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As I write this column, it’s looking more and more likely that Ultimate Fighting Championship interim welterweight champion Colby Covington will be stripped of his belt, clearing the way for undisputed champ Tyron Woodley to defend against Darren Till later this summer.
For a one-sentence summary of a breaking MMA news item, there is an impressive amount of stupidity represented there -- more than I have time or space to cover, honestly. I could easily fill this column with a breakdown of how tedious and predictable it has become for fighters to claim to have signed a bout agreement while accusing a prospective opponent of delaying or refusing to do so. Then there’s the gossip and rumor mill aspect, exacerbated by a lack of transparency on the part of the organization. While I should know better by now than to hold mixed martial arts to the same standard as professional stick-and-ball sports, can you imagine if NFL injuries were regularly made public through tweets by other players, followed by days passing with no official confirmation?
However, what stands out to me most from this story is that it not only shows how meaningless UFC interim titles have become but underscores that the organization knows it. From what was once a decent idea with sensible motivations behind it, the practice of creating interim belts has become at best a transparently desperate attempt to generate public interest in an event and at worst a tool for punishing or rewarding fighters for factors other than their in-cage performance. Witness Covington’s interim strap, which was clearly intended more as a middle-finger salute to Woodley than as a prize for Covington or his UFC 225 opponent, Rafael dos Anjos.
Speaking of things I would love to cover in depth in this column but cannot, the history of interim titles in the UFC is a fascinating topic. Not only does it show the slow transformation to which I alluded above, but it encompasses a wealth of oddball matchups and freak occurrences. That kind of comprehensive write-up is a project for another day, but it’s worth our time to take a look at one counter-example. The interim heavyweight championship created after Frank Mir’s motorcycle wreck in 2004 is not the first of its kind in UFC history, but it is among the first and is, in my opinion, still the best example of what interim titles should be. Here’s a brief timeline after Mir defeated Tim Sylvia for the vacant UFC heavyweight title in June 2004.
• Sept. 17, 2004: Mir, riding his motorcycle, is hit by a car and suffers severe injuries. Let’s call this date “Day 0.”
• Feb. 5, 2005 [Day 141]: With Mir not able to defend his title, top contender Andrei Arlovski fights Sylvia for the interim heavyweight title.
• June 4, 2005 [Day 260]: With Mir still not able to meet Arlovski for a title-unification bout, Arlovski defends the interim title against Justin Eilers.
• Aug. 12, 2005 [Day 329]: With Mir still unable to meet Arlovski or even commit to a fight date, the UFC officially strips him of the title and promotes Arlovski to undisputed heavyweight champion. It has been over a year since Mir won the title and nearly a year since his accident.
From there, Arlovski would go on to defend the undisputed strap once more before losing it to Sylvia. Mir would not fight again until early 2006 -- Day 505, for those counting at home -- and as it turns out, even that was too soon; he would not return to championship form for several more years.
That timeline tells the story of the UFC coming up with a sensible and even kind solution to a tough situation. At just about every turn, the organization’s decisions seemed informed by a desire to avoid putting an entire division on hold pending the return of a man who might never fight again, all while being as fair as possible to all of the fighters involved, including Mir -- and it is worth noting that Mir’s relationship with UFC President Dana White has been notoriously hot-and-cold over the years. It’s the very definition of what an interim title should be.
Compare that belt, and the thinking behind it, to the Covington-Woodley-Till situation. Woodley, who won and defended the welterweight belt in 2016, fought twice in 2017, as well. A shoulder injury forced him onto the shelf, with an initial projected return of August 2018. In other words, not only was Woodley’s estimated layoff barely a year but, unlike that of Mir, a known quantity from the beginning. The UFC 225 bout between Covington and dos Anjos could just as easily been booked as the No. 1 contender bout it was. Now that all main events are five-round fights, there was no reason to do otherwise. Dressing up the fight with an ersatz title served the UFC no purpose but to try and drum up a few more pay-per-views -- in vain -- while thumbing its nose at its convalescing champion.
That decision now looks doubly ridiculous as the UFC prepares to strip Covington of that belt. If it happens today, by the way, this would be Day 41, for those laughing at home. It is an explicit admission that the interim belt was worthless to begin with. If the UFC doesn’t see its titles as anything more than a metaphorical tool for beating fighters into compliance, why on earth should we? Like any fiat currency backed by nothing, the UFC has minted its own belts into a state of devaluation.
Potential topic for next week, assuming all of this nonsense comes to pass: The questionable wisdom of fast-tracking a fighter into a title shot who blew weight badly in his last fight. Did we learn nothing from Yoel Romero?