UFC: It's Time to Strip Champions Who Can't Defend Their Gold
Becoming a champion in MMA isn’t easy. It’s all on you. You have to strike, you have to wrestle, you have to grapple and you have to go out there and do it all better than someone else who’s just as hungry and well-trained.
Look at a man’s face the first time Dana White straps that title around his waist. It looks like just about the sweetest thing one could possibly accomplish after a lifetime spent in gyms and on mats as a martial artist.
But you know what? If you can’t defend that title once you’ve got it, you shouldn’t have it. It’s a gots to go situation, and you gots to go.
There was a time when this wasn’t a viable argument, or at least there was nothing to suggest that such a radical solution was warranted. Unfortunately, as fighter pay increases, the UFC covers medical costs, and sponsorship and endorsement dollars climb higher than ever before, that time is no more.
The fact is that now, when a champion suffers an injury and could be out for an extended time, a division grinds to a halt. If it’s bad enough, two other guys will jump in and fight for an interim title—something that, theoretically, is the best of both worlds.
Except it’s not, because there has been an alarming trend of interim champions simply sitting and waiting for the real kingpin to return in hopes of unifying the titles in a big money tilt. That gives fans a paper champion who won’t defend, and an injured champion who can’t.
You might as well have no champion. It’s exactly the same thing.
Interim gold was once relevant. During a contract dispute, then-champion Randy Couture was destined to be replaced by Frank Mir or Minotauro Nogueira before he came back and threw a wrench into things with a loss to Brock Lesnar.
What is the best way to handle injured champions?
Shane Carwin also held interim gold and immediately unified it. Ditto for Georges St-Pierre. Andrei Arlovski and Couture (in another weightclass) are others who won an interim title and became undisputed champions fairly quickly.
However, that mindset is dying, if it’s not already dead. In search of big money and big fights, even the gamest competitors the sport has to offer have turned into men marking days on a calendar.
Both Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz said earlier this year that, should they hold the interim welterweight title, they’d each wait for St-Pierre’s return before fighting again. That’s two of the sport’s toughest, scrappiest, craziest guys saying they’d wait a year for a fight, and it’s what Condit is presently doing.
Upon the news that Dominick Cruz was hurt and Renan Barao would replace him against Urijah Faber for an interim title, there was collective groan. Faber hates Cruz, and will surely wait as long as he needs to for a unification bout and a shot at punching his nemesis in the face, while Barao is young and hungry and would probably wait forever to create his legacy against a man many see as the best 135er of his generation.
Two out of eight titles in the promotion with no one to defend them, replaced by interim champions who won’t fight or aren’t likely to.
That just won’t do.
If, as seems to be the trend, an injured champion can’t defend in the long term and an interim champion essentially sees himself as a placeholder contender, there just isn’t a point in maintaining that system. It’s become a way for fighters to hang around in title contention without fighting, and it robs the fans of exciting, meaningful fights while robbing the UFC of pay-per-view bank and exposure.
The UFC needs to strip a champion who suffers a long-term injury with the promise that, should they choose to upon return, they jump to the front of the line to fight whoever has their belt at that time. If they’d prefer, they can take a tune-up fight against a lower ranked opponent to shake the rust off, then jump the line for a shot at gold with a win.
In the meantime, guys who would have fought for the interim title can fight for the real thing with the understanding that they’ll defend it as the true champion on a regular schedule. No ducking, no waiting, no politics. You’re the champion, so fight like it. End of story.
It may seem harsh or unreasonable, but the winds are blowing in a direction that could soon make it necessary. If fighters—especially championship calibre fighters—aren’t willing to fight as soon as they get close to gold, it hurts everybody involved. Stripping a champion with the promise of a return fight as soon as he’s healthy probably still harms everybody involved, but it does so to a much smaller degree.
To paraphrase Rampage Jackson: It’s the Ultimate Fighting Championship, not the Ultimate Waiting Championship. If something so radical is the best way to keep the fights coming and the divisions relevant, so be it.
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