Let’s Make MMA Better: A Better Ranking System
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My articles in 2021 mostly fall into one of three categories: analyzing a fighter or an ongoing match, looking back on an old school fighter or match, or reviewing the powers that rule the MMA. These are the most popular and often the easiest to write. However, for my last opinion piece of the year, I wanted to try a reversal of this. I’m going to critique one aspect of modern MMA and come up with a solution. In addition, this solution could be easily implemented tomorrow. There are no sports commissions, powerful individuals or office politics to navigate. And the subject to focus on is not a person, but rather an approach; namely, the current ranking system used by the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the Bellator MMA.
Before we begin, let’s recognize that no matter how perfect a ranking system is, a promotion may simply choose to ignore it. For example, we recently heard stories that Charles Oliveira wanted to defend his UFC lightweight title against Conor McGregor, a man who lost his last three fights to 155, all by stoppage, and whose last and only win in weight. lightweight was over five years ago against Eddie Alvarez. It mocks the ranking system, but as we’ve established, the UFC is all about entertainment. A pay-per-view with Oliveira fighting McGregor will generate a lot more money than one with Justin Gaethje. A better ranking system offers no benefit if it is simply ignored, which will inevitably happen from time to time with any promotion.
With this caveat out of the way, what do we seek to correct? In general terms, current rankings tell us very little, beyond which they are just the subjective perceptions of a small group of people. For example, what do we know about the ability of a fighter ranked eighth versus ninth? Is the # 8 ranked fighter better than the # 9 ranked fighter, or maybe worse, but is he doing better against the rest of the top 10 or 15? Even such a fundamental point is seldom mentioned when rankings are discussed. Also, is the eighth ranked fighter much better than the ninth, or just barely?
What does it mean if they fight and the # 8 ranked fighter dominates the # 9 ranked fighter? Does it stay in the same ranking, since the perception was that there is a big chasm between them, or is it moving forward, since the perception was that there is a small one? How are these obstacles managed? The whim of an individual ranking? Throw a coin?
What if I told you that there is an easy way to solve all of these problems, and it’s been around for over 60 years? I’m talking about Elo Ratings. Created by Dr. Arpad Elo circa 1960 for use in chess, this system gives each player a numerical score, with higher scores indicating a higher level of play. A player will then earn points for each victory and lose them for each loss, with draws adding points if they occur against higher-rated enemies and subtracting points against lower-rated ones. It is in fact a remarkably simple system, based on expectations of earnings. With a win denoting 1 point, a draw of 0.5 points and a loss of 0 points, a person ranked 100 points higher than their opponent should score 0.64 points on average. This is subtracted from their actual result and multiplied by K, which is the coefficient. So if a player rated 2400 beats a player 2300, with a K of 20 for the game, he will win (1-0.64) * 20 = 7.2 points. As we can see, defeating higher rated opponents gives much more points than lower rated ones. If a 2400 player beats a 2600, against which he should only score 0.24 points, then he will win (1-0.24) * 20 = 15.2 points. here is an online Elo calculator play with.
Now this system, which is implemented for chess, table tennis, and a wide range of other competitions, should be reworked for mixed martial arts for a very obvious reason. While Elo odds work great for the dozens of chess or table tennis matches that a player completes each year, a mixed martial artist can only fight 30 times in an entire career. Additionally, it means that the improvement or regression is less likely to be captured by Elo ratings.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution for this: make the K a lot, a lot bigger. With a K of 200, for example, if a 2400 beats a 2600, he or she will gain 152 points while the 2600 will lose that same 152, leaving the lowest rated first in a top rated list. The top rated list, in turn, can be the basis of a new ranking system. Check out the current list of FIDE Chess Leaderboards. Wesley So, eighth, with 2772 points, is tied with Levon Aronian, sixth, and Anish Giri, eighth, just ahead of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, ninth. In MMA, the separation between the rankings would of course be much greater. In chess, perfect play on both sides necessarily results in ties, which is not the case in MMA.
This is not the end of the day, however. On the one hand, before we implement the Elo system, we still have to give ratings to the best fighters. It is partly a judgment call but not very difficult. Start by giving ratings to a few fighters and, based on past results, interpolate the ratings of all the others, in the same way as was first done for international chess players in 1970. Even though the initial scores are incorrect, this will be quickly corrected during many Ranked Fights. However, we also want a way to distinguish between a one-sided beating and a close decision that could easily have gone the other way.
Again, it’s not hard to sort out. We can have different K values depending on the result. Thus, for a victory by submission or KO, one can have a full K value of 200. For a decision with a total separation of more than 5 points on the scorecards for a 3 rounds (for example, cards of 30-27 , 30-27 and 29-28 would have a separation of 7), the K value is reduced to 120. For dashboards with a separation of 3 or less, the K can be only 80, and for a separation, 60 Obviously, one can play with specific K values, but the main idea must be clear.
This system fixes all of the problems we originally described. With the ratings, we would know exactly how much better the eighth highest ranked fighter is than the ninth. It may be a small difference, one marked 2620 and the other 2610, or a large one, the first being 2700. We also know that the scoring system is not a measure of ability to face. face, but average results. against all fighters. And now we know exactly what any fighter means in beating another, and the method by which they do it for the rankings. Oh, and there’s no subjective ranking by a small group of largely anonymous people that the UFC or the Bellator picks.
As an added bonus, Elo odds also mean we don’t have to juggle complicated one-on-one chains anymore. For example, Julianna Pena was submitted quite recently by Germaine de Randamie but she just beat Amanda Nunes, and Nunes beat de Randamie by unilateral decision. How to classify these three fighters? Elo assessments provide a simple answer. Additionally, the current champion may not be the highest rated in the division. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Very often, the world champion in chess or table tennis is also not the highest rated numerically. In this case, the highest rated competitor available becomes a very obvious next challenger.
Is the system perfect? Not by far! Just like with current rankings, it’s difficult to accurately assess fighters as they improve from fight to fight, or conversely, regress with age and injury. And high K values will always create huge oscillations based on a single performance, like now. In addition, the ratings of martial artists entering a large organization for the first time like the UFC or the Bellator from a smaller one will always be very delicate. But it’s a significant improvement over what we have now. As stated, unlike most of my other gripes, fixing this issue doesn’t require the replacement or firing of an employee or a sports commission to make a major change.
Hopefully an enterprising promotion will implement the Elo reviews for MMA.