Tuesday March 3rd, 2015

Imagine you know next to nothing about the combat sports landscape. You understand the basics, because this is a realm that keeps it simplesomebody wins the fight and somebody else gets beat up. But beyond that, you don’t know who’s who.

So I fill in some astonishing details, telling you there’s an athlete who has emerged victorious from every bout, has won in the first round all but one time, has finished in the first minute eight times, has ended the last two fights in a combined 30 seconds.

Assured that no one else comes close to that swift dominance, you probably would nod your head if I declared this mixed martial artist to be the pound-for-pound greatest.

If I then told you this fighter is a woman, though, would your nod turn into a head shake? For some, it’s difficult to accept that the fight game’s alpha athlete might be a female. When SI.com expanded its MMA rankings two years ago to include a pound-for-pound Top 10, and we listed Ronda Rousey at No. 8, the blowback from readers and even some within the sport was immediate and, I must say, venomous. It wasn’t the same kind of dissent I might hear from ranking UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson over lightweight belt holder Anthony Pettis. This was incredulity mixed with bile. How dare you!

There was some measure of Neanderthal chest-puffing going on, for sure, from those who believed a woman’s place was not inside the octagon but out on the apron, walking around in a bikini holding up a big “1” made out of cardboard. But even many of those who supported the concept of women competing in the same cage where men do battle couldn’t wrap their brains around Rousey being in the same ranking as the elite men.

After 14-second victory, will we finally see a Rousey vs. Justino matchup?

Back around this time in early 2013, the UFC assembled a media panel to vote on fighter rankings. My ballot was one of only two -- from a pool of approximately 50 votes -- to include Rousey in the pound-for-pound Top 10. Before that, I was part of a smaller voting panel for a now-defunct Yahoo! Sports tally, and for a while it was just me and Dave Diebert, who covers MMA for the Canadian media chain Postmedia News, who included “Rowdy Ronda.” We certainly weren’t alone in seeing greatness in the 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist. So why was she missing from nearly all of the ballots?

The argument against Rousey typically sounded something like this: She fights at 135 pounds, and so does Renan Barão; you’re not suggesting she can beat the UFC men’s bantamweight champ, are you? (Nowadays, T.J. Dillashaw wears the men’s belt, so he’s the one being held up as the gatekeeper, along with other top male bantams and even flyweights.)

My response to that hypothetical battle of the sexes: It’s irrelevant.

Traditionally, pound-for-pound rankings have been fantasy sports, an imaginary exercise in assessing whether, say, 125-pound “Mighty Mouse” would defeat 240-pound Cain Velasquez -- you know, if all things were equal. OK, what does that even mean? Are we supposed to envision their meeting taking shape somewhere in the middle, with the heavyweight champion adding the speed that would come from carrying around 60 fewer pounds, and the flyweight king putting a middleweight’s wallop behind his punches? It seems so fanciful.

Extra Mustard
Ronda Rousey is rooting for Manny Pacquiao to beat Floyd Mayweather

I prefer to stack up the elite fighters more concretely, by comparing how each performs in his (or her!) weight division. In assembling pound-for-pound rankings, I weigh Cain’s dominance in the heavyweight division against what Demetrious has done against flyweights. Actual fights between flesh-and-blood competitors, that’s the best measuring stick we have.

And by that measure, how can one argue against Ronda Rousey? With each victory, one more awe-inspiring than the last, she has steadily risen in the SI.com pound-for-pound rankings. Last month she was at No. 4. And then she went out on Saturday night and submitted Cat Zingano in 14 seconds -- the fastest finish of any kind in a UFC championship fight. So now, in our March rankings, Rousey is No. 2.

Why not No. 1? Because that spot still belongs to the indomitable Jon Jones. True, he needed 25 minutes -- not 14 seconds -- to defend his light heavyweight belt the last time. In fact, with his last three defenses all having gone the five-round distance, Jones has taken an hour and 15 minutes to do what Rousey has accomplished in barely a minute and a half. (Ronda’s previous two fights went 16 seconds and 1:06.) But “Bones” has had to face down a murderer’s row -- at one point the fought champions or former belt holders in five straight bouts. The women’s bantamweight division isn’t stacked like that.

Ronda’s dominance is so remarkable, though, that this month she leapfrogs a couple of other champions, featherweight José Aldo and middleweight Chris Weidman. (Velasquez was absent from the Top 5 last month, ineligible because of inactivity.) And the “Rowdy” one might yet climb to the top. If the UFC puts together a clash between her and brawny Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, and Rousey comes out on top, look out above!

On to the rankings …

1. Cain Velasquez (13-1)
2. Junior dos Santos (17-3)
3. Fabricio Werdum (19-5-1)
4. Stipe Miocic (12-2)
5. Travis Browne (17-2-1)
6. Josh Barnett (33-7)
7. Mark Hunt (10-9-1)
8. Andrei Arlovski (23-10, 1 NC)
9. Roy Nelson (20-10)
10. Ben Rothwell (34-9)

Velasquez has been ineligible for this list because he hadn’t competed in over a year, but now the baddest man on the planet has a date for his return from injury: June 13, when he gets to render Werdum’s faux/interim belt obsolete. Goodbye to former No. 8 Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, who was knocked out by rejuvenated Frank Mir. On March 14 we get Nelson vs. Alistair Overeem.

Light heavyweight
1. Jon Jones (21-1)
2. Anthony Johnson (19-4)
3. Daniel Cormier (15-1)
4. Alexander Gustafsson (16-3)
5. Glover Teixeira (22-4)
6. Ryan Bader (19-4)
7. Phil Davis (13-3, 1 NC)
8. Ovince Saint Preux (17-6)
9. Jimi Manuwa (14-1)
10. Liam McGeary (10-0)

Jones and Johnson are set to rumble on May 23, headlining a stacked UFC 187 card. And Cormier and Bader face off June 6. Over in Bellator, McGeary became champ last weekend with a feisty decision win over Emanuel Newton.

1. Chris Weidman (12-0)
2. Vitor Belfort (24-10)
3. Luke Rockhold (13-2)
4. Lyoto Machida (22-5)
5. Ronaldo Souza (21-3, 1 NC)
6. Tim Kennedy (18-5)
7. Yoel Romero (9-1)
8. Gegard Mousasi (36-5-2)
9. Thales Leites (25-4)
10. Michael Bisping (24-7)

Weidman vs. Belfort is the co-main event of that star-studded UFC 187 show. Before that, on April 18, we get Rockhold vs. Machida.

1. Robbie Lawler (25-10, 1 NC)
2. Johny Hendricks (16-3)
3. Rory MacDonald (18-2)
4. Tyron Woodley (15-3)
5. Matt Brown (19-12)
6. Ben Askren (14-0)
7. Carlos Condit (29-8)
8. Nick Diaz (26-10, 1 NC)
9. Kelvin Gastelum (10-1)
10. Jake Shields (30-7-1, 1 NC)

Lawler will defend his belt for the first time in a rematch with MacDonald on July 11. They’ll both walk into that bout knowing who’s next, because that should be determined in a little over a week, when Hendricks and Brown go head to head. 

1. Anthony Pettis (18-2)
2. Khabib Nurmagomedov (22-0)
3. Rafael dos Anjos (23-7)
4. Donald Cerrone (27-6, 1 NC)
5. Benson Henderson (21-5)
6. Gilbert Melendez (22-4)
7. Josh Thomson (20-6, 1 NC)
8. Eddie Alvarez (25-4)
9. Will Brooks (15-1)
10. Miles Jury (15-1)

A week from Saturday, in the UFC 185 main event, Pettis puts his belt on the line against dos Anjos. Fighting for the right to challenge the winner will be Nurmagomedov and Cerrone, who face off as part of the UFC 187 mega-show. And how about Henderson, stopping a top welterweight?

1. José Aldo (25-1)
2. Frankie Edgar (18-4-1)
3. Chad Mendes (16-2)
4. Ricardo Lamas (15-3)
5. Conor McGregor (17-2)
6. Cub Swanson (21-6)
7. Patricio Freire (22-2)
8. Dennis Bermudez (14-4)
9. Dustin Poirier (16-4)
10. Nik Lentz (25-6-2, 1 NC)

Aldo vs. McGregor is still 130 days away as of this writing. Can’t wait for that one … or for the May 16 bout between Edgar and popular bantamweight Urijah Faber.

1. Dominick Cruz (20-1)
2. T.J. Dillashaw (11-2)
3. Renan Barão (33-2, 1 NC)
4. Urijah Faber (31-7)
5. Raphael Assunção (23-4)
6. Bibianio Fernandes (16-3)
7. Takeya Mizugaki (20-7-2)
8. Joe Warren (12-3)
9. Eduardo Dantas (16-4)
10. Marlon Moraes (14-4-1)

It seems more and more like a fantasy to keep Cruz on top of this list, but we’ll give him his due until he clocks his (latest) year of inactivity. Meanwhile, Dillashaw and Barão are set to rematch April 25. (And goodbye, former No. 6 Michael McDonald, whom a reader kindly reminded us has not fought since December 2013.)

1. Demetrious Johnson (21-2-1)
2. Joseph Benavidez (21-4)
3. John Dodson (16-6)
7. John Lineker (25-7)
4. Ian McCall (13-5-1)
5. Jussier da Silva (17-3)
6. Ali Bagautinov (13-3)
8. John Moraga (16-3)
9. Zach Makovsky (19-5)
10. Kyoji Horiguchi (15-1)

Makovsky beat the quirkily tough Tim Elliott and was rewarded with a May 23 date with Dodson, who’ll be making his return from a torn ACL. The champ, meanwhile, defends against Horiguchi on April 25.

Women's bantamweight
1. Ronda Rousey (11-0)
Miesha Tate (16-5)
3. Cat Zingano (9-1)
4. Sara McMann (8-2)
5. Alexis Davis (16-6)
6. Jessica Eye (11-2, 1 NC)
7. Sarah Kaufman (16-2, 1 NC)
8. Liz Carmouche (9-5)
9. Bethe Correia (9-0)
10. Lauren Murphy (8-1)

What next for Rousey? She’s beaten No. 2 (twice), No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5, along with Nos. 7 and 8. That would appear to put a target on the back of either Eye or Correia, unless Cris “Cyborg” Justino decides to live in a sauna for the next few months. 

Women's strawweight
1. Jessica Aguilar (19-4)
2. Carla Esparza (10-2)
3. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (8-0)
4. Rose Namajunas (2-2)
5. Joanne Calderwood (9-0)
6. Claudia Gadelha (12-1)
7. Jessica Penne (12-2)
8. Tecia Torres (5-0)
9. Karolina Kowalkiewicz (6-0)
10. Felice Herrig (10-5)

Esparza makes her first defense of the UFC belt next month against Jedrzejczyk. Nothing yet set up for Aguilar over in the World Series of Fighting.

Pound for pound
1. Jon Jones
2. Ronda Rousey
3. José Aldo
4. Cain Velasquez
5. Chris Weidman
6. Demetrious Johnson
7. Anthony Pettis
8. T.J. Dillashaw
9. Robbie Lawler
10. Frankie Edgar

She’s not quite at the top. But she’s climbing. Ronda Rousey, ladies and gentlemen.

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