Interim titles have become the latest running joke in the UFC.
It seems like you can't turn around these days without the fight company draping a temporary championship around the waist of one of its fighters.
The latest odd couple to get their whack at the interim pinata is Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, who fight for a reduced version of the lightweight title Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 209.
It doesn't take a professional MMA whisperer to know the reason why, either.
The UFC's official 155-pound champion is Conor McGregor after the fighting Irishman unseated Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Unfortunately, McGregor and the organization are currently mired in yet another contentious negotiation.
As of this writing, it remains unclear when McGregor will return to the Octagon, if ever. That creates a strange double whammy for Nurmagomedov and Ferguson—simultaneously creating the need for an interim title while casting doubt on a potential future unification bout with the man himself.
Here to help me discuss this compelling matchup, the future of the lightweight title and whether we ever see the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner square off with McGregor is Bleacher Report's Mike Chiappetta.
Chad Dundas: Mike, let's talk first about the nature of this matchup—which I think everyone agrees is awesome—and then get into what may or may not happen with McGregor.
It feels as though we've been waiting a long time to see Nurmagomedov fight Ferguson. The two have been scheduled to square off at least twice before, the first time all the way back in December 2015 at The Ultimate Fighter Season 22 live finale.
These are also two guys who've both been flirting with a title shot and/or No. 1 contender status for a while now, so seeing this match finally get made in such a high-profile and meaningful setting has to have hardcore fans breathing sighs of relief.
Nurmagomedov has been ticketed for future champ status nearly since coming to the UFC in 2012. His 24-0 record compiled fighting in MMA's most competitive weight class remains among the most eye-popping numbers in the entire sport. The only thing that has been able to slow him down thus far has been his own injury status, as he fought just once in 2014 and missed all of 2015 owing to various ailments.
Ferguson's arrival in the UFC actually predates Nurmagomedov's, but he's only really made his way into our hearts while amassing nine straight wins dating back to the fall of 2013. Much of his best work was done during those years when Khabib was largely MIA due to injury, and now it feels as though we're catching them both at exactly the right moment for this bout.
Two fiery contenders with well-rounded skills but diametrically opposed strengths, both of whom feel next to unbeatable amid sustained runs of success—this is going to be a good one.
Mike, on a scale of one to one million, how excited should fans be for this fight? Oh, and does the pesky addition of an interim title here make this already captivating bout seem more or less interesting?
Mike Chiappetta: One to a million? I'm saying the answer is 998,457. Not one more or less! This is about as good a pairing as exists in a fight that is not for the actual title. It's rare to see one fighter with an eight-fight UFC win streak; two of them in the same fight is bonkers. It just doesn't happen.
It is certainly cause for celebration. But there is a downside here, and one we would be remiss to point out: Someone is going to lose. That one of these lengthy streaks will fall short of a (legitimate) UFC title match is kind of a tragedy.
We can't solely blame the UFC for this situation, but it is one it helped create. And as a result, their belt is sitting idly on the sideline, with no return date in sight. So while both Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have proven themselves worthy of a UFC title shot, after Saturday night, one of these gentlemen will leave with a loss and a dream deferred.
I would imagine that the rest of the fight world has no problem looking past that, and for good reason. It's a thriller of a matchup that promises bell-to-bell action.
The interim title? Nobody cares about except for the two guys in the cage. It's a carrot to dangle them, but there is no prestige behind it. Not one iota. Not with McGregor out there casting a shadow over the entire division.
The sad part is, the winner would most likely be favored against him. Who can't imagine Khabib suplexing the champion all over the cage, or Ferguson slipping in that long limbed d'Arce off a scramble? Either one is a pretty difficult matchup for McGregor.
Which leads us to whether the victor will ever actually face him. And if I had to bet money, I would say no. Sure, I know that UFC President Dana White told that bastion of MMA media, TMZ, that McGregor will indeed fight the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner, but to me, that sounds like a promoter trying to give some juice to this weekend's card more than a statement of fact.
As we've learned over time, McGregor's going to chart his own path, and while it may not involve a boxing fight, it also doesn't have to involve Nurmagomedov or Ferguson. He's consistently shown he's going to take the biggest money fight available, and unless something crazy happens, that one ain't it.
Chad, are you more optimistic of its chances than me?
Chad: Not really, though now that the UFC has announced Georges St-Pierre's return fight against Michael Bisping, I think there's an infinitesimally greater chance we see McGregor actually defend his belt against one of these two guys.
But, man, that feels like an option of last resort for him.
The devil for the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson winner is that he'll represent arguably the toughest stylistic matchup for McGregor for the lowest possible financial return. I suppose if the UFC played it up big enough as a "title unification bout," it might become a little bit more worth his while.
Still, I have an easier time imagining McGregor returning to the UFC for a third fight against Nate Diaz, an eventual matchup with St-Pierre or even a lightweight clash with old foe Jose Aldo than against either one of these guys.
That's not to say McGregor won't surprise us all. He's certainly done it before. It's just not where I'd put my money down if somebody was taking bets.
If there's a silver lining here for either one of these guys, perhaps it's that I'd also lay even money that their interim title eventually gets promoted to a regular, ol' UFC lightweight title. That's what happened to Aldo, after all, once McGregor's strange run with the featherweight strap gave way to his current one at lightweight.
As of this writing, it appears his heels are dug in and he's serious about trying to find a way to make this boxing match with Floyd Mayweather happen. If the current bad feelings between the fight company and McGregor continue to linger, then the UFC might not have much choice but to strip him and elevate either Nurmagomedov or Ferguson to full-time champ.
That might be a hollow victory, since it'll come without the life-changing payday of a McGregor fight, but it ain't bad and it would leave the lightweight division in extremely capable hands.
What do you think is the most likely outcome here, Mike?
Mike: I have a harder time believing the interim champ will be elevated than you. And the reason is that I'm unsure that McGregor will be willing to sacrifice both of his belts. By pinning this match with the "interim" tag, the UFC has painted McGregor into a bit of a corner here. It is essentially letting him know that the first two-division UFC champion may soon have no gold at all to his name. Given his leverage in other facets of negotiation, an indirect warning shot is not a bad play on its part.
At some point, McGregor is going to face a moment where he's forced to determine whether this Mayweather matchup is worth the chase, or if it needs to be tucked away into history as another pointless MMA red herring.
Given the potentially disgustingly filthy riches that may result, that day is not in the immediate feature, but it will come. It has to. Mayweather is now 40 years old, and time is getting away from him. McGregor is only 28, but he doesn't want to waste his prime chasing a ghost. And given his exorbitant spending habits, he might face a desire to prop up the ol' bank account sooner rather than later.
To me, that suggests a UFC return before, say, the end of 2017. Then it becomes a question of who he'll target. And make no mistake, McGregor will call that shot. While we both seem to agree that there are other easier and more logical matchups for him, the decision will be fascinating, if only to learn his true belief in the worth of the belts.
If he chooses to surrender his hard-won championship to chase something else, well then, I guess we know what we too should think of the belt.
But who knows, really. The landscape of the UFC might be completely different in a few months time. For example, let's just imagine St-Pierre beats Bisping. Is it impossible to picture McGregor moving up to 185 to fight St-Pierre for the middleweight belt?
No. No, it is not. Not in the current WME-IMG landscape.
Putting two megastars together is something straight out of the Hollywood playbook.
It's also right up McGregor's alley. He will go where the biggest available check is, and there will be plenty of money attached to a McGregor vs. St-Pierre pairing.
So that's where we are right now, Chad. Belts and divisions don't really matter so much. In 2017, you better do everything possible to make yourself a draw in the eyes of the UFC and potential opponents. There's a lesson to be learned there for both Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. If they want the big-money matchup in McGregor, it will take more than just winning on Saturday night. It will take a victory and a campaign.
The gauntlet is thrown. Get that belt, and get loud. Shout McGregor's name until he can longer ignore you. And then...wait. Wait and hope that nothing bigger is out there, because if it is, the McGregor circus will be swiftly moving in that direction.