Opinion: The Champion of Interims

By Eric Stinton Nov 28, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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History didn’t last very long.

Two weeks after Conor McGregor became the third person to win Ultimate Fighting Championship titles in two different weight classes -- and the first to do so simultaneously -- the biggest star in the sport no longer holds that distinction. Instead, the man he knocked out with a single punch has now been upgraded from the interim featherweight champion to the “undisputed” featherweight champion. Meanwhile, Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis will fight for the now vacant interim featherweight championship at UFC 206.

If you’re scratching your head at all this, you’re not alone. Interim belts are strange in and of themselves, but they do serve a purpose. Being the champion denotes being the best fighter in the division. When there is ample reason to doubt that, the champion, in theory, defends his or her strap against the top contender. When champions are unable to defend their spot, an interim championship makes sense. It’s a glorified number one contender belt, but it also adds to the storyline of the division. It gives credibility to the notion that the injured champ may no longer be the best, and it rewards the fighter who is willing and able to stay active.

Probably the least maligned interim champion was Renan Barao. When Dominick Cruz was unable to defend his bantamweight belt due to injuries, it made sense to not only install Barao as the interim champion but promote him to the undisputed champion after a pair of interim defenses. By the time Cruz was officially stripped, it had been nearly two and a half years since he had defended his title, and there was legitimate claim as to whether or not he was still the best fighter in the division. It made sense then, but in this case, it’s hard to see what the point is for anyone involved.

Starting at the top, stripping McGregor accomplishes nothing for the UFC’s biggest breadwinner. After all the hoopla surrounding his historic win against Eddie Alvarez, the accomplishment feels a little cheaper now. Of course, he still has the lightweight belt and no one in their right mind can dispute the fact that he’s the best featherweight on the planet, but that’s the point. The belt was ornamental for McGregor, not essential. The UFC had no problem with McGregor leaving his duties associated with defending the belt to fight Alvarez and Nate Diaz because they were big moneymakers. Now, following a legendary performance in a legendary arena, his star power is bigger than ever and the UFC’s move is to strip him of his first title? Why let him jump around in the first place? If there’s marketability in allowing him to roam heavier pastures, then certainly there’s more marketability in letting him do so as the first and only two-division champion.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why it happened. McGregor is not the only fighter on the roster, and the rest of the division -- namely Aldo -- has been vocal about how it feels to wait around for the champion to return. Had McGregor followed his performance at UFC 205 by booking a title defense against Aldo, surely none of this would have happened. Instead, he’s taking time off for the birth of his first child, which perpetuates the featherweight waiting list. I feel for Aldo and company, but again, what is actually being accomplished by this move? McGregor is still the biggest star in the sport, albeit slightly less photogenic now that he can’t cover up his awful tiger tattoo with a second belt; and he is still the best 145 pounder on the planet. Stripping him of the title does not mean he’s no longer the best. It just means the nominal champion is not the real champion.

This brings us to Aldo, the greatest featherweight of all-time. Before and after beating Frankie Edgar for the interim featherweight strap at UFC 200, Aldo was vocally dismissive of its meaning. He wanted the undisputed belt and nothing more. On the one hand, you have to respect the championship mentality he has. On the other hand, this can’t be the way he wanted things to happen. No matter what word precedes Aldo’s title, he is not the undisputed champion. Aldo is undoubtedly the best, most accomplished 145-pound fighter ever, but he’s currently a divisional silver medalist who is wearing the gold medal because it was left on the podium -- and not by choice or circumstance so much as administrative coercion. Being the default champion is hardly better than being the interim champion. As it stands, the “undisputed” championship serves as a placeholder to get the first crack at McGregor, if he decides to come back down to the division he tore through. Then again, isn’t that what the interim belt did in the first place?

The only people who have something to gain here, sort of, are Holloway and Pettis. As empty as interim belts are, they aren’t completely meaningless. Interim champions are still etched into the record books alongside undisputed champions, and holding the belt guarantees a shot at Aldo, which will guarantee a shot at the real deal if it ever materializes. Yet whoever ends up winning the interim belt will still be affected by the vacuum left in McGregor’s absence. The winner will become the interim interim champion, which sounds as dumb as it really is. To continue to torture my Olympics analogy, the bronze medalist will be upgraded to silver simply because the silver medalist left the podium to stand in the spot the gold medalist left behind. It used to be that second place was the first loser, but now first is nothing, second is first and third is second, which is also first. Welcome to the newest iteration of MMA math.

To be sure, Holloway, Pettis or Aldo could very well beat McGregor, but until they do, there will always be asterisks beside their titles. It’s a shame that one of the most exciting divisions in the UFC is being upended like this, but McGregor is in uncharted waters in terms of his ability to call his own shots. You can’t blame him for exercising that leverage. It will be interesting to see the fallout from all of this; one only hopes that McGregor got the money and company shares he wanted, lest there be a long, drawn-out battle between him and the UFC.

The problem with interim champions is not that they exist -- they serve a purpose -- but that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for installing them. Much like real title shots, they’re caught in between meritocratic necessity and promotional contrivance. The little intrinsic worth of interim titles is eroding under the pressure of transparent pandering. McGregor left the division in disarray when he went gallivanting at lightweight and welterweight. There’s no denying that, nor is there any doubt that the UFC encouraged and allowed it to happen. Stepping in to play championship roulette like this has not organized the division whatsoever. It’s made it more chaotic and less believable than ever.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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