The importance of interim titles have been somewhat undermined as of late given the UFC’s recent eagerness to crown acting champions. 7 interim championships have been introduced in the last 3 and a half years- the same number as we saw introduced over the previous 21 years of promotional history.
Current interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson could argue that his belt is as close to the real McCoy as possible. The holder of the undisputed title, Conor McGregor, has now held the lightweight belt for 493 days (and counting) without attempting his first defense, having crawled past Anthony Pettis’ previous all-time UFC record of 462 days in February.
In a little over two weeks, Ferguson is scheduled to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 223. The promotion have indicated that the moment the bell rings and the fight is certainly going ahead, McGregor will be stripped and his title will be up for grabs.
Dana White told Lance Pugmire of the LA Times, ”As soon as one punch is thrown, it’s on for the full title and it’s only fair. They’ve both worked their way up to number 1 and number 2. They deserve a shot.”
Given the UFC’s past struggles in getting this fight over the finish line (this match-up has fallen through due to injury three times in the last three years), it’s understandable that they want to wait until the fight is a bona fide reality before stripping McGregor.
But they should not be fighting for his vacant title. The instant McGregor is stripped, the interim belt-holder, Ferguson, should be immediately promoted to undisputed champion and the fight with Khabib should be his first defense.
Even if that means, should Nurmagomedov emerge victorious, that Ferguson’s undisputed title reign goes down in the record books as having lasted just 25 minutes- or less.
An interim title is, almost always, essentially a free ticket to a unification bout against the undisputed champion. A guaranteed title shot. That’s certainly how it worked for Randy Couture, Georges St-Pierre, Frank Mir, Shane Carwin, Carlos Condit, Fabrício Werdum, Conor McGregor and Max Holloway in the past.
There have been a couple of exceptions to that rule. Jon Jones’ failed drugs test saw him miss out on a scheduled unification bout at UFC 200 and his interim title stripped, whilst Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira lost his interim belt to (non-champion) Frank Mir- the only occasion in UFC history where an interim belt has changed hands amongst contenders.
Then there are the interim champions who, like Ferguson, missed out on a unification bout because the undisputed champions of their division either vacated, or were stripped of, their belts. This has happened on four occasions in UFC history and all four instances were handled the same way.
As soon as Frank Mir, Dominick Cruz, Conor McGregor (featherweight) and Georges St-Pierre relinquished their undisputed titles, respective reigning interim champions Andrei Arlovski, Renan Barão, José Aldo and Robert Whittaker were immediately promoted to undisputed champions.
None of these men had to fight for the undisputed belt once their champions stepped down. Why shouldn’t Ferguson receive the same treatment?
A precedent has been set, not just once, but four times. Every time an undisputed champion has been relieved of their belt whilst an interim champion reigned, the interim champion has been promoted to full champion.
Interim belts may have become less and less important over the years, but for one to dissolve into nothingness altogether would be unprecedented. If the UFC wants to continue presenting these belts as worthy of headlining Pay-Per-View events, they should think twice before overlooking one in such a way.