Small fights have big impact in MMA rankings
Some months it's as if the sport of mixed martial arts exists only in photographs. Nothing moves.
This past month sure set off the motion detectors.
There have been three UFC events and four Bellator cards since we last sorted out the pecking order in the SI.com fighter rankings, and here's a rundown of the moving pieces: Eleven ranked fighters were in action, and more than half lost. Three dropped out of our various weight division Top 10s altogether. Two fighters who won stayed put, ranked exactly where they were last month. One combatant lost and also remained right where he was. A previously unranked fighter won to secure a spot in the Top 10, resulting in another guy being nudged out of the rankings even though he wasn't hit by a single punch. Another moved into the rankings even though he hasn't fought in months. And then there was the fighter who didn't fight, stayed put in our rankings ... and nonetheless lost his job.
There was a lot more going on than you realized, right? That's because only a little of the turbulence occurred at the top of the ladder. We saw UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barâo successfully defend his belt but move not an inch from his No. 2 ranking in his weight class, because the only man above him is the real champ, Dominick Cruz. (If it's any consolation, Renan, you did enter our pound-for-pound Top 10 for the first time.) We also saw Dan Henderson, who'd long been our No. 2 guy at light heavyweight, slip down a couple of rungs as a result of his loss to Lyoto Machida, who ascended to the spot from which he knocked "Hendo." (That little bit of action in the rankings was more than the two former champions produced in their Feb. 23 bout, sadly.)
So let's take a look at where the chips have fallen ...
What was Stefan Struve thinking? Ranked at No. 8 last month, the big Dutchman was on a four-fight winning streak -- all finishes -- and was poised to get a Top 5 opponent next. All he had to do was dispose of Mark Hunt, a 38-year-old former K-1 kickboxing champion whose one-dimensional game seemed to play right into the strengths of Struve, a man with 16 submissions among his 25 career wins. But in the third round Stefan got foolishly brave, stuck out his chin ... and got his jaw broken. Goodbye, Mr. Struve. It was nice knowing you.
Boy, do we have some astute -- and detail-oriented -- readers. In the days following the publication of last month's rankings, I received several charged-up e-mails and was targeted by a bunch of sharply worded tweets questioning my sanity for granting a spot in the rankings to Mo Lawal, even though it was way down at No. 10. My response: He's lost only once and has knocked out his last three opponents (although one of those wins was changed to a no-contest because he failed a drug test). Lawal's response: Zzzzzz (after being KO'd by a spinning backfist of Emanuel Newton in a big Bellator upset Feb. 21). The readership's response: Not even a snicker so far, but I can hear the silent "I told you so" chorus loud and clear.
Yushin Okami would be at the top of the food chain -- well, maybe not quite at the head of the dinner table, a spot owned by king of the jungle Anderson Silva, but nearby -- if fights were scheduled for two rounds. Just over a year ago, he rebounded from a title bout loss to "The Spider" by dominating Tim Boetsch for two rounds. But then he got caught in the third and shockingly succumbed to a knockout. Okami then won two straight, one of them an impressive handling of contender Alan Belcher, and last weekend stepped in with Hector Lombard. Once again, he dominated for two rounds and faltered in the third, but this time he was able to hold on to get the decision victory. That earned him a bump up one spot in the rankings. But he could have so much more.
Everything's the same here. Well, except for the fact that our No. 7-ranked fighter is out of a job. Yes, the UFC, which currently employs the likes of Leonard Garcia (four-fight losing streak), Yoshihiro Akiyama (four-fight losing streak), Alessio Sakara (three-fight losing streak), Chris Leben (one win in his last four bouts) and Mike Swick (one win in his last four bouts), has released Jon Fitch. Yes, he's also won only one of his last four, but that October victory earned both him and Erick Silva checks for Fight of the Night bonuses. Jon's losses came against top guys, and before the downturn he was on a 21-1 run. Oh, well. More changes to come here next month, with our top four fighters squaring off at UFC 157 next week.
Here's a division at a standstill. Sort of. We're keeping Anthony Pettis where he is, even though his next fight is for the featherweight belt. That bout with José Aldo won't take place until August, and much can change between now and then. Even where there are no fights, the thought process continues. For example, I'm still not convinced it's the right call for us to keep Pettis's latest victim, Donald Cerrone, in the Top 10 at the expense of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who in January ran his record to 19-0 win a KO of Thiago Tavares. With another fight coming up in May, Nurmagomedov is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Where'd Cub Swanson come from? After an early-career 11-fight winning streak made him a WEC title contender, Swanson faced José Aldo with a shot at the belt on the line. That dream lasted eight seconds, as the Brazilian connected with a flying knee for an exhilarating KO that sent him soaring toward the stratosphere and sent Swanson on a downward spiral. A couple more losses over the next two years threatened to make Cub a journeyman ... unless you took in to consideration that the losses were to top guys Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas. Now Swanson is on a four-fight winning streak, the most recent resume item a victory over Dustin Poirier. Swanson is moving in the right direction (and has bumped poor Patricio Freire, our former No. 10, who did not fight last month).
Erik Perez hasn't fought since last year -- Dec. 29, to be exact, when he knocked out Byron Bloodworth. It was his eighth straight victory and third consecutive first-round finish, and even though the wins have come fast and furious, the ranking took a while. Perez moved in as a result of our previous No. 10 guy, Ivan Menjivar, losing to Urijah Faber. Falling to a highly ranked guy like "The California Kid" is not in itself the kiss of death, but when Menjivar succumbed to a rear-naked choke in the first round, it was his second loss in three fights. So hello, Erik.
It was a quiet month for the 125-pounders, after a busy January that included Demetrious Johnson's first title defense. "Mighty Mouse" was scheduled to go right back at it, putting his belt on the line next month against John Moraga. But the fight had to be shelved after Johnson's camp revealed the champ had sustained an unspecified injury. So the hot Moraga, who's 13-1 and on a seven-fight winning streak, will have to wait a while. As will we all.
Pound for pound
Poor Johny Hendricks. First the UFC pretends it can't see him standing there in front of Georges St-Pierre, his enormous left fist measuring the chin of the welterweight champion. Even though Hendricks has disposed of every challenger set in front of him, the UFC instead handed next week's title shot to Nick Diaz, who's coming off a loss and a license suspension. And now, thanks to Renan Barâo's mastery and then chokeout of Michael McDonald, the interim bantamweight titlist has bumped Hendricks from the No. 10 spot on this list. Let's see if Johny takes it out on Carlo Condit next week.