The Evolution of the UFC Interim Championship Belt
There was a time when interim UFC championship belts were few and far between. That time is long gone. Now they’re handed out like candy. This weekend we have reached peak interim as we’ll have two interim championship fights on the same night for the first time in UFC history. UFC 236 takes place in Atlanta, Georgia with featherweight champion Max Holloway fighting Dustin Poirier for the interim lightweight belt in the main event and Israel Adesanya going up against Kelvin Gastelum for the interim middleweight championship. How and why did we get here? Lets take a look.
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In the first 17 years of the company’s history (13 years since divisional champions were established) there were five interim champions. They were used when the current champions were on extended hiatus’ whether it be due to injury or other issues. The first one saw Randy Couture defeat Chuck Liddell when champion Tito Ortiz was out for 10 months. Andrei Arlovski won the interim heavyweight belt and it was later turned into the official title when Frank Mir had to sit out longer than expected after a near fatal motorcycle accident. Georges St. Pierre stepped in for Matt Serra to face Matt Hughes following his shocking loss to Serra eight months earlier. He would go on to beat Serra in a re-match and never lose his title again until he gave it up in 2014. The last two of that era were back at heavyweight. The first came when Couture decided to leave the UFC over contractual issues and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira defeated Tim Sylvia in 90 seconds only to go on to lose it to Frank Mir who went on to lose the unification bout to Brock Lesnar.
Since 2010 there have been 11 interim belts (13 after Saturday), eight of them (soon to be 10) since the end of 2014. Its in 2014/2015 when the strategy behind them really started to shift. Up until then you still had reasonable cases with Shane Carwin, Carlos Condit, and Renan Barao winning theirs due to long injury layoffs to Brock Lesnar, GSP, and Dominick Cruz respectively. But when Fabricio Werdum beat Mark Hunt for the interim heavyweight championship as a late replacement for Cain Velasquez its like a light bulb went off in Dana White’s head. The schedule had continued to amplify with new TV deals ramping up the number of events the UFC had to put on. While this stretched the upper end talent thin they still wanted to keep selling Pay-Per-Views every month and preferred to headline them with title fights. Especially once WME/Endeavor bought the UFC in the summer of 2016 they did some market research that suggested people are more likely to buy a PPV if it has a title fight at the top. They obviously have gone on to discover that casual fans either don’t care or don’t notice whether its a real belt or an interim one.
At UFC 189 Conor McGregor was set to face Jose Aldo in a much anticipated title fight that the UFC had been building up to in an effort to put McGregor over as a superstar. That would go on to happen but it started here when Chad Mendes stepped in at the last minute to replace Aldo and lost giving Conor the interim belt. In 2016 there were three interim champions (Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, and Max Holloway), two in 2017 (Robert Whittaker and Tony Ferguson), and one wacky one in 2018 that set a bad precedent. Colby Covington beat Rafael Dos Anjos last June for the interim welterweight belt with champion Tyron Woodley sidelined with an injury. The problem is it wasn’t a serious injury and Woodley was ready to return three months later. Only Covington wasn’t, he needed sinus surgery. Instead of waiting a couple months to unify the two belts the UFC decided they would rather strip Covington and give the opportunity to another challenger in Darren Till. All because they had a PPV scheduled for September and no other champions ready to fight and “the show must go on”. This situation just repeated itself in March with Kamaru Usman getting the next title shot (and winning it) instead of a healthy former-interim title holder.
Now with UFC 236 we have one case that makes more sense than the other. Middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was scheduled to fight Kelvin Gastelum in February but had to have emergency surgery to fix a hernia and collapsed bowel the morning of the fight. He’ll be out until at least August so it makes sense to have the two top contenders in Gastelum and Adesanya fight each other in the mean time. The last time Whittaker fought last June against Yoel Romero and even if he lost that match he would’ve remained champion due to Romero missing weight. Adesanya versus Gastelum should be a lot of fun. I wrote about the possibility of ‘The Last Stylebender’ becoming the next big UFC star a couple months ago and I still think that remains the most likely trajectory. Gastelum is a good all around fighter but is probably a natural welterweight and if Adesanya can stop takedowns like he has been lately and avoid a power left hook he should be able to get his hand raised which would set up a New Zealand versus Australia unification bout.
The main event on the other hand makes no sense whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, its an amazing fight that I can’t wait to watch. But the fact that it is for the interim lightweight title is insane. Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is suspended until the middle of July but is choosing to sit out until October or November in solidarity with his teammates suspensions from the same post-fight brawl that he started. First, I don’t think a title on the line for the top contender to fight him is completely necessary. All the iterations of the top five or so fighters in that division would be must see TV. Second, I love Max Holloway but it should be Tony Ferguson fighting Poirier. Now, it has since come out that Ferguson turned the fight down and he has more serious issues he needs to resolve before he fights again. Even so why not keep Holloway at featherweight just a little while longer and have him finally fight Frankie Edgar. Then you could do Poirier versus Al Iaquinta for this “interim” title. I put interim in quotes because we all know it doesn’t matter who holds it when Khabib decides to come back. If Conor McGregor decides he wants a re-match with Khabib in November at Madison Square Garden that is exactly what the UFC is going to do, interim champion be damned. Word is McGregor is looking at fighting in July, most likely a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz, and a win there would set him up for that re-match.
As a fight fan I’m still excited to see Holloway and Poirier face off, all politics aside. Its actually a re-match itself, seven years in the making. Holloway made his UFC debut at 19 years old against the then already young veteran and soon to be title challenger Poirier when he was still down at featherweight. Poirier submitted him in the first round. Since then Holloway is 16-2 and is on a 13 fight winning streak. He looks exponentially better every time he steps foot into the cage. Poirier is also much improved since their first fight going 12-4-1 since then but 8-1-1 after moving up to lightweight. His only loss is a knockout from the hands of Michael Johnson which looks more and more like a fluke, as much as one can be (or at the very least a valuable lesson in striking defense). He also has that no-contest against Eddie Alvarez in a fight he was clearly winning until he was fouled and he also handily won the re-match. As good and complete of a fighter that Poirier has become though I can’t pick against Holloway at this point. Hes just on another level at this point. I’m expecting this to be competitive for a round or two before ‘Blessed’ takes over in the later rounds and gets a TKO finish. If that is indeed the case then nothing would make me more excited than finally getting that fight against Khabib that we were very briefly promised in April of 2018.
Another issue with this lightweight interim title is what does it mean for the featherweight belt that Holloway currently holds? Especially if he does win on Saturday does he turn around and defend his other belt a few short months later? Most likely it just sets up another interim belt at 145 pounds. All of this chaos is what makes the UFC’s refusal to create a 165 pound division as well as their intent to eliminate flyweight so confusing. It would give them more belts to toss into the ring (Octagon, sorry) and a little less reliant on these fake ones. There isn’t much of anything that is a sure thing when it comes to this organization but one thing is for sure, the interim belts are here to stay.
An auxiliary member of the MMAJA, Bob used to run the baseball blog 'The Oriole Report' before transitioning to podcasting about movies, TV, Video Games, and MMA. 'The Redbox Report' movie podcast was started in 2013 followed by 'The Redbelt Report' MMA podcast in 2016. In 2018 they were merged into 'Phelan to Communicate', a podcast that can be found on iTunes and a blog that can be found at http://PhelanToCommunicate.wordpress.com. Bob has also written for Konsume.com and BaltimoreSportsReport.com and delivers mail for a living in Baltimore County. Follow him on Twitter @PhelanToTweet.