Why Does UFC Have Interim Champions?


Whether you are a fan of MMA or not, you have likely heard about the term “UFC Interim” champion. Of course, we all know what being a UFC champ means. But, the word “Interim” adds new meaning and can easily confuse people who are new to the sport of MMA. It usually leads to many questions like:

  • Is the Interim champ ranked higher or lower than the primary one?
  • What is the point of Interim belts if we already have one champ?

In this article, I will bring you all you need to know about the Interim belts and champions. You will learn why they exist and why MMA promotions like UFC use them. 

What are the UFC Interim Titles?

UFC creates an Interim title when the current champ is unable to defend the title due to various reasons. Instead of giving up the belt, the current champ would not vacate the title during the absence from fighting. But the UFC will often create an Interim title so that the division can have a new champion and keep the show running.

But, it’s important to know that not any fighter can fight for the Interim belt. UFC would always book the two fighters who deserve a shot at the title the most. Most of the time, the two highest ranked contenders in that division will fight for the interim belt. But, the rankings do not always play a major factor and the UFC might give a title shot to a fighter who is ranked below the highest ranked contender. 

When the UFC champion decides to come back, he/she must unify the title by fighting the interim champ. The current champ can’t avoid the interim champ and fight against some other fighter.

When the Champ Gets Injured 

This is one of the most common reasons why UFC creates Interim belts. If the reigning champ gets injured and can’t defend the title, UFC will then create an Interim title. This is because the UFC can’t wait for the injured champion who is out indefinitely and hold up the title contention.

There have been many UFC champions who couldn’t defend their titles due to injuries. The best instance came when the UFC heavyweight champ, Can Velasquez got injured in 2013. 

At the time, Cain battled with many injuries and was out of the sport for over two years. The UFC couldn’t wait for Cain to return, so they created an Interim title to continue with the division. 

At UFC 180, Fabricio Werdum beat Mark Hunt to win the Interim belt. Cain returned from a long absence to face Werdum in a unification bout at UFC 188 in Mexico City. However, Werdum would choke him out in the second round to unify both titles and become the undisputed champion. 

Contract Dispute Can Create Interim Champion

Over the years, there have been many UFC champs who didn’t defend their titles due to contract disputes. In this case, UFC used interim belts to keep the show running by crowning the next best fighter in the division. In the meantime, the UFC would attempt to resolve the contract dispute with the current champion who, upon return, must face the interim champion to unify the titles. 

Why would a champion have a contract dispute with the promotion, you may ask? Well, UFC champs often use their world champion status as a leverage to re-negotiate new contract with better terms.  

One good example is the former UFC champ, B.J. Penn. While being a champion, Penn and the UFC could not come to an agreement to settle the contract dispute and they even ended up in court at one point. 

It all started when Penn won the UFC 170lbs title by choking out Matt Hughes at UFC 46. Penn didn’t want to defend the title, and he went on to sign a deal with the Japanese K-1 promotion. The UFC owners were furious because they thought Penn breached his contract and they created the interim belt subsequently to crown a new champion and move on without BJ Penn.

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When the Champion Refuse to Fight the Next Title Contender

Even though this happens rarely, there have been champs who refused to defend their titles against the next highest ranked fighter in the division for various reasons. One of the most common excuses champions use to justify their refusal to fight is the challenger does not deserve a shot at their title. 

In the eyes of most fans, you are not the real champ if you refuse to fight the next highest ranked fighter. In this scenario, the UFC would not strip the champ of the title. But, they will create the interim belt to keep the show running and crown a new champion, which is usually the next highest ranked fighter in the division. This puts the current champion in unavoidable situation because, as said earlier, he/she must fight the interim champ upon return to become the undisputed champ once again.  

For instance, this scenario took place when Tito Ortiz refused to fight Chuck Liddell

It all started when Tito stopped Ken Shamrock to defend his 205lbs title for the fifth time at UFC 40. At the time, Chuck was next in line to fight Tito and there was a huge hype behind this matchup. But, Tito and the UFC just couldn’t get on the same page to fight each other. 

Instead of waiting for Tito, UFC created an Interim title. Randy Couture won the Interim belt by stopping Liddell in the third round. And, Randy would unify it a year later by beating Tito at UFC 44. 

When a Champion Seeks Multiple Titles

Some of the UFC champs often move up or down in weight division to fight for the second championship belt. But, if the champ decides to leave the weight class and not come back soon, the UFC will not wait for them and they will use the Interim title to crown the new champ. 

Once they win or fail to capture the second title, they must go back to defend the throne against the Interim champ. If they don’t, then they have to vacate the belt or the UFC would strip them of the title. In that case, the Interim champ gets promoted to the undisputed status. 

In 2015, Conor McGregor won the 145lbs title by finishing Jose Aldo at UFC 194. Then, he made a decision to move up the weight and fight for the 155lbs belt. Since he didn’t want to defend or give up the 145lbs title, the division needed a new champ. 

To solve the problem, UFC created an Interim 145lbs title and booked Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar to fight for it. Aldo became the Interim champ by winning a decision. But, he would later be promoted to the undisputed status since Conor never came back to defend his title at 145lbs.

Who was the First Interim UFC Champion?

The first UFC fighter to become the UFC interim champ was Randy Couture. He did it in 2003 by knocking out Chuck Liddell at UFC 43. It is worth mentioning that this was Randy’s debut fight in the 205 lbs division after moving down from the heavyweight division. 

Randy Couture

But, how did it all play out? Back in 2003, Tito Ortiz was the most dominant champ. But for some reason, he refused to defend his title against Chuck Liddell and he took a 10-month layoff. The UFC didn’t want to wait for Tito and they have adopted the concept of “interim belts” from boxing to solve this problem. 

After losing the heavyweight belt, Randy decided to move down in weight and face Chuck for the light heavyweight Interim belt. By beating Chuck, Randy became the first-ever UFC Interim and multi-division champ.

From 2003 to the present times, the UFC has created many interim titles because this concept has proved useful on many occasions. 

Who were the UFC Interim Champions?

UFC began using the Interim title concept in the early 2000s. They have created the first one in 2003 and the first interim champ was Randy Couture. The concept proved useful in MMA and the UFC would follow with many more interim champs in the future. 

Throughout UFC history, there have been around 20 UFC Interim champions. Here are some of the most famous ones:

Heavyweight 

  • Andrei Arlovski – UFC 51
  • Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – UFC 81
  • Shane Carwin – UFC 111
  • Fabricion Werdum – UFC 180

Light Heavyweight (205lbs)

  • Randy Couture – UFC 44
  • Jon Jones – UFC 197

Middleweight

  • Robert Whittaker – UFC 213
  • Israel Adesanya – UFC 236 

Welterweight 

  • George St. Pierre – UFC 79
  • Carlos Condit – UFC 143 
  • Colby Covington – UFC 225 

Lightweight

  • Tony Ferguson – UFC 216
  • Dustin Poirier – UFC 236
  • Justin Gaethje – UFC 249

Featherweight 

  • Conor McGregor – UFC 189
  • Jose Aldo – UFC 200
  • Max Holloway – UFC 216 

Bantamweight 

  • Renan Barao – UFC 149

There are Interim Titles in Other Sports as well 

MMA was not the first sport to use the concept of interim belts. And, the UFC is not the only MMA promotion to include interim champions.  

First of all, other MMA promotions like Bellator use interim titles to deal with their champs being inactive. For instance, Joe Warren won the Bellator interim title at “Bellator 118”. He then unified the title a few months later by beating Eduardo Dantas at Bellator 128. 

Further, we can find many interim champs in boxing, kickboxing, and even wrestling. For instance, boxer John Ruiz won the WBA interim title in 2005 by beating Hasim Rahman.

Related Questions:

What is the Difference Between “Interim” and “Undisputed”?

Undisputed is a term that comes from boxing and it means there is only one champion per weight class. Yet, we must point out that being a boxing world champ is not the same as being an undisputed champ. Not all champions are undisputed and here is why.

A fighter can be a world champ in one of many boxing organizations. But the undisputed boxing champion is a boxer who wins the titles in all four major organizations

· WBA 

· WBO 

· WBC

· IBF 

For instance, Bernard Hopkins became the undisputed champ in 2005 by beating Oscar de la Hoya. He retained WBA, IBF WBC titles, and the win over Oscar secured him the fourth, WBO title. This way, Bernard was able to win all four major titles in the middleweight division and become the undisputed champ. 

Interim titles are there to replace the inactive champion. Some champions can’t defend the title due to injury or legal issues. In that case, boxing or MMA promotion will create an interim title and book two highest ranked fighters to fight for it. Once the champ comes back, they must unify their title by fighting the interim champion. 

What does “Undisputed Champion” mean in the UFC? 

The term “undisputed” means there is only one UFC champion per weight class. Yet, being an undisputed UFC champ is basically the same as being a regular champion, and here is why. 

The term undisputed comes from boxing. An undisputed boxing champ is a fighter who holds the belts in all four major organizations: WBA, WBC, WBO, and IBF

In MMA, there is only one major promotion called the UFC. And you only have to win the UFC title to become the undisputed champ. This means that almost all UFC champions are actually undisputed. The only time when this is not the case is when the UFC creates the Interim title. 

If an undisputed UFC champ can’t defend the title for some reason, the UFC will create the interim belt. The reigning champ will keep the title, but, the division will have the second, interim champ. The interim and reigning champ must fight each other and the winner will become the undisputed champ.

For instance, coming into his bout against Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor was the UFC interim 145lbs champ and Aldo was the official champ. Since this meant that 145lbs had two champions, neither of these two was undisputed. Conor became the undisputed champ only when he knocked out Aldo in the opening 13 seconds of the fight to unify both titles. 

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