. “Every division is listed and voters are able to vote 1-15 with a pool of every fighter available in that weight class. Typically voters have about 48 hours from when the event ends to submit their rankings.

“I have never failed to complete rankings so I haven’t come across what happens if you’re late to submit.”

In regards to what happens when one is late upon submission, Brian Hemminger of MMA OddsBreaker would clarify that if rankings aren’t turned in on time, they will stay the same. But miss two update submissions in a row and you’re out.

The answer that differed the most pertained to when the submissions needed to be in by. As Rob DeMello said 48 hours typically, Hemminger said 36, and the anonymous panelist said the following Monday. One way or another, the window is obvious.

On top of that, the anonymous panelist expressed that the updates are locked and not changeable until the next event.

Reddit’s kneeco28 described the 14 as “self-selected supposed MMA media members. Five of whom, by my count, are not even MMA media members anymore, if they ever were.”

As pointed out earlier with the application email, self-selected may or may not be entirely true in certain cases. Although, with that method, the UFC is still choosing whether or not they want the applicants. So to get completely technical about it, no matter what, they’re all technically self-selected by the UFC, yes.

Continuing on, kneeco28 said; “It makes sense, by the way, that credible people would not take part in this. For one, you don’t want to be in bed with the UFC and/or directly impacting matchmaking and fighters’ opportunities if you’re also covering the sport, it’s plainly a conflict.”

So, is it a conflict of interest?

Among the top outlets in MMA over the last so many years have been MMA Junkie and MMA Fighting. Two sites that haven’t noticeably had any of their staff on the panel at any point in the six years of the UFC ranking’s existence.

Steven Marocco, formerly of MMA Junkie, shared that; “The whole MMA Junkie staff decided as a team that we would not be on the rankings panel because it constituted a conflict of interest.”

“I sincerely doubt I would join any UFC ranking panel,” said Alexander K. Lee of MMA Fighting. “Given that the rankings directly affect the fighters’ careers, any involvement in that seems like the definition of a conflict of interest. The MMA media has a unique relationship with the UFC for sure as far as sometimes acting like unofficial PR, but influencing matchmaking and also the marketing of the athletes is a bridge too far.”

As mentioned, I asked the current panelists about how much contact is received from the UFC if any. All answers came back on the same page.

“UFC doesn’t make any contact with us. Nobody. Including staff, PR, [UFC President] Dana White,” Bruno Massami of Gazeta Esportiva stated. “We don’t receive any advice from them. They always want us to make the best judgment that is possible. They only take the information and set the rankings based with the results of the panelists.

“No one’s system is perfect. But I think the UFC make great choices. But unfortunately, not many people want to be involved.”

Massami would follow up by alluding to people thinking they are paid by their ranking position which he, as well as others said was not true. Along with potential confliction with the UFC, he believes it could extend further than that in the minds of many.

“I believe most journalists are scared to participate because they can lose or have problems with fighters and managers due to their choices,” he said. “Which in turn loses them news stories, etc.”

?: MMA Fighting

To be specific about contact from the UFC, according to the other panelists I spoke with, there is at least a type of contact other than just asking for submissions.

“To answer as concisely as I can, UFC regularly (with only a couple of exceptions that I can recall, probably due to holidays) mails out a ‘rankings brief’ to all panelists,” Steve Juon of MMA Weekly said. “It outlines who they believe should be moved up or down in each division and why based on the next upcoming fight card. You’re free to make your own decisions of course, but woe to the person who tries, as you wind up being scorned by the MMA punditry on social media. (‘How DARE you rank Holly Holm over Germaine De Randamie! What are you, some kind of f#%^ing idiot?’ Things like that.)

“I generally try to follow along, especially since the ranking panel has shrunk greatly since I first joined, giving me an unintentional amount of influence over who should or shouldn’t be moved I never asked for. There are times I will still make up my own mind though, such as my consistent belief that Tony Ferguson is No. 1 contender at lightweight. He’s only won every important fight to deserve a title shot he’s ever had, and it’s not his fault that injuries to him or Khabib [Nurmagomedov] have prevented the fight from happening. In my mind, it’s long overdue, especially now that Khabib has knocked off [Dustin] Poirier, but I digress.

“As for contact with UFC, it’s ‘there’ but it’s not like I can get Dana White on line one,” he expressed. “I’m in contact with the people who fix the rankings system whenever there are technical problems, I’m on the mailing list for press releases and media conference calls, and I know and have met a few of the publicists who work there. I’ve even interviewed Dana in a scrum a time or two when I worked for Wrestling Observer, but I certainly wouldn’t expect him to know or remember me. I doubt he could pick any of the journalists in the ranking panel out of a lineup.”

Both DeMello and Hemminger’s answers were in compliance with Juon. Hemminger would add that the “UFC brief” also makes them aware of fighters who are eligible to be ranked in a new weight class or if someone has completed a suspension and is eligible to be ranked again.

“An email is sent ahead of the event, and after as a reminder,” DeMello said. “The email also notifies voters on any change in weight class for an athlete etc.

“I can only speak for myself but there is no contact with the UFC regarding the rankings. As a background, I became a voter a handful of years ago after complaining to colleagues in the UFC regarding the rankings. I thought that voters were being lazy and something should be done. I was asked that if a spot opened up, would I take it? I figure if this is the rankings system that the UFC uses, at least I can trust myself to do my part and do my 1/14. It usually takes me a couple of hours after each event to complete my rankings. There is no pay, no stipend, no reimbursement on ordering the fighters, etc.”

?: LowKick MMA

With half of a decade now in the books for the UFC rankings experiment, issues still seem to be running rampant in the minds of many from the outside. Whether it be Conor McGregor’s placement on the pound for pound list or to a common trend of some fighters who lose to lower-ranked opponents still being ranked higher. As was most recently the case for Anthony Pettis after his knockout win over Stephen Thompson for example.

Is there anything that can be done to combat any type of combat ranking system?

When contacting MMA media members who are outside of the panel such as the aforementioned Marocco and Lee, they were asked two simple questions.

1. Would you join the UFC rankings panel if asked? Why or why not?

2. What are your general thoughts on the rankings? (Good, bad, etc.)

“I would join the rankings panel if asked,” FanSided‘s Amy Kaplan explained. “I believe there should be a bigger number of active journalists of all genders, nationalities, etc. Right now it’s all men and half (maybe more) aren’t even active journalists. Though, in truth I believe it should be the UFC ranking their own fighters, making it purely scientific.

“The rankings now are a joke. No one should be moving up in rankings without a fight or someone above them moving down. There should be rules about inactivity and there should be transparency about the judging criteria. The UFC doesn’t seem to really be following them anyway, so a reboot would be great!”

Unbeknownst to me before reaching out, MMASoldier.net and Cageside PressRodney James Edgar happened to be a former UFC rankings panelist.

“My first MMA writing job was with a now-defunct outlet that used to be on the rankings panel,” he said. “In 2014-2015 I used to vote on the rankings every Monday that followed an event. I recently applied to join the rankings panel under MMA Soldier, however, I got no response and quickly lost interest. To be honest, I would not join the panel because it’s largely comprised of people who have no business talking MMA, much less voting on rankings.

“Like I said, many of the panel members are complete hacks. Some are not and perhaps they balance it out. For the most part, I find the rankings to be pretty reasonable. A lot of twidiots – who are fans or ‘journalists’ complain about them, but those people choose to do nothing about it so their opinion has very little value.

“As far as the existence of rankings, I think you need that to legitimize a sport,” Edgar continued. “NCAA football is a great example. The No. 4 team and the No. 14 team are usually pretty closely matched but at the end of the day, either team could win. They’re just like statistics – rankings don’t win or lose fights. They’re a matchmaking guideline, and again, they are yet another fairly recent addition to the consistency of UFC, just like the uniforms.”

Marocco would share the same sentiment with Edgar’s initial thoughts on the rankings.

A seemingly often preached quote is “rankings don’t matter.” In the case of the UFC rankings, we’ve seen that they do matter in some influential minds. Dana White and the fighters pay attention to the numbers as it is a form of a pecking order – no matter if it should be altered or not.

“The rankings are a fine idea from a theoretical standpoint, especially if the UFC wants to maintain the illusion that it’s a meritocracy (it is not),” Lee said. “In practice, they’ve become a hindrance, with fighters using them as an excuse not to take certain matchups or in the case of Paul Felder, being denied a title opportunity because he was deemed not high ranking enough [by the athletic commission] to face Khabib Nurmagomedov UFC 223.

“And from a promotional standpoint, the benefits are negligible. Do fans really get excited about the numbers in front of the names, or is it the names that sell themselves? I’d be stunned if the average MMA fan ever uses the rankings in casual discussion. Proper rankings can serve a purpose, but in the current culture of MMA, they’re essentially useless.”

On two final personal notes… Firstly, Juon told me that, “not once” has he ever been told anything about the women’s featherweight division. Which he followed up with nothing but the truth by saying, “There’s never even been enough women in the division to rank.”

There are currently eight fighters in the division and it has never had any other rankings aside from the champion.

Secondly and lastly, I always find it funny when Dana White yells at the media during scrums or press conferences when asking about “questionable” UFC rankings. His typical response is always something along the lines of, “You tell me! You guys make them!”

But is there actually ever multiple panelists in that crowd? And if they were, is that just another conflict of interest?

“I don’t know for now,” Massami responded when asked what could be done to improve. “[The UFC] are looking for relevant people. But they’ve always avoided [the rankings]. Now maybe there’s a conflict of interests too. Because the major websites don’t have the same attention from the UFC like the ‘hardcore’ times.

“I have more than 10 years in the business. It’s more complicated than people imagine.”

Is there any immediate solution to a UFC rankings system?

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The Scrap’s Drake Riggs is a MMA writer and YouTuber based out of Brush Prairie, Washington who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. Riggs has been a passionate MMA fan since 2009 and has written for various news sources. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dre_Kriggs).