Tuesday December 2nd, 2014

Hey, look! Conor McGregor is now in the Top 5 among featherweights. That ought to fortify his garrulous claim to the next shot at UFC champion José Aldo, right?

Well, not necessarily. The bodacious Irishman has moved up one spot in December’s SI.com mixed martial arts fighter rankings only because the 145-pounder who resided directly above him was pummeled into submission a couple of weeks ago. Cub Swanson had been promised the next octagon date with the champ if he won, but he didn’t win, not even close. So that’s that, eh? Send in the Dubliner?

Again, not necessarily. The man who beat Cub to a pulp, Frankie Edgar, has ascended one step on the ladder to become No. 2 among featherweights, right on the heels of Aldo. Now, Edgar did not go into the Swanson fight with a glorious promise -- probably because he unsuccessfully challenged José as recently as last year -- but on the strength of last month’s ferocious victory over a Top 5 foe, it would seem that the former lightweight champ has once again positioned himself solidly at the front of the line among those vying for a grab at the golden ring. Isn’t that much obvious?

Um, hate to keep throwing that “not necessarily” bucket of cold water on our linear path to certainty, but we’ve got to do it once more. Edgar has the most sparkling 145-pound resume this side of Rio de Janeiro, without a doubt, and is the most recent contender to spray paint an exclamation point beside his name. And he’d surely be a betting favorite if he were matched with McGregor. Yet it’s very possible that Conor, not Frankie, will get the nod from the UFC matchmakers, because the UFC matchmakers answer to the UFC bean counters. And McGregor has huffed and puffed his way into the spotlight as a wind-up talking toy the marketing department can use to sell a fight. Hell, the PR flaks can take the month off. Conor will sell himself.

Selling is an integral element of prizefighting. I mean, just look at the term: prizefighting. That sounds like a competition in which determining who’s best takes a back seat to raking in the bucks, doesn’t it? All of professional sports is a money grab, of course, but in most arenas the games play out within the time-tested framework of victories leading toward championships, with marketing concerns piggybacking on the more essential aspect of competition. Imagine if the NFL season were to boil down to Detroit and Cincinnati earning the right to represent their conferences in the Super Bowl, and the league opted instead to send the Broncos and Giants, figuring that a matchup of famous quarterback brothers, the Mannings, would be a better sell. For the sake of this hypothetical, let’s pretend that Eli’s team was at least mediocre, not 2014 horrendous. Now stop pretending, because something like that wouldn’t ever happen in the NFL.

Frankie Edgar puts Dana White, UFC in tough spot after dominating win

It would in the UFC, which just last year fed us Jon Jones defending his light heavyweight belt against a man who hadn’t fought at 205 pounds in seven years, was coming off a knockout loss at middleweight, but was seen as a pay-per-view draw. If Chael Sonnen can get a title shot, why not Conor McGregor? He’s an actual featherweight, he’s won a dozen fights in a row, and UFC president Dana White loves to drive down the Vegas strip with him in a Ferrari. As head of the dominant promotion in MMA, White operates as the sport’s de facto commissioner. But he owns 9 percent of the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa, so there’s reason for him to align with profit over meritocracy.

None of this is to slam McGregor. His first-round beatdown of Dustin Poirier back in September proved he belongs in the Top 10. He’s legitimately right behind Edgar in the pecking order. But he doesn’t want to wait in line. Lines are for chumps. He’s the guy at the supermarket checkout who walks up carrying a basket with just a few items in it and tries to talk his way right to the cashier. Yeah, it always comes back to money.

The other day, Frankie Edgar took to Twitter and directed a message to Dana White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, lobbying for the title shot by posting the results of a UFC.com fan poll in which 53 percent of respondents favored him over McGregor as the next Aldo challenger. “The numbers don’t lie,” wrote Edgar. “I do it with my fighting not my talking.”

Within a day, McGregor had a rebuttal, stacking the ticket gate numbers for his fights with Diego Brandao ($1.4 million) and Poirier ($2.2 million) against those for Edgar vs. Swanson ($640,000). He followed that with this hashtag: #TheREALnumbersDontLie.

Now, one could dispute how real any of those numbers are. In Edgar’s case, he was citing a poll that, by appearing on the promotion’s own website, had drawn the attention of mainly diehard MMA fans, who constitute only part of the target audience for a PPV. The UFC aims to loop in general sports fans as well, and McGregor is just the carnival barker to do so. But Conor’s numbers are deceiving, too. McGregor vs. Brandao was in the Irishman’s hometown, which hadn’t seen a UFC event in five years. McGregor vs. Poirier was the third-billed fight on a stacked UFC 178 card. How much of that $2.2 million was he responsible for?

There’s no doubt that McGregor has a certain magnetism. He’ll draw eyeballs -- and eyeballs are attached to people who carry wallets. And while he’s won 12 straight, Edgar was on a three-fight losing streak as recently as last year. Of course, when Frankie was losing to guys named José Aldo and Benson Henderson, here’s who was facing down Conor during that same stretch: Steve O’Keefe, Dave Hill and Ivan Buchinger. Now, there’s an MMA murderers’ row, huh?

So no, Conor McGregor has not earned the next shot at José Aldo, not while Frankie Edgar is standing in front of him. But will the UFC keep the Irishman waiting? We’ll soon see what truly drives the sport’s leading promotion.

On to the rankings … 

1. Fabricio Werdum (19-5-1)
2. Stipe Miocic (12-1)
3. Travis Browne (16-2-1)
4. Josh Barnett (33-7)
5. Mark Hunt (10-9-1)
6. Andrei Arlovski (23-10, 1 NC)
7. Antonio Silva (18-6, 1 NC)
8. Roy Nelson (20-10)
9. Gabriel Gonzaga (16-8)
10. Ben Rothwell (34-9)

Werdum wears the belt. He’s No. 1. But it’s just a mirage, an optical illusion created by that dastardly knee injury that forced Cain Velasquez to disappear for a while. Having not competed for a year, the baddest man on the planet is ineligible for this list. The same is true for the second-baddest man on the planet, too. We’ll soon see the return of Junior dos Santos, though, and he’ll be right back in his spot high on the list if he beats Miocic on the 13th. 

Light Heavyweight
1. Jon Jones (20-1)
2. Alexander Gustafsson (16-2)
3. Daniel Cormier (15-0)
Rashad Evans (21-3-1)
5. Anthony Johnson (18-4)
6. Phil Davis (13-2, 1 NC)
7. Glover Teixeira (22-4)
8. Ryan Bader (18-4)
9. Emanuel Newton (25-7-1)
10. Dan Henderson (30-12)

One more month to go before The Fight of 2015. Jones and Cormier meet only three days into the new year, but they have the brawn and the bluster to give their collision staying power. Can’t wait.

1. Chris Weidman (12-0)
2. Anderson Silva (33-6)
3. Vitor Belfort (23-10)
4. Luke Rockhold (13-2)
5. Ronaldo Souza (20-3, 1 NC)
6. Lyoto Machida (21-5)
7. Tim Kennedy (18-5)
8. Yoel Romero (9-1)
9. Gegard Mousasi (35-5-2)
10. Michael Bisping (24-7)

Kennedy and Chael Sonnen grinded out wins over Bisping. Belfort and Dan Henderson knocked him out explosively. But no one has systematically dismantled the Brit like Rockhold did last month. Luke demonstrated that he belongs in this division’s elite class. And Bisping hangs on in this tally only because Yushin Okami took a worse loss.

1. Johny Hendricks (16-2)
2. Rory MacDonald (18-2)
3. Robbie Lawler (24-10, 1 NC)
4. Tyron Woodley (14-3)
5. Carlos Condit (29-8)
6. Hector Lombard (34-4-1, 1 NC)
7. Matt Brown (19-12)
8. Ben Askren (14-0)
9. Kelvin Gastelum (10-0)
10. Jake Shields (30-7-1, 1 NC)

Hendricks vs. Lawler back in March was one of those fights you wish would go on forever. That ain’t happening, but we do get five more (scheduled) rounds this Saturday in the main event of UFC 181. While you’re drooling over that, say hello and welcome Mr. Gastelum to the Top 10 in the wake of his thrashing of Jake Ellenberger. 

1. Anthony Pettis (17-2)
2. Gilbert Melendez (22-3)
3. Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0)
4. Rafael dos Anjos (22-7)
5. Donald Cerrone (25-6, 1 NC)
6. Benson Henderson (21-4)
7. Josh Thomson (20-6, 1 NC)
8. Nate Diaz (17-9)
9. Eddie Alvarez (25-4)
10. Miles Jury (15-0)

This Saturday’s co-main will have a belt on the line, too, as Melendez challenges Pettis. The champ hasn’t fought in the 15 months since he tapped out Henderson for the title. Dos Anjos, who also beat Henderson to put himself in title contention, instead gets a Dec. 13 date with Diaz.

1. José Aldo (25-1)
2. Frankie Edgar (18-4-1)
3. Chad Mendes (16-2)
4. Ricardo Lamas (15-3)
5. Conor McGregor (16-2)
6. Cub Swanson (21-5)
7. Chan Sung Jung (13-4)
8. Patricio Freire (22-2)
9. Dennis Bermudez (14-4)
10. Dustin Poirier (16-4)

Bermudez was on a seven-fight win streak and headed up, up, up until he ran into Lamas, who seemed on a downward spin after losing decisively in his February challenge of Aldo. But Ricardo stopped Dennis in his tracks, derailing one title run while keeping his own from crashing and burning.

1. Dominick Cruz (20-1)
2. T.J. Dillashaw (11-2)
3. Renan Barão (32-2, 1 NC)
4. Urijah Faber (30-7)
5. Raphael Assunção (23-4)
6. Michael McDonald (16-3)
7. Iuri Alcantara (31-5, 1 NC)
8. Eduardo Dantas (16-3)
9. Bibianio Fernandes (16-3)
10. Takeya Mizugaki (20-7-2)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Faber and Barão, a couple of the most spectacular 135-watt shining lights in the UFC chandelier, are now undercard fights. In Urijah’s case, it’s probably by choice; he seems to prefer being the headliner of the Fox Sports 1 prelims -- as he will be this Saturday, fighting Francisco Rivera -- rather than being buried on the PPV. As for Barão, his fight on the 20th with Mitch Gagnon, not exactly a top contender, has the appearance of penance for having missed weight and then bowing out of his title fight with Dillashaw in May.

1. Demetrious Johnson (20-2-1)
2. Joseph Benavidez (21-4)
3. John Dodson (16-6)
4. Ian McCall (13-4-1)
5. Jussier da Silva (17-3)
6. John Moraga (14-3)
7. Ali Bagautinov (13-3)
8. John Lineker (24-7)
9. Brad Pickett (24-9)
10. Tim Elliott (10-5-1)

Benavidez dominated Dustin Ortiz last month, but it didn’t get him any closer to “Mighty Mouse,” since he’s already lost twice to the champ. That’s too bad for the UFC, which really, really needs someone to emerge who can stand up to Johnson. 

1. Ronda Rousey (10-0)
2. Cristiane Justino (12-1, 1 NC)
3. Cat Zingano (8-0)
4. Sara McMann (8-1)
5. Miesha Tate (14-5)
6. Alexis Davis (16-6)
7. Jessica Eye (11-2, 1 NC)
8. Sarah Kaufman (16-2, 1 NC)
9. Liz Carmouche (9-5)
10. Bethe Correia (9-0)

This month the UFC will crown its first strawweight champion, and we’ll have to reconfigure these women’s rankings. Don’t think we’ll be messing with the top of the heap, where Rousey and “Cyborg” reign. 

Pound for pound
1. Jon Jones
2. José Aldo
3. Chris Weidman
4. Ronda Rousey
5. Demetrious Johnson
6. Anthony Pettis
7. Anderson Silva
8. Johny Hendricks
9. Dominick Cruz
10. Daniel Cormier

Pettis and Hendricks get to show their stuff on Saturday. 

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