Over the last 20-plus years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has evolved into one of the most organized and professional combat-sports organizations in the world. It has always maintained a relatively strong structure of its top stars getting the most out of their time in the spotlight, and the organization has also made sure that challengers to those stars are capable of giving those stars their biggest challenge, especially when those stars are champions at the top of the bill.
Unfortunately, the one enigma that remains in the UFC is the label of interim titleholders over the years, where a lot of fighters haven’t even considered their fights for the interim title to be for a real championship. While it’s a perfectly logical label to administer in necessary matters, pertaining to situations involving oft-injured fighters, it has been been regarded as less of a championship from fighters who have been forced to wear the label.
All of this leads to a nice trip down memory lane of 10 situations where a UFC title was forced to be made “interim.” There have been varying circumstances, such as injury, inactivity or a fighter just leaving the organization altogether, that have led to the application of the interim tag. With those possibilities in mind, let’s compare these occurrences and delve into the reason why the organization should use the label less often. It could help make matters less confusing for fans, while considering the wishes of the fighters as well.
1. The UFC decided to put the interim title on the line in a fight between strong freestyle wrestler Randy “The Natural” Couture and dangerous striker Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell on June 6, 2003, at UFC 43. This was after light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz was on a nearly 10-month layoff for undisclosed reasons and was unable to compete. Couture ended up defeating Liddell via TKO in the third round and won the UFC interim light heavyweight championship, later unifying it in a fight with Ortiz just over three months later at UFC 44.
2. Belarusian heavyweight contender Andrei Arlovski faced Tim Sylvia for the UFC interim heavyweight championship on Feb. 5, 2005, at UFC 51. This fight was made necessary after titleholder Frank Mir was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident and was unable to compete for an extensive period. Arlovski ended up defeating Sylvia, a past and future champion in the division. Arlovski used his underrated ground game and submitted Sylvia with an achilles lock not even one minute into the fight. Just over six months later, Arlovski’s interim label was promoted to undisputed after the UFC discovered Mir’s injury layoff was going to be longer than expected.
3. In a battle between two of the most dominant welterweight champions of all time, Georges “Rush” St-Pierre took on future UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, who was a longtime kingpin in the early years of the division that St-Pierre also later went on to dominate. Their fight ended up taking place at UFC 79 on Dec. 27, 2009, because the current titleholder at the time, Matt Serra, who was supposed to face Hughes, was injured. Therefore, GSP, who had lost his title to Serra eight months earlier, agreed to step in on short notice to take on the only man (other than Serra) to beat him — and whom he had also defeated for the title years after their initial encounter. St-Pierre ended up beating Hughes via armbar submission at the end of the second round to win the UFC interim welterweight championship, setting up a meeting with Serra, whom he defeated about five months later in St-Pierre’s home country of Canada to unify the belt.
4. Former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira met for the UFC interim heavyweight title on Feb. 2, 2008, at UFC 81. After Randy Couture decided to part ways with the UFC, the status of the heavyweight championship was up in the air. The two fighters agreed to face each other for an interim title until the situation with Couture was resolved. In this particular case, Sylvia, the man Couture beat to get the belt, faced Nogueira, who had recently left Pride Fighting Championships to fight in the UFC. Nogueira ended up beating Sylvia with a guillotine choke 90 seconds into the third round. The interim belt never became unified under Nogueira’s reign, though, as he never ended up fighting the original champion.
5. After Nogueira defeated Sylvia at UFC 81, his next fight was with Frank Mir at UFC 92. It was still for the interim title. Before that fight, the aforementioned Couture fought Brock Lesnar for the original belt at UFC 91. Lesnar won and was expected to unify that belt with the winner of the interim title bout. That’s what led to Mir’s fight against Nogueira, which Mir won by knockout in the second round to capture the interim crown. This finally set up the fight to unify the belts, and Lesnar beat Mir by knockout at UFC 100. The win made Lesnar the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion.
6. Hard-hitting Shane Carwin fought Mir for the UFC interim heavyweight championship after the champion, the aforementioned Lesnar, was out due to injury and unable to compete. This interim title was something Mir had held before, but he was no longer champion. However, due to Lesnar’s injury, Mir got a second chance on March 27, 2010, at UFC 111. Carwin ultimately ended up beating Mir by knockout late in the first round. The title was then unified in a fight with Lesnar at UFC 116. Carwin lost via submission.
7. Carlos Condit faced Nick Diaz for the UFC interim welterweight championship on Feb. 4, 2012, at UFC 143. This was after longtime champion Georges St-Pierre was discovered to still be out due to injury, so the top two contenders faced each other. The winner would go on to unify the belt with St-Pierre at a later date. The fight ended up going to Condit via unanimous decision, which fans thought was very controversial. Just nine months later, Condit and GSP fought to determine the undisputed champion at UFC 154. St-Pierre won the fight with a unanimous decision and was named the undisputed UFC welterweight champion.
8. In one of the UFC’s newest divisions, featherweight, Renan Barão was named the new challenger to take on Urijah Faber for the championship following an injury to reigning champ Dominick Cruz. Barão stepped in and was set to fight Faber for the interim belt on July 12, 2012, at UFC 149. The Brazilian won the fight fairly handily with a unanimous decision nod over Faber. Barão went on to defend the title two times. After Cruz wasn’t able to come back from injury for several years, Barão was promoted to the rank of undisputed champion.
9. Following Cain Velasquez’s second consecutive title fight win over Junior dos Santos, he was next slated to face Fabricio Werdum. Unfortunately, Velasquez got injured and was replaced by Mark Hunt, who faced Werdum on Nov. 14, 2015, at UFC 180. Werdum ended up beating Hunt via knockout in the second round to capture the interim belt, which was eventually unified in a fight against Velasquez at UFC 188. Werdum defeated Velasquez via submission with a guillotine choke in the third round to be declared the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion.
10. After featherweight champion José Aldo had to withdraw from his long-awaited title affair against Irishman Conor McGregor, top contender Chad Mendes stepped in to take on McGregor for the UFC interim featherweight championship on July 11, 2015, at UFC 189. McGregor ended up beating Mendes at the end of the second round via knockout. The belts were unified at UFC 194 when McGregor defeated Aldo by knockout in 13 seconds of the first round, making him the undisputed UFC featherweight champion.
From all these examples, you’ll notice some interesting facts:
- Seven of the fights involved belts that were made interim, simply because of champions being replaced due to injury and later fighting the interim champ to unify the belts.
- Two other times, the belt was initially made interim. It was expected to be unified, but eventually the interim champ was promoted to the rank of undisputed champion.
- One of the belts was contested as an interim championship, but it actually changed hands, while remaining interim.
- There were four times where the original champion, who had to pull out because of an injury, ended up losing the fight to the interim champion in the unifying bout.
The UFC interim-title label has gone through various transformations and been used in odd ways, but the UFC has always crowned the rightful champion, barring some weird instances.
The strangest debacle was around 2008-9, when Couture was in and out of the UFC. Executives had to put on interim title fights and regular title bouts simultaneously for fighters in the same division, hoping the winners would avoid injuries and eventually fight each other. That was definitely a complicated time, mainly because of Couture’s issues with the company. The UFC obviously didn’t want to strip Couture of the belt. The promotion had confidence in bringing him back so he could finally face the rightful challenger. If the UFC could do it over again, however, they probably would have handled it differently.
In its current form, though, the interim label has been put to its best use by the UFC executives, who have figured out to primarily use the tag when replacing injured champions, as is being done again for the light heavyweight title with current champ Daniel Cormier out due to injury, while stripping titles from champions that are injured too long.
Many fighters haven’t considered the interim belt to be real. It’s even been called “nothing.” Will Jon Jones and Ovince Saint Preux, who meet to decide an interim champion in Cormier’s absence, consider their fight to be for the real title?
As long as the UFC can maintain a good formula that isn’t too crazy, the company won’t be creating too many complicated situations. The more undisputed champions there are, the more people will feel that those particular fighters are real champions who have earned their crowns.