It wasn’t long ago that interim titles were made on an extremely rare basis. Whether it was due to a champion leaving the UFC or a severe injury that kept the titleholder from fulfilling his duties, circumstances rarely called for the creation of an interim championship. Nowadays, however, these titles are given out like they’re participation trophies.
What once used to be called a No. 1 contender’s bout is now a fight for an interim title. Fighters are now winning championships before they fight the true champion.
Meanwhile, MMA has switched heavily to “money fights.” This alone has helped create logjams at the top of the divisions, and this has led to these interim titles popping up. Champions are opting for the bigger fights instead of fighting the true top contender in their division. Some divisions, like featherweight, have seen a few interim titles in the past couple of years.
The middleweight division is the most recent setting for an interim belt. Champion Michael Bisping, once slated for a big-money fight with former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, will now be on the shelf while mending from knee surgery. In their place, Yoel Romero will take on Robert Whittaker for the interim middleweight belt. Bisping has only defended his title once, in October 2016. The middleweight division has been stuck in a quagmire since then as challengers like Romero have failed to earn a shot at the belt.
The UFC needs to keep these divisions rolling. The newer champions like Bisping, lightweight champ Conor McGregor and welterweight kingpin Tyron Woodley all have a fresh bunch of potential challengers. Rather than rely on the crutch of an interim belt, the promotion must make these champs defend their titles.
The interim championship is purely for marketing reasons. It helps to bolster cards that need an added push. It’s essentially a glorified top contender fight. The belt just makes more people want to tune in. It’s always more exciting to see a champion crowned.
It doesn’t even extend to just the card housing the interim title fight, but expands further when the UFC decides to unify the belts. Now, the company can tout two champions facing off on a separate card to generate more buzz and bring in more eyes to watch the event.
The interim belts justify the big-money fights that are happening more and more that hold up these divisions. Sure, the fighters deserve a big pay raise, but that should come from the promotion itself over the course of their careers so they don’t have to bank on these one-off big events to bring in what will help sustain them over their post-fight career. You’re taking away the hard work from fighters who climbed the ranks of the division and replacing it with fighters who have never fought in the division, fighters who are extremely popular or returning fighters who are popular but haven’t fought in quite some time. Nobody can fault fighters like Bisping for taking a money fight, but the price comes in the form of the resulting interim title.
For promotional purposes, the interim belt might seem like a smart strategic move. However, there are other factors to consider. In a landscape of interim champions, the sport becomes more like boxing, where there are too many belts to track. When there are multiple champions in the same weight class, it dilutes the value of the actual belt. UFC President Dana White might be best served to go back and watch the Highlander films and be reminded that “there can be only one.”