Why is Conor McGregor still in the lightweight rankings?

Almost a year to the day since we last saw him in the octagon, Conor McGregor will make his highly anticipated return at UFC 257 on January 23. Facing off against Dustin Poirier in the main event, McGregor hopes to remind fans, fighters, and especially lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov that he is one of the best fighters on the planet. Ranked #4 in the official UFC lightweight rankings, McGregor hopes that with a win against Poirier—who currently holds the #2 spot—he’ll place himself right back into the division’s title picture.

That #4 besides McGregor’s name, however, is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Having last fought in the lightweight division over two years ago, McGregor currently sits above fighters such as Dan Hooker, Paul Felder, and Tony Ferguson in the 155-pound rankings. This is despite the fact that McGregor’s last lightweight fight was a loss, albeit to current undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. In fact, the last time McGregor won a fight in the lightweight division is when he captured the belt against Eddie Alvarez, all the way back in November 2016.

It’s not unheard of for a fighter to be ranked in multiple divisions, which is currently the case for McGregor. The Irishman’s last opponent, Donald Cerrone, was ranked at both lightweight and welterweight for some time when he moved up to 170 pounds in 2016. That being said, Cerrone was removed from the lightweight rankings within a year and didn’t reappear until 2019 when he beat then #11 Alexander Hernandez at UFC Fight Night 143. “Cowboy” also continued to fall down the rankings until his removal as lightweight matchups took place, whereas McGregor has retained his top-five position for some time.

So why in the world is McGregor still ranked in the lightweight division? There are numerous examples of fighters being removed in the rankings for moving divisions or inactivity, yet “The Notorious” has remained unaffected by similar issues. Even if you accept the “lightweight matchup at welterweight” scenario that the promotion put forth for the Cerrone fight, it’s hard not to acknowledge the bout took place at 170 pounds when it resulted in McGregor entering the official welterweight rankings at #15. What’s the reasoning behind this apparent hypocrisy?

The answer is a simple one—it’s what’s best for business.

It’s important to remember that the official UFC rankings are still an extension of the promotion itself. While independent media members do make up the panel and the process has been reformed to include more relevant MMA journalists, the sentiment of a broken system remains. The UFC is said to have no influence on the media members’ decisions but PowerPoints and notes from Kirik Jenness, the third party that compiles the rankings votes from members and sends them to the UFC, are distributed in an attempt to convince panelists to vote within certain guidelines. Rules on who is eligible for the rankings within certain divisions also come from the promotion, with fighters like McGregor given certain exceptions that others are not. It’s certainly possible that the majority of rankings panelists feel that McGregor deserves that spot as well, but it’s also important to note that the UFC decides who can join the panel.

Although purists of the sport decry McGregor being ranked so highly, it’s a no-brainer for the UFC. “Mystic Mac” undoubtedly is the biggest audience draw within the organization, with his pay-per-views breaking purchasing records over the last five years. Since he has become less active in MMA, following his enormous payout from boxing Floyd Mayweather, the UFC’s best move is to keep McGregor as relevant as possible outside of actual competition. The more they can keep the spotlight focused on McGregor during the periods in which he doesn’t compete, the easier it will be to promote him as an elite contender who deserves a chance for the title. Given the optics of the rankings, especially to the casual audience, this is an easy way for the UFC to keep McGregor in big matchups and title conversations.

Ultimately, the official UFC rankings will always cause disagreements amongst media, fans, and fighters. Without set criteria or rigid rules to govern the process, it’s not hard to imagine media personalities differing wildly on where they believe a fighter stands within a particular division. As for the UFC, they’ve been known to make fights that ignore the rankings altogether, even being grilled by Congress for their matchmaking. In those situations, it has always been about what the promotion believes is best for the business. From Georges St-Pierre returning after a four-year hiatus to claim the middleweight strap to #1 ranked Francis Ngannou challenging champion Stipe Miocic, the UFC always puts on fights they believe will help them the most financially.

So why is Conor McGregor still in the lightweight rankings? Because whether you like him or not, the numbers he brings in don’t lie.

UFC 257 streams live this Saturday, January 23, on the ESPN+ digital streaming service. Here’s how to order and watch the Poirier vs. McGregor PPV on ESPN+.

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