In mainstream sports, you get into a championship via winning. Professional combat sports are different, and the UFC is no exception. There is no non-profit in charge of MMA, ensuring that the usual protocols in sports are adhered to. You can't get into the Super Bowl if you sell the most jerseys, but in MMA, outside of the PFL, how popular the fight will be matters.
That's how former WWE world exhibition champion of the world CM Punk and his green belt in karate got into the UFC. Critics say that Punk (real name Chick M. Punk) took a spot that someone deserved. Who ever it was that might have been the UFC's #678th hire instead of Punk, you in all likelihood never heard of. And the UFC doubtless made enough money from the extra audience to hire some more fighters.
Inaugural UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo lost his title to Max Holloway and lost the immediate rematch. He bounced back with wins over Renato Moicano (currently unranked) and Jeremy Stephens (currently #8), but then lost to Alexander Volkanovski (currently division champ). Then he dropped to bantamweight, losing his debut to Marlon Moraes, and then he got a title shot. If it makes dollars, it makes sense. And making dollars is making fights that fans will spend their dollars on.
The UFC does have rankings maintained independently of the promotion, but does not have to follow them in determining who gets a title shot. UFC president Dana White joined Laura Sanko recently during an online chat with ESPN+ subscribers, and explained how it works.
“Obviously the rankings are very important,” said White, as transcribed by Farah Hannoun for MMA Junkie. “We always try to stay with the rankings, and it’s always awesome when you have the champion vs. the No. 1, or No. 1 vs. No. 2. But you’ve seen many times when there’s a fight people want to see, we’ll make it.”
White explained the UFC meticulously tracks fighter popularity, which plays a role in matchmaking.
“We know every number and every little detail that goes into making a fight like that,” said White. “All the kids that came off the Contender Series, I know how many people watched their fights on the Contender Series, and it keeps updating because it stays in the system.”