Aldo underscores meaninglessness of MMA pound-for-pound rankings

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I don't know how you feel about the matter, but I've always thought that ranking the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world was a slightly ridiculous thing to do.

When fighting was a less mature sport than it is now, with a talent pool split between Japan and the United States, it was impossible to rank fighters coherently, just because they were working on fundamentally different lines. Serious differences in the kind of strikes that were allowed and the length of rounds, in the role of weight cutting, and in matchmaking philosophies made direct comparisons between UFC and Pride athletes pointless.

In Pride, fighters often trained for bouts without knowing who their opponents would be, were often told that entertaining the crowds was more important than winning, and were, if they were marketable, often lined up against tiny and hapless foes. On the other hand, they had to train for grueling 10-minute rounds, defend against kicks to the head when they were grounded, and sometimes they had to fight multiple world-class opponents in one night. Ranking Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva against one another when they were in their primes was more about deciding who was fighting under tougher conditions than anything else, and if UFC fighters seem in retrospect to have been better all along, it's worth considering that if Pride had won in the end and all the UFC fighters had ended up fighting in the Japanese system, they may not have fared so well themselves.

These days, when nearly every fighter of any note is under contract to Zuffa, rankings don't strike me as inherently absurd. They still seem at times like epic exercises in point missing.

Take the case of UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. As commentator Joe Rogan breathlessly pointed out during his walk-in Saturday, he was widely considered one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world going into his title defense against Mark Hominick. Some might have even called him the best. There were three reasons for this: He looked awesome in the cage, knocked out nearly everyone he faced, and was purportedly even better on the ground than standing.

None of this really held up if you thought about it at all. Coming into the fight, Aldo had four notable wins. One was against Manvel Gamburyan, whose main achievement was a win over Mike Brown. One was against Urijah Faber, a natural bantamweight who'd lost two of his last four fights, both to Brown. One was against Brown himself, a journeyman with an iffy record outside his wins against Faber and who has lost three of five since facing Aldo. And the last was against Cub Swanson, an exciting fighter not far removed from a loss to an utterly washed-up Jens Pulver.

This is no kind of bad record, and Aldo did finish seven of eight WEC fights with strikes. More than that, he just looked great in the cage, with crisp striking and nearly unrivaled speed and aggression. When you consider that Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre have been routinely been destroying competition tougher than any Aldo has ever faced for longer than he's even been a professional fighter, though, it's a bit bewildering to realize that sharp observers have been ranking him on par with them. Especially since they were doing so partly on the basis of a jiu-jitsu game no one had really seen.

In any event, Aldo showed quite clearly on Saturday that he is nowhere near as good as Silva, St-Pierre, Jon Jones and others who have a real claim on the mythical title of pound-for-pound king. He showed fantastic speed, his usual excellent striking, great head movement and some surprising wrestling skills, but his vaunted jiu-jitsu was nowhere to be seen and in the deep waters of the fifth round he was helpless against a thoroughly battered Hominick, who had a hematoma that looked to be the size of a baseball growing out of his forehead. Aldo looked like a terrific fighter and a worthy champion, but not a killer and not someone at the absolute highest level of the sport.

Why does this matter? Because the kind of hype that was put behind Aldo, with numerous independent analysts rating him as a peer to the very best in the sport, is part of a broad con. So far as anyone buys into it, it perpetuates that con.

UFC officials will privately admit that there are two reasons they don't publish their own rankings. One is that everyone would, rightly, scoff at them as a mere promotional tool. The other is that they would provide fighters with leverage in negotiations. Yushin Okami, looking at his ranking as the number two middleweight in the world, could quite reasonably argue that he deserves a title shot and more money than the number three man, when UFC might want to give him neither. No official rankings means no such leverage.

When it suits their purposes, though, UFC is quite happy to take rankings from sources ranging from Sherdog to random goofs very seriously. Were Dana White and Joe Rogan to claim out of nowhere that a fighter of Aldo's accomplishments is as good as Anderson Silva, the public would laugh; launder the same judgment through a few pound-for-pound rankings, and it becomes settled fact. This is how the great engine of hype churns forward, blotting out the truths the sport is supposed to reveal -- who is the toughest fighter, the strongest, the most skilled, the best -- and replacing them with something very much like, but not the same as, reality.

The truth is that there is no way to rank fighters, and really no way to tell how good they are, even using a smartly designed objective system. A great fighter has a bad weight cut and a bad skill matchup and looks lousy, a decent one takes some undetectable drugs and takes on an opponent with a secret injury and looks great, and both are rated on performances that don't quite reflect how good they are. One thrives in a system that encourages weight cutting, another suffers. Both get old overnight and the indifferent opponents who take advantage are touted as comers. Even within divisions, ranking fighters fairly is probably impossible; everything is provisional, and nothing is assured. Introduce the kind of speculation inherent in pound-for-pound rankings, and the whole thing is a quickly lost cause.

None of this means that no one should list, rate and rank fighters, and argue viciously over the whole thing. I do it, Sherdog does it, you probably do it, and random goofs do it. It's a lot of fun and it can be a good way to think about how skills and characteristics match up. As everyone does it, though, it's worth keeping in mind that in the end rankings are about money and how promoters can make it by selling some fighters as a bit more and some as a bit less than what they actually are. It's already hard to tell what's real and what's not in fighting. Ranking, and really the whole idea of taking fights to demonstrate anything other than how things worked out on given nights, just makes it harder.