UFC 259: Dominick Cruz Believes Rankings Based on Pay, Wants Fighters on Panel

Las Vegas, NV — Dominick Cruz has an interesting take on the UFC’s official rankings.

The former bantamweight champion returns to action this Saturday at UFC 259, taking on the unranked Casey Kenney. That’s a bit of matchmaking that has raised some eyebrows. Given Cruz’s status as an all-time great, one would imagine he could have held out for a ranked opponent, or at least a better known name.

Cruz, however, believes that with a three-fight win streak behind him, Kenney is one of the best of the world. He’s not wrong — simply making it to a major promotion proves that Kenney is among the best. But it’s Cruz’s comments on the UFC rankings that raised eyebrows.

“If I’m being perfectly honest, rankings has to do with the money you’re paid more than where you’re actually legitimized. So what is a ranking to a fighter?” Cruz questioned during the UFC 259 media day on Wednesday.

“It’s about pay. If [Casey Kenney] was getting paid more, he’d be ranked. Facts. That’s a fact,” Cruz added later.

The UFC’s rankings are made up of a board of journalists independent from the UFC. That includes Cageside Press writers Rodney James Edgar and Daniel Vreeland, both of whom joined the panel prior to their time with this publication, representing other outlets. Edgar is one of the few journalists to have competed in MMA, as an amateur. The rankings panel has taken criticism over the years for including a number of outlets on the fringes of MMA, but the contention that salary is tied to rankings is a new one.

Cruz, however, believes there is a direct correlation between a fighter’s pay, tenure in the company, and his spot in the rankings. He went on to explain further during a virtual media session, after lightweight Beneil Dariush’s suggestion that more fighters need to be willing to fight those behind them in the rankings was brought up.

“If we start giving Casey Kenny more money, we just move him up in the rankings because you have to, because he’s making more money, so you got to face him against tougher guys. The ranking has nothing to do with their skill set,” Cruz opined. “It has to do with the money that they’re being made [sic] and how many times they’ve rewritten a contract with UFC. That’s the rankings. That’s it. I’ve had many contracts with UFC, I’m ranked higher. Casey Kenny is new. Newer. He’s on a three fight win streak. When he renegotiates his contract, win, lose, or draw in his fights, as long as he stays with the UFC, he’ll make more money on the next set. So that’s the way this works. You fight, you sign for six fights and the money, pay goes up if you’re doing your job right. My job, I’ve been doing my job right for many years. So my my pay went up so I’m ranked.”

UFC fighter pay, of course, is not generally public info these days. While the Nevada Athletic Commission previously made purse info available, that is no longer the case. Few commissions, at this point, release fighter financials. Cruz’s premise, really, is on shaky ground, and would mean that the UFC itself was manipulating the rankings — something the ex-champ never stated, and something with no direct evidence.

A more understandable explanation would likely be tenure — not money. With time, a fighter’s profile rises, and that is in itself an invaluable currency. The more prominent a fighter’s name, the more the rankings panel might be influenced to put them in a favorable position, consciously on unconsciously.

Cruz, however, is dismissive of the rankings in general, and of those who make them. “I don’t know what the rankings are, man. I don’t really care. Who makes the rankings are the guys that don’t fight,” he stated. “Who cares?” Cruz recalled being ranked second in the UFC’s pound-for pound rankings, years back. “My goal was to be number one on the pound-for-pound list. And I was so close. But the guy who was ranked above me I beat for five rounds. It wasn’t close. It was Demetrius Johnson. And he was ranked above me on the pound-for-pound list after I’d beaten him. That made no sense to me.”

According to Cruz, “guys who make the list don’t fight. So what do they know? They don’t fight. They don’t know anything.” It’s not an uncommon opinion among fighters. And Cruz, who serves as a UFC analyst on-air, suggested that to be a journalist himself, he would have to “do TV for a while. I’d have to ask the right questions. I’d have to go and be a journalist in school, wouldn’t you say? If I wanted to go jump into your job, would you say I could do your job better than you?”

The former champ has a solution, however. “Maybe fighters need to be doing the rankings.”

It’s an interesting suggestion, one that has also been made to fix MMA’s bigger issue, judging. But as with judging, there’s one obvious flaw: bias. MMA might be an individual sport once you enter the cage, but there’s a team backing every fighter. Does Cruz was a panel that includes current and former Team Alpha Male members dictating his spot in the division?

That said, the rankings clearly have room for improvement. In the meantime, Cruz has Casey Kenney to contend with this Saturday. Asked to put on his analyst cap, he told Cageside Press that “[Kenney] started with a grappling background, from what I can tell. He’s got a black belt in judo, so he’s gonna have very strong hips.”

“If anybody knows anything about Judo, [they’re] some of the toughest human beings on the planet. They’re basically thrown on their head every single day, and they allow it to happen,” he continued. For Kenney, that is mixed in with grappling, armbars, and he’s good at taking the back. Cruz is also well aware of Kenney’s team, The MMA Lab, where former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson trains under John Crouch. Who, said Cruz, is “an analytical coach, who I’ve known for many years. So they know my style, I’ve got tons of hours of film on their [style], so they’re gonna be well prepared for me, I know that I’m well prepared for them.”

Cruz believes, having watched plenty of film on his opponent, that Kenney has improved his striking, and singled out his win over Nathaniel Wood as an example. “He’s picked up and improved a lot in every aspect.” As a champion, Cruz added, “I’ve faced guys that weren’t ranked in one year, and they win three fights, or they win two fights in spectacular fashion, and next thing I know, I’m fighting them for the title. So it’s all perception. It’s all interpretation on who deserves what. And realistically, the ranking has to do with what you’re getting paid more than it has to do with your skill set as a fighter. I can tell you that.”

Watch the full UFC 259 media day scrums with Dominick Cruz above. The event takes place this Saturday, March 6 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.