There are plenty of issues stirring up the fanbase in MMA these days. Somewhere in the mixture of chaos and outrage over the recent TUF announcement and Strikeforce's uncertain future, the debate concerning interim titles in the UFC is swelling.
The topic has lingered since interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit announced he was waiting for Georges St-Pierre to return, but the issue regained a full head of steam this week when interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao's coach Andre Pederneiras revealed his fighter would be waiting for champion Dominick Cruz's return as well.
The news left fans to question the reasons behind the UFC implementing a temporary title holder. What purpose does it serve if the belt is not defended? This is a major point fans and fighters have taken stances upon, and while there is certainly cause for concern, other factors at play make this a slippery issue in the sport's biggest organization.
A Brief History of Interim UFC Titles
Since the UFC launched in 1993, there have been seven men who have held interim titles. In addition to Condit and Barao, the list includes some of the biggest names to compete in the sport. St-Pierre, Randy Couture, Frank Mir, Shane Carwin and Antonio "Minotauro" Nogueira have all held interim straps at one time or another, but history tends to remember these interim titles serving the greater purpose of keeping the respective divisions rolling.
Of the fighters listed, only Nogueira attempted to defend his interim title outside of unification. The other belt holders all fought their next bouts with the opportunity to become the undisputed champion of their divisions. Granted, the carousel retirement/unretirement of Couture factored into the bout scheduling for "Big Nog," but he is still the only fighter in UFC history to attempt to defend an interim title against a non-champion.
Another aspect to review would be the length of time it took for unification bouts to be scheduled. Condit and Barao have been scorned for taking to the sidelines and perhaps rightfully so. Of the previous champions, Mir had the longest layoff (six months) until he had the opportunity to combine the heavyweight titles where GSP and company all sought unification in four months or less.
When Condit steps in against St-Pierre next month at UFC 154, ten months will have passed since he defeated Nick Diaz at UFC 143 in Las Vegas. The picture looks a bit more bleak for Barao as there is yet to be word on when champion Dominick Cruz will return. Both of their respective divisions have been active with contenders rising, and with the top spot stalled out, other fighters have been forced to wait as well.
Regardless of the other factors swirling about, few can ultimately blame Condit and Barao waiting for what will undoubtedly be the biggest fights and paydays of their careers.
The Business of Fighting for UFC Titles
In the relatively short history of the sport, never has the business aspect of things been more front and center than it is right now. Fighters certainly acknowledge the need to be entertaining inside the cage, but the most important factor for them is winning. With the UFC continuing to produce a record number of events each year, the pressure to stay on the rising side of the swell is at an all-time high.
For those who are on the upward trend, gaining ground, raising their profile and earning bigger paydays are what matter most. Becoming a champion is a solution to remedy all things, but with increasingly competitive divisional pictures, making calculated choices have also become a large part of the equation.
Fear of the actual fight may be nonexistent, but realization of the consequences attached most certainly are.
Opportunities such as the ones facing Condit and Barao are rare in this sport. Both the Brazilian and "The Natural Born Killer" are going to square off with dominant champions in an effort to define their place as the division's best. In Condit's case, he will not only face one of the sport's pound-for-pound best in St-Pierre, but also the largest pay-per-view draw on the current UFC roster.
To put that opportunity at risk by fighting Johny Hendricks or Martin Kampmann would have been foolish by most standards, and those who believe Condit's decision to be ducking or avoiding the competition have to realize just how much reward outweighs the risk in this situation.
A rising wave of contenders may be nipping at his heels, but if they were in his position and locked to fight St-Pierre, I have a difficult time believing the majority of them wouldn't have made the same choice.
There are many similarities in Barao's situation. The Team Nova Uniao fighter has been a monster since coming under the Zuffa banner and has wrecked shop en route to his current position. Where Condit had a list of potential contenders, this is not the case with Barao.
The 135-pound division is still lacking depth in its upper tier and following his lopsided victory over Urijah Faber, Barao stands alone at the top. Besides a unification bout with Cruz, the only other fighter with enough moment to make a case is Michael "Mayday" McDonald, but the 21-year-old is currently sidelined due to injury, and any other fight besides this showdown of rising stars simply doesn't make sense.
The Future of Interim Titles
Throughout the history of the UFC, the organization has only implemented the interim title a handful of times. Each has come as the result of an injury or contract situation. While past situations have yielded less friction, the ever-changing landscape of MMA will provide more adversity and difficult choices to be made on the road ahead.
Will fighters embrace the "anytime, anyone, anywhere" mentality that is being pushed?
I believe in some cases the chances are likely but not in matters where career altering paydays and opportunities are concerned. Fighters competing in the sport work their entire careers for high-profile fights, and it's a painful truth that most never reach those goals. But when the call does come, and the chance to find what they have been sacrificing for arises, they are going to make the decisions that will protect those interests.
It may not be the most popular decision to make, but how can we fault them for attempting to seize the moment?
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