What Does Interim Champion Mean in the UFC? (Simplified)

Are you wondering what an interim champion in the UFC is? Or when and how do they come about?

In this article, we’ll look at what interim champion means, the difference between interim and undisputed champions, why interim title fights are used, and more.

What Is an Interim Champion UFC?

An interim champion in the UFC means holding the interim championship title and belt, which are created when an undisputed champion becomes inactive.

The word interim literally means intervening time, meaning an interim champion is only temporary, as the defending champion hasn’t vacated their belt and will return to defend it.

Interim champions are the winner of the interim title fight between the two fighters most deserving of the chance, as determined by the UFC matchmakers. The two fighters aren’t necessarily the number 1 and 2 ranked fighters.

Whenever there is an undisputed champion, there may also be an interim champion created in the future. This means there’s a possible maximum of 8 male interim champions and a maximum of 4 female interim champions at one time; one for each weight class division.

What Is the Difference Between an Interim Champion and an Undisputed Champion in the UFC?

The arrival of an interim champion means there’s no undisputed champion, as the two cannot coexist. An undisputed champion has this title until there is an interim champion declared.

Once a fighter has won the interim title fight and becomes the interim champion, they’re now disputing the undisputed champion’s status, who is now referred to as the defending champion.

The interim champion secures their position as the next in line to fight the defending champion.

Another difference between the two is interim champions are less secure than the undisputed or defending champions. 

Defending champions are protected whilst they’re inactive. They keep their champion status and their belt, only having their undisputed reputation replaced as defending.

On the other hand, interim champions are quickly replaced altogether by another fighter if they’re inactive; especially if the defending champion is ready to fight again.

This was the case when the UFC stripped Tony Ferguson of his interim title because of a knee injury keeping him out of his fight against Khabib (UFC 223); meanwhile, the UFC kept Khabib as the champion throughout a 9-month suspension.

What Causes Interim Title Fights in the UFC?

The undisputed champion has to defend their title indefinitely and if they become inactive the UFC creates an interim title fight. The main causes of an undisputed champion’s inactivity and the creation of an interim title fight are as follows:

Undisputed Champion Suspensions

If an undisputed champion can’t defend their title due to being suspended, and the UFC decide not to strip them of their title, an interim title fight will be made. This was the case with Khabib, who was suspended for nine months after his post-fight altercation (UFC 229).

While waiting for Khabib’s return the UFC created an interim title fight between Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway, which by Poirier winning, put Khabib’s championship in dispute.

Undisputed Champion Contract Disputes

If an undisputed champion can’t come to terms with the UFC over a new contract, the UFC will create an interim title fight while negotiations are ongoing. If a new contract can be finalized, the defending champion will return and have to defend his title against the interim champion.

The best current example is the undisputed heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou, who believes he’s underpaid and has been in a contract dispute with UFC since 2021. The contract dispute meant a title fight date couldn’t be agreed upon, so the UFC swiftly moved on and created an interim title fight.

Ngannou unified his belt against the interim champion, Cyril Gane, and despite respecting his contract by fighting Gane, he stated it would be his last fight under his current contract, which ends in January 2023 – meaning we’re yet to see if there will be another interim heavyweight title, or whether Ngannou’s contract will be sorted.

If the contract can’t be sorted, it’s unlikely there will be another interim title fight created, and they’ll likely strip Ngannou of his title and make the number 1 ranked fighter, Cyril Gane, the undisputed heavyweight champion.

Undisputed Champions Attempting To Become Double Champs

Becoming the champion of two different UFC weight class divisions is a feat only 4 fighters have achieved and means an undisputed champion will become inactive in the division they’re the current champion of whilst they move up or down to fight for the second title.

The UFC counters this inactivity by creating an interim title fight to crown a temporary interim champion. After their double champ attempt, the defending champion has to fight the interim champion to unify their belt, or they face being stripped of their title.

As an example, after winning the featherweight title, Conor McGregor fought up a division to win the lightweight title and become the UFC’s first double champ. His time away from the featherweight division meant the UFC created an interim title fight to avoid a logjam and keep fighters happy.

This resulted in Jose Aldo becoming the featherweight interim champion, and eventually, the undisputed featherweight champion after McGregor never fought again at 145 lbs.

Injuries to the Undisputed Champion

Unsurprisingly, injuries to an undisputed champion are the main reason the UFC creates an interim title fight. An interim title fight is the best option when a champion is sidelined for a long time, as it gives them time to recover and come back with a worthy opponent ready to fight.

As an example, Robert Whittaker became the undisputed middleweight champion after Georges St-Pierre vacated the title. Due to consistent illnesses and only fighting once in 2018, the UFC created an interim title fight between Adesanya and Gastelum as a way to have a fight ready for Whittaker when he returned.

Undisputed Champions Refusing To Fight the Next Contender

The UFC will only accept legitimate reasons by a fighter for refusing to fight, and when refusing to fight the next contender, champions usually argue their opponent isn’t worthy of a title shot. If this is argued, the UFC may create an interim title fight. 

Not only does this keep the division ticking, but the defending champion can’t refuse to fight an interim champion, or they face being stripped of their title. 

This infamously happened when undisputed champion Tito Ortiz refused to fight Chuck Liddell because of their friendship; unless the UFC were willing to pay Ortiz more money. Liddell claimed Ortiz was using their friendship as a way to avoid fighting him, which Ortiz was.

As negotiations were stalling, the UFC created an interim title fight between Lidell and Randy Couture, with Tito having to fight the winner. Couture went on to become the interim champion and undisputed champion after winning both fights.

What Other Reasons Are There for Having Interim Champions UFC?

The main reason the UFC has interim champions is because of an undisputed champion’s inactivity, but are there other reasons?

Here’s a list of all the reasons why the UFC has interim champions:

Business first – The UFC is a business and the introduction of interim title fights and champions is a convenient and justifiable way to create more PPV events and ultimately bring in more revenue and profits.

Leverage – Unofficially the UFC can use interim title fights as leverage against defending champions in contract disputes. The arrival of a new champion ready to take the place as the undisputed champion puts pressure on the defending champion in agreeing to the UFC’s terms.

Entertainment – Interim title fights, champions, and interim belts create a buzz and the continuation of top-level martial arts in the absence of the defending champions. This keeps fans happy and gets them talking about the UFC, it keeps fighters happy as they love to entertain, and it also prevents a division from going stale.

Step in champion – With a defending champion being inactive, there’s an amount of uncertainty around their return. If they don’t return for any reason, an interim champion has already proven themselves and is ready to step in as the new undisputed champion.

Increases competition – The opportunity to be in an interim title fight increases competition amongst the top 15 fighters in a division, especially since the UFC can pick any two fighters from this pool.

Inactivity counter – The UFC uses interim champions as a way to counter all forms of time-wasting and inactivity; it keeps their content machine churning and has a must accept fight ready for the returning defending champion.

What Is a Unification Fight?

A unification fight is the championship fight between the defending champion and the interim champion within a weight class division. They take place when a defending champion is ready to come back and fight.

As there is a dispute caused by two belts being held and two fighters being titled champions, title unification bouts end the current dispute between them by effectively unifying the dispute and creating one undisputed, unified champion.

Once the division has been unified, the interim champion is no more, but they’re allowed to keep their belt, win or lose. If however, a unification bout were to end in a draw, both champions would keep their title as the dispute hasn’t been resolved with a winner, and a unification rematch would be scheduled.

Should Interim Titles Be Removed?

The use of interim title fights has been criticized by many, who argue they’re used for all the wrong reasons, and no specific reason. Due to there being no system of rules defining when and how interim title fights are created, a lot of confusion is created.

As an example, Tony Ferguson became the interim champion at UFC 216 in 2017, but never fought to unify the lightweight division, after being stripped a year later due to injury. He would later decline to fight Max Holloway in an interim title fight, as his former interim champion title didn’t get him a title shot and he likely didn’t see any reason to fight for the interim title again.

As interim title fights are created too quickly and too easily, belts are devalued and commoditized. Justin Gaethje famously dropped the belt in the octagon after beating Tony Ferguson at UFC 249, saying, “I’ll wait for the real one”; showing how little value interim belts have to the fighters actually fighting for them.

Critics believe the way the UFC handled the Ngannou contract situation by creating an interim title fight so shortly after his title win over Miocic (UFC 260), showed the UFC was using an interim champion as leverage to get him to sign a new contract. It’s also argued interim champions are used by the UFC as a convenient way to ignore fighter requests.

Another reason they’re criticized is some believe they’re only created so the UFC can use the fight as promotion in a PPV event, and therefore make more money. 

This was the case in the interim title fight between Poirier vs Holloway, where Holloway jumped ahead of all other contenders, despite never having fought in the lightweight division before.

What Are Some of the Most Famous Interim Title UFC Bouts? (And Why Were They Created?)

The First UFC Interim Champion | Randy Couture vs Chuck Liddell (UFC 43)

The concept of an interim champion was taken from boxing and was used because Ortiz was inactive from the light heavyweight division for nearly a year. An interim title fight was created between Couture and Liddell, which Couture went on to win by knockout in round 3.

This made Couture the first interim champion in the UFC’s history, who would then go on to become the undisputed light heavyweight champion after beating Tito Ortiz in the unification fight (UFC 44).

Cyril Gane vs Derrick Lewis (UFC 265)

This was the UFC’s 19th interim title fight and was between the most exciting heavyweight, Gane, vs the most prolific knockout artist in the UFC’s history, Derrick Lewis. The fight was created as a result of defending champion Ngannou’s contract dispute with the UFC, which meant he couldn’t agree to a date to defend his title.

More famous for its circumstances than the fight itself, Cyril Gane hardly broke a sweat, easily picking off Derrick Lewis in a comfortable unanimous decision victory.

Israel Adesanya vs Kelvin Gatelum (UFC 236)

This interim title fight was created because of Whittaker’s absence through illness. Despite beating the likes of Anderson Silva and Derek Brunson, this was Adesanya’s toughest fight to date.

The fight won fight of the night and fight of the year (2019) and was a 5-round war.

What Does Interim Champion Mean in the UFC? – To Summarize

Interim champion in the UFC means being the title and belt holder and temporary champion, in the absence of the defending champion who hasn’t vacated their belt. Interim champions put the undisputed champion in dispute, resulting in a unification bout between the two champions.

Interim title fights and champions are criticized for various reasons but they’re necessary components of the UFC, as without them divisions would logjam, and matchmaking would be more difficult with defending champions. Overall, interim champions are likely to remain a staple in the UFC for a long time, because they work.

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