September 04, 2012

As recently as a month ago, the mixed martial arts pecking order was pretty straightforward. Now? Not so much.

Sure, fans have always engaged in arguments over which lightweight or light heavyweight had done the most to warrant a date with the champion, but until recently what was being debated, with rare exceptions, were the relative merits of fighter résumés built within the weight division.

Suddenly, that has changed.

Within the past month, the fight game's top promotion, the UFC, has asked two of its seven champions to defend their belts against athletes not in their weight classes. We're not talking about superfights pitting champion vs. champion, special events for which the promotion feels justified in bending the rules of how a sports meritocracy operates. These title fights seem to have arisen out of desperation and some measure of convenience.

Consider the ill-fated main event of UFC 151, last weekend's Las Vegas fight card that wasn't. When Dan Henderson pulled out with a partially torn knee ligament less than two weeks before his scheduled challenge for the light heavyweight championship, UFC president Dana White had to go scrambling for a new opponent for Jon Jones. He tried Lyoto Machida, the former champion who nine months ago gave Jones a fight for one round before being choked unconscious in the second. He tried another ex-champ, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, who has won two of three bouts since "Bones" took away his belt in March 2011. So far so good.

Neither of these Brazilians had done anything to distinguish himself from the rest of the 205-pound class as the logical next challenger, but the UFC was in no position to hold an elimination tournament. Dana & Co. needed someone to step into the octagon with Jones in nine days. And at least Machida and Rua are among the promotion's top tier of light heavies. Alas, neither would take the fight on short notice. (We later would discover that Jones wasn't willing to shift gears at the last minute, either.)

So White turned to Chael Sonnen. A middleweight. True, in the wake of his second unsuccessful attempt to take the 185-pound belt from Anderson Silva, Sonnen had decided to move up to 205 and had accepted a December fight against Forrest Griffin. But since when does merely scheduling a fight in a weight class qualify you to challenge for that division's championship?

As White himself later would acknowledge, "Did I think that the Chael Sonnen fight made sense, as far as the title and everything? No. But you know what? These guys have been talking smack back and forth to each other, and I thought that it was a fight that people would be interested in."

Let's give White the benefit of the doubt and not hold him to the fire for handing out a title shot to someone simply for trash talking with the champ. Let's instead interpret this matchmaking head-scratcher as the byproduct of the UFC being in a tough spot and making the best match it could in an effort to save what turned out to be a doomed event. That's a sensible action to take, considering the millions of dollars at stake, and under most circumstances would be the thing to do. But to toss a title shot at the first guy to answer the phone and say yes is a small-picture solution to a big-picture matter. Once we cease to hold championship fight matchmaking to a higher standard, do those shiny brass-and-leather belts mean anything anymore?

I wasn't quite as alarmed, by the way, when the UFC announced last week that Frankie Edgar would make his featherweight debut in October by challenging champion José Aldo. Maybe it's because Edgar is barely six months removed from a reign as lightweight champion. Maybe it's because Frankie is moving down a weight class rather than up, which I imagine to be less daunting. Maybe it's because we're both Jersey guys. Whatever.

But this whole game of musical weight classes -- from Edgar going featherweight to Sonnen and Jones' new challenger at UFC 152, longtime middleweight Vitor Belfort going light heavyweight -- is sure having an impact on the fighter rankings. Read on and you will see names where you've never seen them before. You'll see other names having taken the place of those who've gone on to bigger (or smaller) and better things.

1. Junior dos Santos (15-1)

2. Cain Velasquez (10-1)

3. Daniel Cormier (10-0)

We nearly witnessed a 260-pound injustice early last month, when Dana White casually suggested to reporters that the expected Dos Santos vs. Velasquez rematch might end up as a Dos Santos vs. Alistair Overeem fight instead. The Reem had essentially Chaeled his way to the front of the line, insulting Junior to the point where the champ wanted to make rightful No. 1 challenger Cain wait while he first shut up Alistair. And Dana, perhaps seeing bigger dollar signs than would be possible with the stoic Velasquez hyping a fight against the champ, seemed open, even intrigued, by the possibility. Fortunately, the fight promotion ultimately announced Dos Santos vs. Velasquez II. I suspect that had more to do with Overeem's up-in-the-air licensing situation than with any UFC concerns for how title shots should be doled out. But I'll take it. Overeem will get his turn when it's his turn.

1. Jon Jones (16-1)

2. Dan Henderson (29-8)

3. Rashad Evans (17-2-1)

Some will argue that this division's ranking is dubious, because rankings are for fighters and Jones, in the lead-up to the historic cancellation of UFC 151, showed he's not a fighter by declining a short-notice challenge for his title. That's a silly viewpoint, I think, when you're talking about a professional athlete. It's sort of like saying Maurice Jones-Drew is not a football player because he held out of training camp in an effort to squeeze a new contract out of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jones-Drew is a football player, and Jones is by all means a fighter. A smart fighter, in fact, one who appears capable -- in both his fighting and decision making -- of having a long shelf life atop this weight division's Top 3. Until he runs out of competition and moves up to the next weight class for an immediate title shot.

1. Anderson Silva (32-4)

2. Chris Weidman (9-0)

3. Michael Bisping (22-4)

Why not Silva vs. Weidman? Does the champ fear that the unbeaten buzzsaw from New York has too little pay-per-view appeal? Or does he fear that Weidman has too much of something else -- the gritty skill set that made Chael Sonnen such a tough opponent? Chris can wrestle, and unlike Chael, once he gets you to the mat he is capable of doing significant damage. This is not to suggest that Silva is afraid to fight the man who has earned No. 1 challenger status, but "The Spider" seems to be weighing the risk/reward ratio and leaning toward a superfight with Georges St-Pierre (but not Jon Jones). I'd rather he just fight the next guy in line, but when you've won 16 straight and defended your belt 13 times, you've earned the right to do what you want.

1. Georges St-Pierre (22-2)

2. Carlos Condit (28-5)

3. Johny Hendricks (13-1)

It's long been rumored that St-Pierre would be ready to return to from his long injury layoff at UFC 154 in his hometown, Montreal. But hey, it's also long been rumored that Elvis is alive and ready to rumble the next time Dana & Co. bring the octagon to Memphis. The moral: Never trust a rumor when you can trust a tweet, such as this one from St-Pierre to his 492,102 followers last week: "I'm now medically cleared to compete in professional mixed martial arts events -- Rendez-vous le 17 novembre @UFC 154, Montréal!!!" Presumably, Condit is among those 492,102 and is fluent enough en francais to know that his presence is required Nov. 17 in the shadow of Mont Royal.

1. Ben Henderson (16-2)

2. Gray Maynard (11-1-1, 1 NC)

3. Nate Diaz (16-7)

Now that Edgar has moved down (to featherweight), Maynard moves up (from No. 3). And that leaves a spot for a Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu fighter -- just not the one Nate Diaz would put there, if it were up to him. Nate has gone on record as saying teammate and training partner Gilbert Melendez, the Strikeforce lightweight champ, is the best 155-pounder on the planet. But until "El Niño" is doing better than squeaking by Josh Thomson via the tightest of judges' decisions, this spot belongs to his biggest fan, Nate, who'll ride a three-fight winning streak into his December challenge of Henderson for the UFC crown.

1. José Aldo (21-1)

2. Frankie Edgar (14-3-1)

3. Chad Mendez (11-1)

An Eric Koch injury scuttled his scheduled shot at Aldo and paved the way for Edgar, having just announced his move from the weight class 10 pounds to the north, to get an immediate title shot. Yeah, it would have been better if Frankie had had to beat Mendes or Chan Sung Jung to earn the shot. I mean, former featherweight belt holder Urijah Faber had to go through two bantamweights, Takeya Mizugaki and Eddie Wineland, before getting a chance to challenge that weight division's champion, Dominick Cruz. But in this new, meritocracy-free UFC, where middleweights are handed light heavyweight title shots, I suppose we can't hold it against Edgar. And Frankie vs. José sure does promise to be a great fight.

1. Dominick Cruz (19-1)

2. Renan Barão (29-1, 1 NC)

3. Michael McDonald (15-1)

(tie) Urijah Faber (26-6)

I didn't mention this above while discussing Condit, but what's with these interim title belts? I understand the UFC's desire to have an active belt holder while a reigning champion is on the shelf. But isn't the awarding of an interim belt just Part A of a two-part process? Isn't Part B -- a defense of the belt -- the important step? Isn't that the whole reason for the belt's existence? Condit never put his interim belt on the line, but at least he's now lined up to face GSP in November. Barao appears to be in a holding pattern until well into 2013, as Cruz slowly rehabs from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. I realized that the net result of putting Renan in with McDonald is that we'd lose one of Cruz's two legitimate challengers, but does this weight class seriously have to lay dormant while "The Dominator" heals his knee?

1. Joseph Benavidez (16-2)

2. Demetrious Johnson (15-2-1)

3. Ian McCall (11-3-1)

Next month at this time we'll have a more definitive fix on the top of this division. It's momentous for the UFC to be adding an eighth champion, and it was fitting that when Benavidez and Johnson were slated to square off Sept. 22 in Toronto, they were to be in the main event. But now Jones vs. Belfort gets top billing. Don't be surprised, however, if the fight demoted to co-main event ends up winning the crowd and perhaps some bonuses as well.

1. Anderson Silva

2. Jon Jones

3. Georges St-Pierre

Silva and Jones don't want to fight each other because they respect one another too much. But Silva is willing to fight St-Pierre, who seems to respect everyone. None of this has anything to do with the trio's pecking order here, but I find it interesting.

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