Power rankings on the sports pages have always seemed a little silly to me. Yet I eagerly pore over them with the colossal seriousness that someone more educated than I might devote to a Kierkegaard treatise. When the experts rank my favorite NFL team at No. 21, say, I scan the list and invariably find a team ranked above us that we beat. (Us? We? No, I don't play pro football, but my unbridled, even unbalanced passion for the game has bred in me the righteousness to invoke such we're-all-in-this-together language.) Seemingly glaring indignities like my Giants being underrated by as little as one or two spots never fail to get me riled up, though not so much when we're ranked above a team we lost to.
Why do I say power rankings are silly, then? Because when I look at them, I'm always left wondering how much expert evaluation really goes into slotting Team A at No. 21 and Team B at No. 22, rather than vice versa. Is the deciding factor win-loss record? Strength of schedule? Uniform color? I'm sure there's a lot of deep thought put into the Top 10, but after that it all seems fairly arbitrary. Yet as a fan, I'm left with an existential imprint on my soul when my team rises to No. 20 rather than slipping to No. 22. Go figure.
Thankfully, mixed-martial-arts rankings don't go to such depths, in terms of ranking numbers. But even there I believe in a smaller-scale approach, one that's stood the test of time. For more than a century, the Olympics have separated out for special recognition just three athletes or teams per event. Only those three have earned the right to step onto the medal stand, with everyone else left to take solace in at least having a cool, commendable notation to add to the resume. I like that. So we're going to go streamlined with the monthly SI.com MMA rankings, too, which if nothing else will provoke vigorous debate. After all, it'll surely get your blood boiling -- won't it? -- to see your favorite middleweight missing from our Good Things Come in Threes rankings, since that'll feel much more like a slap in the face than if he's simply put at No. 5 while you thought he should be no worse than No. 4. Well, don't hold in your outrage. Let it out ... in an e-mail stating your case. (Politely, please.)
What, a heavyweight ranking without Fedor Emelianenko? Without his unlikely conqueror, Fabricio Werdum? Without the formerly indomitable Brock Lesnar? All three of those guys were in the running for the No. 3 slot, to be sure, but no higher. Cain was a shoo-in for No. 1 after his dominating win over Brock to clam the UFC title. Alistair has been undervalued for years, in part because he's bounced between MMA and kickboxing, in part because of suspicious whispers about his bulked-up, comic-book-superhero physique, in part because he doesn't fight for Dana White & Co. Even after he won the Strikeforce title, Overeem was widely seen as a placeholder until Fedor came looking for his belt. Some still see things that way, but until I see it happen -- or unless Werdum takes him down in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix -- I'm keeping Overeem here. Why didn't Fedor simply slip to No. 3, then? I guess I'm just riding the hot hand, and at this point that's Dos Santos. His co-star on
I know I'm going to take some heat for ranking "Bones" over Lyoto Machida, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Forrest Griffin, but I'm just going by what I see. True, Jones hasn't fought the same level of competition those other guys have, but he's been thoroughly dominant every time he's stepped into the cage. So I'm going to set aside some more impressive resumes and give Jones the No. 3 slot for one simple but essential reason: If he were fighting Machida, Jackson or Griffin tomorrow, I'd pick him to win. Maybe I'm inducting the 23-year-old into the UFC Hall of Fame a little prematurely. We'll know in a few days, as Jones fights unbeaten Ryan Bader at UFC 126 on Saturday night. This will be his biggest challenge yet, but I expect the Bones Express to keep chugging along.
Sonnen is a nonfactor at this point, suspended from the UFC in the wake of his felony conviction in a federal money laundering case in Oregon. But he stays in the rankings because, well, he's still the second-best fighter at this weight and at some point he'll be back in the cage. I suppose it's fair to question Chael's ranking on the basis of his other brush with hot water -- his suspension following a failed drug test -- but I'm taking that as more of a failure to disclose his testosterone-replacement therapy than a shady attempt to cheat. Sonnen could slip a spot this weekend anyway. If Belfort takes down Silva, I'll probably drop the UFC champ just one spot, since he beat Sonnen and I think he'd take him out again in a rematch. But that's all food for future thought. For now, it's all about eagerly awaiting No. 1 vs. No. 3, and waiting for the return engagement of No. 2 . . . or anointing someone (Dan Henderson? Demian Maia? Yushin Okami?) to take his spot.
Diaz over Jake Shields? Only Cesar Gracie knows for sure. No doubt the teammates have tangled a time or two in the gym, and maybe Jake takes him out every time, for all I know. But in watching these two guys' most recent fights, I see Nick as an overall more dangerous guy. He doesn't have Shields's wrestling, but put him on his back and he has you right where he wants you. Stand and bang with him, and he has you right where he wants you (unlike Shields, who is a fish out of water in a striking battle). Nick can fight anywhere, and his unorthodox style and in-your-face brashness can get you out of your comfort zone even when you're right where you thought you wanted to be. On Saturday night, he took a lot more shots than he should have against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, but he dished out more than he took, and when Cyborg finally gave up on a standup battle he was losing and took down Diaz, Nick needed around 20 seconds to finish it with an armbar. That was impressive.
I suppose it would have been clever to rank Frankie and Gray as tied for No. 1, as an homage to their electrifying draw on New Year's night. But I resisted, maybe because I'm not that clever, maybe because I saw the fight as an Edgar win. (I gave him every round after that 10-8 first -- although when I watched again the next day on my DVR, I wavered on Round 3 and, given a second scorecard, would have marked it a noncommittal 10-10. Which still would have added up to an Edgar win.) No. 3 is a tough call: B.J. Penn would be the obvious choice (maybe even No. 2) if he weren't so noncommittal about remaining at this weight class, but he's wavering between here and welterweight (where I don't consider him Top 3-worthy). So it came down to Melendez, Eddie Alvarez, Kenny Florian and Jim Miller -- yes, Miller, whose only two losses are to Edgar and Maynard. They're all worthy, but I opted to show some love to the non-UFC fighter I've seen fight more often. I was temped to toss Anthony "Showtime" Pettis into the mix, too, for that amazing kick in the WEC swansong. But his time will come.
I was tempted to rank Aldo No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 -- he's that far ahead of the competition. Also, there's no clear-cut No. 2, with contenders Bibiano Fernandes and Marlon Sandro both coming off losses. I'm giving the spot to another guy who's coming off a loss -- except that Gamburyan's defeat was at the hands of the unconquerable Aldo, so it doesn't hurt his standing within the division in the least. At No. 3 I've slotted the guy who beat Sandro, although 16-1 Diego Nunes also got serious consideration after taking out the guy who was supposed to challenge Aldo next, Josh Grispi. Then there's Mark Hominick, who
Wait, I'm ranking the UFC champion as No. 2? Really? Well, Faber did hand Cruz his only loss back when both were featherweights, needing only about a minute and a half to defend his title that night. But yeah, maybe I'm jumping the gun on this one, because they haven't even set a date for a rematch at bantam and "The California Kid" first has to get by ex-champ Eddie Wineland next month. The No. 3 spot could have gone to another former belt holder, Brian Bowles, but seeing Benavidez out-jiu-jitsu the grappling master Wagney Fabiano in November left an impression.
This should be the toughest threesome of all to pick, considering there are fighters from 145 pounds to 265 from which to choose. But it was a breeze. These three fighters stand apart from all others for their utter command. And while Aldo has been more dominant in his division and Silva has reeled off a 13-fight winning streak, I put GSP at No. 1 because he's been unfailingly impressive. A lot of people put "The Spider" on top of the heap, but he was being handled by Chael Sonnen last August before pulling off a late submission. Now, I wouldn't argue with someone who put Cain Velasquez in the Top 3. And while Frankie Edgar might not get a lot of P4P votes after managing only a draw in his last bout, as a fellow Jersey guy I must point out that Frankie's comeback on New Year's night deserves all respect. If only I weren't so stubbornly insisting on sticking to just three . . .