Interim championships tend to polarize fans like no other issue in MMA today (other than judging, of course). The popular opinion is that interim belts are essentially meaningless and nothing more than a way for organisations to promote fights. This view is not only shared by the fans but also a number of top fighters.
When Frank Mir defeated Minotauro Nogueira to win the UFC interim heavyweight title at UFC 92, the first thing he did was single out champion Brock Lesnar in the crowd. “You have my belt” were the words that Mir had for Lesnar, which to me indicates that not even Mir considers the interim belt an honour.
Like most observers, the bigger interest in this fight was to see who would face Lesnar as opposed to who would wear the interim belt. In Mir’s postfight interview, he said, “It's inevitable. We got to. Lesnar has the belt. I don’t want any of this shit where I’m half a champ.” Even fight commentator Mike Goldberg’s first reaction was “Frank Mir will face Brock Lesnar.”
Surely it would have been something along the lines of “Frank Mir is the UFC interim heavyweight champion” if interim belts were truly relevant in the sport today. In the lead-up to the title unification bout between Mir and Lesnar, both fighters referred to Mir’s interim title as meaningless. “The belt that he has isn’t even real,” was Lesnar’s view of the title.
If the fighters who become interim champions don’t take the title seriously, how can MMA promoters expect fans to do so? In effect, an interim title fight is a fight to determine a divisions number one contender, with the only difference from a normal title eliminator being that the fight goes five rounds and the winner gets a belt.
One argument for interim belts is that if the champion doesn’t recover from an injury, then the interim champion becomes the full champ and the division doesn’t have a vacant title.
A better spectacle for the fans would be to have a fight between the next two fighters in the division, or to hold a tournament to sort out the new king. This would eliminate the need for interim champs and mean that the only fighters to hold titles in MMA are the ones who are their organisations undisputed top fighter in the weight class.
There seems to be no real reason other than money for interim belts to continue to be awarded. Organizations keen to maximise revenue from events will be keen to drop the word “championship” as often as they can in order to maximise the buy rates of their pay per view events.
Whilst this was good for the growth sport in the early days of MMA, surely the time has come to do away with the fake belts and save the belts for those fighters who are No. 1 in their division.