The UFC crowned two new champions during its UFC 236 event on April 13.
“The Diamond” Dustin Poirier defeated featherweight king Max Holloway to win the UFC Interim Lightweight champion while Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya won his fight against former No. 1 contender Kelvin Gastelum to claim the UFC Interim Middleweight title.
The key word in both situations is “interim.” While this is the first taste of UFC gold for Gastelum and Adesanya, neither fighter is recognized as the world champion of their respective divisions. The UFC still recognizes Khabib Nurmagomedov as the lightweight titleholder and Robert Whitaker as the middleweight champion of the world. However, holding an interim title has guaranteed both Poirier and Adesanya a shot at their division’s world championship.
Interim championships have existed in combat sports for a number of years, especially in boxing and MMA. A promotion or sanctioning body establishes an interim champion if a world champion cannot, or will not, defend their title in an unknown period of time. One common reason for an interim championship is because a world champion suffered an injury and will be sidelined from competition. A recent example of this was Whittaker when he was supposed to defend the title against Gastelum in February. On the day of the fight, Whittaker was rushed to the hospital because of an abnormal hernia and collapsed bowel.
In some cases, an interim title is made because a champion is serving a suspension and cannot defend the title. Nurmagomedov is serving a suspension for his role in the post-fight brawl after his title defense against Conor McGregor and won’t be eligible to return until October. Another reason is because a world champion is unable to make weight or is having a contract dispute with the promoter.
No matter what the reason, interim titles are a way to keep an inactive champion from holding up the division. It also establishes a true No. 1 contender for a title. In situations where a world champion does not return from their hiatus, the interim titleholder will be promoted to world champion status.
I like the concept of interim championships partially because they raise the stakes for a fight. In a normal fight, you have two athletes fighting for another win on their record and hopefully a bonus. An interim title lets them add something to their trophy case and guarantees them the next shot at the world championship.
An interim championship works when a promotion or a sanctioning body has a good reason for it. One example was back in 2012 when Renan Barao won the UFC interim bantamweight title after defeating Urijah Faber. The interim title bout was made because then-champion Dominick Cruz sustained an injury and withdrew from his scheduled fight with Barao.
As an interim champion, Barao title twice and was scheduled to fight Cruz in a unification bout. Cruz officially vacated the title in 2014, due to repeating injuries that prevented him from competition, thereby promoting Barao to world champion.
If the UFC had not crowned Barao the interim champion, its 135-pound weight class would have had no active world champion for two years.
Fans have mixed feelings about interim titles. Some folks regard them as “fake belts,” and feel they dilute the division. Others see it as a marketing tool the promotion – specifically the UFC – uses to sell a fight card and/or push a fighter to main event status.
What was surprising about UFC 236 was no one complained about Poirier and Adesanya winning their respective interim titles. It’s understandable when you look at the two fighters who won those belts.
Poirier has built up a lot of good will with fans in his 10-year career that includes entertaining fights and recent win streak that now includes four former world titleholders.
Adesanya continues to build his stock in the MMA community with his impressive 17-0 record, which includes a win over former middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Fans enjoy watching Adesanya’s style and have compared him to Silva and current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
While they may not be recognized as world champions, both Adesanya and Poirier have taken the first step toward world champion status. If interim titles didn’t exist, they might have not had this chance.
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