Fight fans hate the idea of an interim belt. However, there have been enough unfortunate situations over the last few years that have reminded us of why they’re necessary. There was Georges St-Pierre, who suffered the misfortune of two major knee injuries in less than a year. And, of course, there was Dominick Cruz, whose cursed legs put him on the shelf so often that it ended up forcing the UFC to strip “The Dominator” of his belt entirely. They may not be fond of the “interim” tag, but fight fans are usually willing to accept the fact that every once and a while an interim title is inevitable when the best in the division is struck down by the MMA gods.
Fans might not exactly despise interim belts, but it seems to be universal thinking among them that the MMA community is only going to recognize such a belt if they’re left with little to no choice. Unless there’s a major injury or a personal problem that’s going to put the champion in a career-stalling or even career-stopping scenario, fans don’t want to see an interim title. As a result, MMA organizations — and the UFC in particular — have been extremely careful about only creating an interim championship if it’s completely necessary. Or at least the UFC had been up until recently.
When José Aldo was first injured and inklings of doubt seeped in about his availability for the UFC 189 main event a few months ago, it became pretty obvious that an interim title fight between Conor McGregor and another top contender (eventually revealed to be Chad Mendes) would be the UFC’s solution to the high-profile grudge match between Aldo and McGregor going up in smoke. Aldo’s injured ribs were only expected to keep him out of action for a few months, but after the UFC spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on promotion for the fight — and McGregor in particular — it was clear the company was going to do whatever it had to do in order to keep its new cash cow in the headlining slot.
With a welterweight title fight between champion Robbie Lawler and challenger Rory MacDonald already on the card, the only way to accomplish this task was to make sure that the “Notorious” Irishman was fighting for gold, even if it meant giving McGregor an interim strap that the promotion more than likely wouldn’t even consider letting him defend until Aldo was ready. After the McGregor-Mendes main event reportedly blew away all other featherweight pay-per-view main events and turned McGregor into a rising star in not just MMA but the sports world as a whole, it’s doubtful the UFC has any regrets about the decision to keep the Irishman in the main event.
However, now that the extended afterglow from McGregor’s victory has finally started to wear off following the announcement of the Aldo-McGregor bout’s new target date in December, terms like “champion vs. champion” or “title unification fight” have seemingly reminded fans and fighters that McGregor is carrying around a title belt with no merit to it. Whether it’s Aldo saying McGregor’s strap is “a toy to show his drunken friends” or Joe Rogan calling it a “made up belt,” it seems like no one is buying what the UFC is selling. And to be honest, they shouldn’t be.
Interim titles are still looked down upon by a ton of fight fans, and situations like the one with McGregor won’t help matters. More so than in any other sport, the old saying that “to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man” holds true in MMA. Unless the champion ends up like the aforementioned Cruz and is injured so often that a few years pass between Octagon appearances, it’s tough to change the minds of the purists that need to see the champion get beaten in order to crown a new king. Even top bantamweight Renan Barão, who actually ended up winning more UFC title fights as an interim champion than Cruz ever did as the true champion, was considered a paper champ by many until the day that “The Dominator” officially relinquished his belt.
Unless there’s a chance that the interim champion will defend his or her new belt at least once, if not two or three times, why should it exist at all? This is where the problem lies with McGregor’s “fake” belt.
When the UFC threw McGregor into a title fight that had no business happening (other than for business reasons), the company essentially betrayed the trust of the fight fans who had been led to believe that an interim title was a worst-case option and not just a way out for the UFC if the fight the company wanted to promote broke down. Now, as a result, it’s opening up the door for questions the UFC doesn’t want to have to answer.
After hearing Rogan’s remarks, McGregor responded, “Really, what is a belt? What is José’s belt? He was handed the belt when they bought the WEC. He was gifted his belt. He didn’t win it from nobody. I mean, the belt doesn’t mean jack shit. It’s the numbers that really mean business. That’s what I hold, every number in the damn game.”
Even if you read between the lines a bit and ignore McGregor’s self-promotion, the fact that one of the two or three biggest stars in the sport today is saying things like “the belt doesn’t mean jack shit” should be making the UFC nervous, especially since those comments echoed some of the points made by Rogan, one of the more recognizable faces of the UFC.
The majority of fight fans are smart enough to realize that fighting is a job to these men and women. They understand that a paycheck at the end of the day is what’s most important to these fighters. They also need to believe that each and every fighter’s eventual goal is to become the best in the world. While McGregor would undoubtedly tell you that this is the case if he was asked about his own career goals, he gave the opposite impression when trying to defend the UFC’s actions and his own interim belt. He ended up completely dismissing the symbol of excellence for every fighter in the sport.
The UFC put McGregor in a position where he’s been handed a “fake” belt. Obviously he’s going to defend himself against the criticisms as best he can. However, defending his knock-off title by badmouthing the real thing isn’t the answer.
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