Heading into a jam-packed series of events in early 2010, three UFC titles will be defended by champions who are viewed as nearly unbeatable, and each will be facing a challenger who has faced questions about the legitimacy of their contender status.
Lightweight champ BJ Penn will meet Frankie Edgar, reportedly at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi—a card which tentatively also features the return of middleweight and pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva, who is defending his belt for the sixth time against Vitor Belfort.
Lastly, the gold standard of welterweights, Georges St-Pierre, is set to face brash Brit Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy at UFC 111 in New Jersey.
Though the matchup between Hardy and St-Pierre doesn't seem deserved in the eyes of Mike Swick or St-Pierre's teammate Nate Marquardt, the truth is that Hardy is the best of very few options in the 170-pound division.
Additionally, it shouldn't come as any surprise that the guy who was recently beaten by Dan Hardy in a pre-established No. 1 contender fight doesn't think Dan Hardy should be competing for a championship.
While he certainly hasn't run the most daunting gauntlet the division has to offer, the truth is that Hardy is the best of a very small group of people who has yet to be destroyed by the two-time Rogers Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year.
At the very best, Hardy is the No. 3 welterweight contender in the UFC right now. Worst case, he's No. 7.
Unfortunately, we have no idea exactly where the UFC has him placed, because the biggest company in the business likes to keep their thoughts and rankings of fighters close to the chest, leaving fans and media to speculate a fighter's place in the hierarchy, and criticize when an "unworthy" contender is promoted to a title fight too soon.
Case and point: Vitor Belfort.
While it is fairly easy to build a marketing campaign around Vitor Belfort filled with reminiscent clips of "The Phenom" from his first foray into the UFC and his time as light heavyweight champion, it's fairly difficult to convince anyone—including champion Anderson Silva —that a fighter with a single win in the company deserves to be given the chance to fight for the middleweight belt this quickly.
If the lone fight argument doesn't work for you, how about the fact that said win came at a catchweight of 195 pounds?
When Belfort returned and stopped Rich Franklin in quick fashion at UFC 103, many knew in advance that the former light heavyweight champion would be fast-tracked into title contention, but the general consensus was that divisional stalwarts Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt were more deserving.
Not in the eyes of the people who matter the most—Dana White, Joe Silva, and the UFC Decision Makers.
Last week, Frankie Edgar was announced as the next challenger to BJ Penn's lightweight crown, despite the fact that the New Jersey version of "The Answer" was dominated by undefeated Gray Maynard when the two met at Ultimate Fight Night 13 in 2008.
Maynard and the Xtreme Couture camp may be saying all the right things about biding their time and using the time to keep improving, but you certainly couldn't blame "The Bully" for being more than a little frustrated that a man he handled so thoroughly is fighting for the title first.
There are two lessons that can be taken from these three title situations. The first, and one that is already widely known and accepted, is that marketability plays just as important a part in a fighter's career as the results they deliver in the cage.
Nate Diaz is 1-3 in his last four fights—a record that would have some fighters on the unemployment line—but continues to headline Fight Nights because the cocky kid from Stockton, California is far more marketable to the UFC than lightweights with better recent track records like Evan Dunham, Jim Miller, and Sam Stout.
However, the second lesson could reduce the questions and confusion that arise when some of these matches are made. It's time for the UFC to publish rankings, so that fighters and fans alike know where they stand in the standings.
Now, let's get one thing clear before moving forward: this is not going to happen.
While it would garner a favorable response from the fans, and provide a clearer understanding of where different contenders stand in their respective divisions, the UFC isn't about to go fully transparent and break from their extremely successful routine.
We may question some of the pairings, but at the end of the day we're fight fans, and we certainly aren't going to miss a title fight because we don't think Dan Hardy is the true No. 1 contender.
While the likelihood of the UFC rolling out their own rankings anytime soon are about as great as me winning the lottery (BTW, I don't buy lottery tickets), doing so could do a lot of good for the most successful organization in the history of Mixed Martial Arts.
The old saying, "No publicity is bad publicity" is antiquated, at least to me. Bad publicity is bad publicity, and while the base idea that "being in the public eyes for something bad is better than not being in the public eye at all" can certainly be argued, good publicity lays a beating on bad publicity 99 times out of 100.
From what I hear, bad publicity has a killer left hook.
Rolling out a ranking system of their own that fans and media alike can turn to when perplexing pairings are put forward would offer some understanding of how the matchups materialized.
Even though the majority of the fans (and all of the MMA media) are going to tune in regardless, having fight announcements met with praise and positive reactions seems like a better idea than a facing a backlash of boos and hisses.
Additionally, it's not as if MMA fans are unintelligent souls who don't understand the various elements and intricacies of the sport and matchmaking.
We know that marketing plays a roll in the decision-making process, just as we accept and understand that while Jon Fitch is the best welterweight not named Georges St-Pierre, the former captain of the Purdue wrestling team was beaten by the champ recently enough to make another title shot almost impossible at this time.
The same applies to Thiago Alves, and to a lesser extent Josh Koscheck, both of whom have already received a beating at the hands of the pride of St-Isidore, Quebec. That is exactly why the placement of Hardy in the UFC 111 main event has been met with understanding (for the most part) and not outrage.
What we don't understand is how matches like Antonio Rogerio Nogueira versus Brandon Vera happen. Yes, the fight is no longer taking place, as Vera is headlining the UFC's first foray to Versus, while Nogueira is rumored to be meeting Forrest Griffin "sooner rather than later".
But before Nogueira fell victim to an ankle injury, the two were set to square off at UFC 109.
Outside of putting a somewhat marketable fighter (Vera) next to a new addition in need of further exposure (Nogueira), everything else about the bout failed to make sense.
Nogueira was coming off his debut destruction of Top 10 ranked Luis Cane, while Vera had dropped a questionable decision to Randy Couture. The continued push of the constantly disappointing Vera would have surely drawn more than a few boos and hisses.
Offering up an organizational account of where fighters fall in their divisions would help clear up some of the questions that come, not only leading to better understanding of the decision and matchmaking processes, but also offering more opportunities for favorable reviews, instead of the highly-overrated bad publicity.
Unfortunately, the day the UFC—or any organization for that matter—rolls out their own set of rankings for fans and media to scrutinize will probably follow the day Hades is hit with a snowstorm of epic proportions. From a business standpoint, it makes no sense to make such a move.
But I don't always want to look at things from the "best for business" perspective; before I was a part of the industry, I was a fan of the sport, and sometimes I still want what is best for the fans to come before what is best for the business.
Every site and every serious fan already has their own take on who ranks where across each division. Wouldn't it be nice to know how your breakdown of the welterweight division stacks up against Dana White's version?
Originally posted at FiveKnuckles.com