Simon Says: Interim Means Undisputed

The UFC has been hard pressed as of late to fill out their PPV cards (not to mention their Fight Night shows) with intriguing talent. This year has proven to be a ratings disaster, with only UFC 214 performing well (although the fallout from that event is arguably worse in the long-term).

With that said, the UFC will be looking to close their year out with solidly built cards, including UFC 217; however, in an attempt to inject some level of interest into the upcoming UFC 216 card, the organization has created yet another Interim Lightweight Title.

There has and will always be a problem with the theory behind implementing interim belts. In the UFC’s eyes, these belts help attract casual fans who are easily hypnotized by a shiny piece of metal. The idea is that although the casuals may not know Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee, they will be persuaded into buying the event because it is for a “UFC Title”.

The problem is that most casuals don’t think that way: They watch fights either for a big name, or because there is nothing else to do on a Saturday night. The incessant need to slap interim titles onto PPVs has become simply unnecessary. One could argue that an interim championship should never be established. If a champion is unable or unwilling to defend their belt for a determined period of time they should be stripped.

With the advent of money fights, the UFC has redefined the meaning of the interim title.
Instead of being relatively rare symbols of uncertainty within a division, they have now
become all to frequent indicators of #1 contender status.

The UFC’s insistence on using interim belts to sell fights is not only bad in theory, but
also in practice. Recent PPV’s featuring interim title fights, like UFC 213 and UFC 206, were
commercially mediocre but highly praised by hardcore fans. Although the UFC and WME-
IMG are not necessarily interested in the latter. By instituting these titles the UFC is not only not accomplishing what it wants i.e. making these cards more marketable, but it is also
aggravating its hardcore base.

Most MMA fans would have watched Holloway/Pettis without the added stipulation of the Interim Featherweight Championship. It is almost an insult to the intelligence of the audience on the part of the UFC with the implication being that now a fight matters simply because there is a belt at stake. Hardcore fans want to see good fights first and foremost. Slapping a title on any given bout does absolutely no good for either subset of the UFC’s fan base.

What’s more is that the UFC’s two biggest fights ever (McGregor/Diaz 1 and 2) were not for a title. Isn’t that a clear indication that title-fights are not the marketing gems they are purported to be?

There has been yet another recent shift in the narrative of the UFC Interim Championship. Not only are interim champs thought to be #1 contenders, but they are also increasingly
viewed as the divisions rightful titleholder. For instance, many people consider Interim Middleweight Champion Robert Whittaker to be a more credible titleholder than current Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping.

“The Count” has been much criticized for defending his belt against then #13 ranked Dan Henderson, and now former welterweight king Georges St-Pierre. Whittaker on the other hand has beaten some of the divisions best, along with the formerly undisputed #1 contender Yoel Romero.

Bisping/Hendo 2 was sold by on the basis of this photo alone. Basically.

The winner of the UFC’s latest interim title will likely occupy a similar status in the
minds of fans and even media. The current Lightweight Champion is on a nearly year-long absence, has yet to defend his title, has taken a fight in another sport and shows little
indication of reappearing in the next couple of financial quarters.

The combatants for this interim belt on the other hand have arguably stronger claims to legitimacy. Tony Ferguson is on a nine-fight (NINE FIGHTS, AT LIGHTWEIGHT!) win streak and has beaten former champions and some of the divisions scariest fighters. Kevin Lee is on a five-fight win streak and has dispatched Top-5 caliber opponents with ease.

These statistics will be compounded should either man amalgamate the other into their own win column. Is it any wonder that fans view these two fighters as more deserving than one who is on a two-fight win streak, has just gotten embarrassed in a boxing match, and has never defended a belt in his life?

Ferguson and Lee have been doing their best to sell themselves to a wider audience recently. Time will tell if it works.

For all the talk of the cheapening effect of interim titles.\, one has to confess that in the
cases of men like Bisping and McGregor, who won their respective titles by absolutely
legitimate means, some action has to be taken.

If Bisping continues to evade top-tier Middleweight contenders we should rightly view “Bobby Knuckles” as the real champ. Likewise, if McGregor continues to evade any defenses whatsoever we can truly say that on Oct 7th the Lightweight Title is once again up for grabs.

Hear Simon Tuesday on MMA DNA ft. Strahinja Gavrilovic & Kerry Stellar.

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