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How should TRT ban affect MMA pound-for-pound rankings?

Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Should Vitor Belfort's 2013 wins be retroactively discredited in the wake of the ban on TRT?

Ranking fighters has always required thinly veiled assumptions and leaps of faith and fantasy. On what basis are you supposed to weigh the relative merits of two performers who are similar by the numbers -- weight, record -- but who've never shared a stage?

You assign one of them the third rung from the top of the ladder and situate the other a step down because, maybe, No. 3 has beaten more top-level opposition. Or has been more definitive in his victories. Or has scarier-looking tattoos. Walks to the cage to a more rousing song. Answers to a cooler nickname. Wears a buzzcut that inspires you to split hairs in his favor.

The criteria firm up considerably when you're evaluating two fighters who have fought each other. In nearly all such instances, the guy who won the fight wins the higher ranking. It's hard to argue with that dizzying knockout or arm-twisting submission.

Until now, that is.

Last week's ruling by the Nevada State Athletic Commission banning testosterone replacement therapy -- and the UFC affirmation that followed -- has turned fighter rankings into a three-card monte game. You see something in a guy, you're sure of it, but now it turns out that maybe you just thought you saw something.

WAGENHEIM: TRT ban finally gives MMA even playing field

Vitor Belfort. Chael Sonnen. Dan Henderson. Antonio Silva. Frank Mir.

You will see those five mixed martial artists' names below in this month's SI.com rankings. They are among the more than a dozen current and former fighters who have received therapeutic use exemptions to be treated with synthetic testosterone. In essence, each of these men provided a doctor's note that persuaded an athletic commission to allow him to use a substance during training that, if detected in an athlete's bloodstream in a fight-night drug screening, would result in a fine, a suspension and other repercussions.

Let's set aside the hypocrisy of it all and just focus on the task at hand: ranking fighters.

Consider the case of Belfort, the lightning rod in this dark tempest of accusations and excuses. He was scheduled to challenge Chris Weidman for the middleweight championship in May, but in the wake of the NSAC's ruling he pulled out of the fight. Or was yanked out by the UFC -- that's what Belfort later claimed, while insisting that once he's off his testosterone regimen he will take on the winner between Weidman and new challenger Lyoto Machida.

Which begs the question: If Vitor feels up to fighting for the championship without TRT, why was he on it in the first place?

That opens a gateway to an endless stream of unanswerable queries regarding the rankings. If we assume that Belfort is merely trying to deflect attention away from the very real effects of testosterone injections, how retroactively are we supposed to view last week's ruling? Do we look back at Vitor's three 2013 victories -- all spectacular knockouts of Top 10 opponents -- and discount them? If so, to what degree? Or do we just let sleeping foes lie, telling ourselves that Belfort and the other TRT-fueled fighters were following the rules as they stood at the time?

I'm inclined to do the latter, while acknowledging that I'm in effect burying my head in the sand. The way I see it, though, rules do matter. This whole mess is the doing of the athletic commissions and fight promotions. You give a fighter a weapon, and he's going to use it. And besides, everything will sort itself out in the sunny post-TRT times to come. So for now, Vitor and Chael and Hendo and Bigfoot and Mir, you get to keep your spots in these rankings. But we'll be watching.

Heavyweight

1. Cain Velasquez (13-1)

2. Junior dos Santos (16-3)

3. Fabricio Werdum (17-5-1)

4. Travis Browne (16-1-1)

5. Stipe Miocic (11-1)

6. Josh Barnett (33-7)

7. Mark Hunt (9-8-1)

8. Antonio Silva (18-5, 1 NC)

9. Alistair Overeem (37-13, 1 NC)

10. Frank Mir (16-9)

Daniel Cormier has done a two-part disappearing act, first carving a bucket of Cajun fast food from his midsection to tip the scale at the light heavyweight limit, then dropping out of this list and popping up on the one below.

In doing so, he exposed the lightweightedness of the heavyweight division, as his spot was taken by Mir, who happens to be on a four-fight losing streak.

The thing is, Frank's losses have come against Dos Santos, Cormier, Barnett, and Overeem, all Top 10 fighters. And if not Mir, then who?

All of the other notable UFC heavies -- Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga, Stefan Struve, et al. -- are also coming off losses or have been out of action. Another possibility is undefeated Bellator champion Vitaly Minakov (13-0, 12 finishes), but let's wait to see what he does next month against UFC refugee Cheick Kongo before we get too excited.

Light Heavyweight

1. Jon Jones (19-1)

2. Alexander Gustafsson (15-2)

3. Rashad Evans (21-3-1)

4. Daniel Cormier (14-0)

5. Glover Teixeira (22-2)

6. Phil Davis (12-1, 1 NC)

7. Chael Sonnen (28-14-1)

8. Dan Henderson (29-11)

9. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (21-5)

10. Mauricio Rua (22-8)

Some would hesitate or even flatly refuse to rank Cormier in this division based on his debut, which was dominant enough but came against a comically overmatched late-replacement UFC neophyte. Others watched his fight a little over a week ago and, despite opponent Pat Cummins' martial arts discipline being listed as "barista," are ready to hand Daniel a title bout. In this space, we're going to reside in the middle ground, inserting the unbeaten two-time Olympian in a lofty spot on this list based on a wholly subjective, unsubstantiated belief that that's where he stands in the pecking order. And we're also waving goodbye to former No. 9 Gegard Mousasi, because he dropped to middleweight.

Middleweight

1. Chris Weidman (11-0)

2. Anderson Silva (33-6)

3. Vitor Belfort (23-10)

4. Ronaldo Souza (20-3, 1 NC)

5. Lyoto Machida (21-4)

6. Michael Bisping (24-5)

7. Luke Rockhold (11-2)

8. Yushin Okami (29-8)

9. Gegard Mousasi (34-4-2)

10. Tim Kennedy (17-4)

Machida and Souza knew they were jockeying for position when they fought in back-to-back bouts on a mid-February card. They probably didn't expect the jockeying to have such immediate results. Machida, who beat Mousasi by decision that night, was the one the UFC called on when it needed a replacement for Belfort in the May 24 title bout against Weidman.

Lyoto didn't exactly state an emphatic case, but neither did "Jacare," who took a decision against Francis Carmont.

As for Belfort, it'll be interesting to see whom the UFC feeds him for his post-TRT debut. Bisping and Rockhold, both of whom succumbed to Vitor head kicks, surely would like another shot. But we hear Belfort has something else in mind.

Welterweight

1. Johny Hendricks (15-2)

2. Carlos Condit (29-7)

3. Rory MacDonald (15-2)

4. Robbie Lawler (22-9, 1 NC)

5. Martin Kampmann (20-7)

6. Jake Shields (29-6-1, 1 NC)

7. Demian Maia (18-5)

8. Ben Askren (12-0)

9. Matt Brown (18-11)

10. Dong Hyun Kim (19-2-1, 1 NC)

Was it the removal of the glass ceiling that sent MacDonald soaring skyward? After all, being a training partner of the champion in your weight class, while having obvious benefits in terms of steel sharpening steel, can feel immobilizing. Just ask Daniel Cormier, who only recently moved out from under Cain Velasquez' shadow.

In the case of MacDonald, his first bout following Georges St-Pierre's decision to go on sabbatical was far more exhilarating than what we've seen from him in the recent past. Rory withstood the best that Maia could dish out on the ground -- and the jiu-jitsu virtuoso can dish out a lot -- and picked apart the Brazilian the rest of the way. He's well-positioned in a wide-open division.

Lightweight

1. Anthony Pettis (17-2)

2. Benson Henderson (20-3)

3. Gilbert Melendez (22-3)

4. T.J. Grant (21-5)

5. Josh Thomson (20-6, 1 NC)

6. Khabib Nurmagomedov (21-0)

7. Nate Diaz (17-9)

8. Eddie Alvarez (25-3)

9. Michael Chandler (12-1)

10. Pat Healy (29-17, 1 NC)

Maybe Henderson needs a spa remake. Buzz cut the long locks. Instead of the clean-shaven look or bearded, go with a fu manchu. If this were pro wrestling, he'd don a mask. The former champion is ranked No. 2 in the division, which typically is a prime piece of real estate. But in his case it's a tough spot. He's lost to the champ twice and isn't likely to see a title shot anytime soon.

In the meantime, Henderson can watch a man he beat, Melendez, go for the belt. Gil is riding high, having just scored a new deal from the UFC after signing a Bellator offer.

Speaking of Bjorn Rebney and Co., the second-fiddle promotion has a first-rate bout lined up, as Alvarez and Chandler will dance for the third time on May 17 in Bellator's first pay-per-view.

Featherweight

1. José Aldo (24-1)

2. Chad Mendes (16-1)

3. Frankie Edgar (16-4-1)

4. Ricardo Lamas (13-3)

5. Cub Swanson (20-5)

6. Chan Sung Jung (13-4)

7. Dustin Poirier (15-3)

8. Daniel Straus (22-4)

9. Nik Lentz (24-6-2, 1 NC)

10. Pat Curran (19-5)

We were all set to shuffle the deck, with Aldo packing his bags for a move up to lightweight and a superfight with Anthony Pettis. But then the moving truck never showed up, and José ended up with a new lease on his old house, also known as the 145-pound division.

That could mean a chance at redemption for Mendes, who has won five in a row -- four knockouts -- since being KO'd by Aldo two years ago. Or for Swanson, who's also a past Aldo KO victim on a five-fight winning streak. Frankie Edgar might want another shot, too, if he can get by B.J. Penn.

There are no new challenges for Aldo until Pettis is free, but he'd better not sleep on any of these conquests.

Bantamweight

1. Renan Barão (32-1, 1 NC)

2. Urijah Faber (30-7)

3. Michael McDonald (16-3)

4. Raphael Assunção (22-4)

5. Eddie Wineland (21-9-1)

6. Brad Pickett (23-8)

7. Bibianio Fernandes (15-3)

8. T.J. Dillishaw (9-2)

9. Takeya Mizugaki (18-7-2)

10. Eduardo Dantas (15-3)

Just as Cain Velasquez probably faces his toughest fights in the gym, when working out with Daniel Cormier, such is the case for Barão, training partner of José Aldo. Renan has thrashed the next two men in the 135-pound pecking order, so who's next?

Maybe Assunção, who won his sixth in a row last month. It came against a UFC debutante, though, not a pound-for-pound killer. This division needs ex-champ Dominick Cruz to get healthy and tune up his game after an absence of over two years with a strong showing against someone on this list. Then we'll have something to talk about.

Flyweight

1. Demetrious Johnson (19-2-1)

2. Joseph Benavidez (19-4)

3. Ian McCall (12-4-1)

4. John Dodson (15-6)

5. John Moraga (13-2)

6. Ali Bagautinov (13-2)

7. John Lineker (23-7)

7. Jussier da Silva (15-3)

9. Zach Makowsky (17-4)

10. Scott Jorgensen (14-8)

The UFC has announced a bunch of fight cards for the next several months, some still needing main or co-main events. So we should soon know who'll get the next shot at Johnson, who earned his title a year and a half ago via a slim split decision but has turned into one of the most dominant of champions.

Bagautinov is well down on the list but is the highest-ranked 125-pounder who's not yet been beaten back by "Mighty Mouse."

Women

1. Ronda Rousey (9-0)

2. Cristiane Justino (12-1, 1 NC)

3. Cat Zingano (8-0)

4. Sara McMann (7-1)

5. Miesha Tate (13-5)

6. Alexis Davis (16-5)

7. Jessica Eye (10-2, 1 NC)

8. Sarah Kaufman (16-2, 1 NC)

9. Liz Carmouche (9-4)

10. Jessica Aguilar (15-4)

If this list were drawn to scale, it'd have "Rowdy Ronda" and "Cyborg" at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, and then there'd be a large gap before the next fighter would show up. Now that Justino has agreed to cut to 135 pounds, this fight simply has to happen.

WAGENHEIM: Why Rousey-Justino fight makes sense for UFC; more mailbag

In the meantime, when Zingano is ready -- recovered, that is, from a knee injury and, more significantly, the death of her husband -- she should be granted the title shot she earned with a TKO of Miesha Tate nearly a year ago. Good luck with that.

Pound for pound

1. Jon Jones

2. José Aldo

3. Cain Velasquez

4. Chris Weidman

5. Demetrious Johnson

6. Renan Barão

7. Ronda Rousey

8. Anthony Pettis

9. Anderson Silva

10. Johny Hendricks

The pecking order hasn't changed since last month. But with Hendricks fighting in less than two weeks -- facing Robbie Lawler for the vacant welterweight belt -- there's a good chance we'll see some movement next time we do this.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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