Opinion: The Silliness and Beauty of Interim Title Fights

By Jordan Breen Dec 9, 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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It sucks that the rematch between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson fell apart, nixing UFC 206’s original headliner. With that said, unlike most doomed Ultimate Fighting Championship main events that fall apart and leave behind a weak and destitute lineup, the card on Saturday in Toronto is not only a fantastic mixed martial arts card, but to my mind, the disintegration of Cormier-Johnson 2 has created a much larger, greater good for MMA.

In the wake of Conor McGregor’s lightweight title capture and the very obvious fact that he would never return to 145 pounds, it goes without saying that the UFC would have stripped the Irishman of his featherweight crown eventually. Maybe it even would’ve done it prior to UFC 206 anyhow. Regardless, the promotion’s hand was forced when Cormier-Johnson 2 was nixed due to Cormier’s adductor injury. We may have lost one bout, but in its stead, another fight was drastically bolstered for the better.

Max Holloway versus Anthony Pettis was a smart and stylistically intriguing matchup when it was only a three-round affair. However, the addition of the extra 10 minutes introduces a level of potential, a capacity for greatness, that we could simply never hope for in a 15-minute MMA fight.

Yes, I know that by virtue of being promoted to the main event alone, Holloway-Pettis would have become a five-rounder; an interim title belt was not needed to create this dynamic. However, let’s pretend for a minute that Cormier-Johnson 2 stayed intact as the UFC 206 main event. As I said, it’s entirely possible that the McGregor situation would’ve precipitated this same outcome. In that instance, throwing an admittedly useless interim title on top of this fight makes all the sense in the world. I will always defend the inane interim titles of MMA.

No, it doesn’t make sense in terms of actual contendership. In stripping McGregor, the UFC promoted the all-time greatest featherweight, Jose Aldo, back to full champion status and, as rare of an occurrence as it is, Aldo’s not even presently injured. The UFC’s featherweight champion is healthy, so there is no real “reason” for an interim title, other than for the UFC to manufacture false stakes and help sell the fight. This will not work: It is overwhelmingly hard to believe that in this climate UFC 206 will do more than, say, 250,000 pay-per-view buys.

With all of this said, I remain steadfast in my love for pointless interim title bouts, simply because, by their nature, they give fights those extra two potential and critical rounds. As mentioned, because it’s now the UFC 206 main event, Holloway-Pettis doesn’t need this injection of faux gold to get the five-round blessing, but in a different circumstance, with a main event that didn’t implode or on a different card entirely, it may be a different story. Frankly, the idea that we inhabit an MMA world where a bout like Holloway-Pettis was even considered a three-rounder bothers me.

Look at the MMA history books. It’s not as though there are no good three-round fights. In fact, this sport has some truly classic battles that last less than 10 minutes. There are incredible fights in the annals of cagefighting that last less than five minutes, like Nick Diaz-Paul Daley. However, the vast majority of thrilling, modern MMA classics are bouts that have those two extra rounds. Fifteen minutes may be fine for sorting out the sport in most cases, but when it comes to the crème de la crème, the very best fighters in the world, 25 minutes is infinitely more apt. Five rounds allows for a more serious exchange of skills and techniques; it places a premium on cardiovascular fitness; and very often, it allows for the rollercoaster of drama and emotion as the momentum of a fight shifts and swings.

Fights are not fundamentally better because they’re longer; no one wants to see Gracie-rules bouts that consist of 90 minutes of conservative grappling. However, 25 minutes for MMA purposes really does seem to be the sweet spot that allows for the true dynamic of a fight to unfold. There is a reason the UFC opted to make all main events five-rounders back in late 2011; major fights are simply better this way.

No one disagrees with this point; there are people who feel title fights and main events should be seven rounds. However, lots of folks take umbrage with interim title fights. There’s no need to scoff at interim title fights, even if they’re senseless. Who is truly being tricked? If you’re the sort of fan complaining about a superfluous, secondary title in a weight class, you’re well aware of the pointlessness and you likely understand the political machinations that led to that interim belt’s creation. If we’re all in on the joke, there’s not really any promotional deception.

Ironically, very few interim title fights, at least those in the UFC, have ended up requiring the full five rounds. In terms of interim belts in the Octagon, only Jon Jones-Ovince St. Preux and Carlos Condit-Nick Diaz have ever gone past the third round. However, it is always about the potential for greatness: MMA is always better when its best fighters are trained and prepared for a full 25-minute battle. Even if a five-round bout ends in the first 15 minutes, the fact alone that the contest is even scheduled for 25 minutes introduces a different strategic dynamic that influences the bout and, to my mind, typically promotes a more compelling, strategic brand of MMA.

Interim titles do have a real purpose, at least theoretically. There are instances where an injury or maybe even a contract dispute may keep a fighter out of action for a particular duration, and no one wants to see an entire division frozen out because of adverse circumstances surrounding its champion. When Frank Mir flew off of his motorcycle in September 2004 and his timetable for return was indefinite, it made good sense to line up Andrei Arlovski-Tim Sylvia for an interim strap. Likewise, when Dominick Cruz went through injury hell for two years, it made good sense for the UFC to have Renan Barao-Michael McDonald for an interim title. However, for the UFC, the fundamental and theoretical basis of interim championships has hardly been the historical concern.

The first UFC interim title fight came in June 2003 at UFC 43, with Randy Couture shocking Chuck Liddell and stopping him in the third round. There was only a title on the line because Tito Ortiz was in a contract dispute and was none too keen on fighting Liddell. More than anything, it was a diss to Ortiz, and Zuffa has long been sheepish about pushing pay-per-views that don’t have a title belt in the main event. Again, this is a transparent perversion of the interim title concept, but that doesn’t make it wholly stupid. If a belt does help a main event sell, fantastic. Otherwise, at worst, we’re always guaranteed five rounds.

Interim titles will never disappear from this sport, certainly not in the UFC. Cruel as it is, champions will still succumb to injury and their timetables for return will be inconclusive. On top of that, in the post-McGregor world, as more elite fighters try to exercise control over their fights -- who, when and where they fight -- we are likely to be subjected to even more interim title fights if future UFC champions play hardball and are willing to sit on the sidelines until their demands, whatever they may be, are met. There is nothing wrong with this.

Outside of the most textbook instances like Mir and Cruz’s injuries or, say, Couture’s “resignation” from the UFC in October 2007, the MMA public tends to hate interim titles, and there is simply no need for it. Interim titles, even if used in questionable circumstances, don’t harm the sport. If a fighter wins an empty championship and is simply a placeholder for a more legitimate titlist, it will bear out in time. If everybody understands that most interim championship set-ups are inherently BS, then we’re simply getting a little extra pomp and circumstance, plus, another potential 10 minutes of greatness. This is a good thing.

Like I said, Holloway-Pettis may be a strange instance for me to voice my support for the interim title concept, since Aldo is simply sitting around waiting for the winner and it would have been five rounds anyhow after the Cormier-Johnson cancellation. However, this is not the world that the UFC wanted; the promotion wanted Cormier-Johnson 2 in a headliner and Holloway-Pettis as a co-feature. Given the stakes of the matchup and the style clash itself, 15 minutes for Holloway-Pettis would’ve been a letdown. If Cormier-Johnson 2 stayed intact and the UFC tossed the interim title tag onto Holloway-Pettis, it would’ve been a godsend.

Quite simply, even if a bout is destined to end in under 15 minutes, there is no great MMA fight that is not improved, at least on paper, by being scheduled for 25 minutes. I understand why, logistically speaking, the UFC can’t make every main card bout a five-round affair. Nonetheless, even if it fails as a promotional gimmick, even if fans think they’re silly, interim belts, at their worst, hurt nobody. At their best, they offer a chance for a better fight, a truer exhibition of MMA, with an extra 10 minutes. If anything, it’s a shame there’s not more of them.
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