In the UFC when a champion is sidelined with an injury or reasons that prevent him/her from fighting, a fight is made between the number one contender and another challenger for the interim belt. While the exact rules regarding this belt are sometimes blurred, whoever has the interim title usually gets the next shot at the champion once he/she returns. Recently the validity of this title shot has been questioned. On multiple occasions in 2018 alone, the interim belt has been surrounded by controversy in various weight classes. And fighters have started to doubt whether they should put their ranked position on the line to fight for this sometimes called “paper” belt.
To introduce the first scenario in which the interim belt was thought to be a fraud, one must look at the main event of UFC 216. Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee were set to fight for the interim belt in the lightweight division. Conor being the lightweight champ at the time had just finished his fiasco with Mayweather and having not fought in almost a year the top lightweights needed a placeholder. Tony Ferguson won the fight via triangle choke in the third round. Later that year Khabib (another highly ranked lightweight and the current lightweight champion) defeated Edson Barboza to earn himself a title fight against Ferguson. Conor would be stripped of his belt because of his inactivity. Their fight was scheduled for UFC 223 on April 7 and was good to go up until fight week. During an interview that weekend Tony Ferguson tripped on a wire and injured his knee. Khabib, who was willing to fight anyone, took another opponent and in the process, Tony was stripped of his interim belt. Khabib then won the real belt and will now most likely face Conor in October. Tony was said to be stripped because the lightweight division needs some sort of finality. The problem was is that Khabib beat a very low ranked fighter for the belt because of how close Tony’s injury was to the fight date. So if Tony beat a top-ranked opponent and Khabib didn’t who was the real champ? The problem with taking the belt away from Tony is that it costs him a title shot. He worked very hard for his interim spot and because of an injury, he now has to give it up to McGregor who will now get the next shot.
Another instance is the Colby Covington situation which inspired this article. During UFC 225, Colby fought Rafeal Dos Anjos for the interim welterweight belt. Tyron Woodley the current champion of the 170 lb division had been out for almost a year and the division had begun to stagnate. Colby won the belt and was set to fight Woodley in a grudge match for the ages. Towards the end of July 2018, the UFC announced that they are stripping Colby of the interim belt and number one ranked welterweight Darren Till would get the next shot at the title. It was later revealed that Colby had to have sinus surgery and would have to take at most two months off. Because of this delay, everything that he had worked for was taken away and his shot at the title was lost. Some argue that he will get the winner of the Till/Woodley fight. In my opinion that is beside the point. If a fighter has the interim belt he/she should be the only fighter to fight the champ once they recover. This why top-ranked fighters like Brian Ortega won’t stand to fight for an interim belt knowing that it could mean nothing in the end. Hopefully, the UFC can clarify the rules for an interim title and make it worth fighting for.