If there's one thing certain when it comes to Anderson Silva, it's that you can never predict what he's going to do next.
Silva doesn't make a habit of attending UFC events as a spectator, so it appeared he had something more than scarfing poutine at cageside in mind when news surfaced he would be flying to Montreal to attend this Saturday's welterweight title bout between Carlos Condit and Georges St. Pierre. Many thought it was all but a foregone conclusion he was planning to square off with GSP in order to hype a long-awaited superfight between the two dominant megastars if the welterweight kingpin emerged victorious over Condit. Dana White even hinted this was the case when asked about it last week.
Now with Silva telling Brazilian outlet Tatame he plans to sit out for most of 2013 and that his primary reason for traveling to Canada is to film an action movie with Lyoto Machida, it appears the ever-elusive superfight may once again be put on the back burner. If Dana White isn't already on blood pressure medication this may have been the tipping point for the perpetually vexed UFC president.
White isn't the only one affected by Silva's announcement though. Top UFC middleweight contenders like Chris Weidman and Alan Belcher are likely throwing up their hands and exasperatedly wondering if they'll ever get within spitting distance of a title shot. It's got to be infuriating to have your career held hostage by the whims of the mercurial Silva, but unfortunately those are the breaks when you compete in the same division as the greatest of all time.
One contender who didn't take this news lying down was Michael Bisping, who last night tweeted to White, "If Anderson wants to take time off to be a movie star make me and Vitor [Belfort] for the interim title" If Silva is indeed telling the truth and isn't just throwing us a red herring with the talk of a sabbatical, then creating an interim title sounds like a reasonable idea on the surface given the UFC's traditional booking strategy. However, there's just one problem with that scenario: interim titles are inherently meaningless and only serve to water down the lineage of the real championship.
A title belt is supposed to be the richest prize in the sport. It's a symbol that means whoever carries it is the best in the world at his weight class. While the UFC has sometimes played fast and loose when it comes to determining number one contenders in the past, the integrity of a title belt lies in the simple fact that anyone who can successfully take it from the champ is by definition the king of the hill.
In order for championships to be more than just shinny props used to sell pay per views, title continuity is key. Sometimes there are going to be cases where this just isn't possible - take for instance Josh Barnett being stripped of the UFC heavyweight crown after testing positive for PED's - but these are the rare exception rather than the rule. By and large it's incumbent upon a champion to defeat the previous title holder for his reign to be perceived as legitimate. Or as Nature Boy Ric Flair once so sagaciously said, "To be the man, you've got to beat the man."
And that's the problem with interim championships. In order to win these belts you don't have to beat "the man" - you just have to beat another guy. Not that a victory over a top contender in the UFC is anything to scoff at mind you, but it's hardly the same thing as defeating the champ. As a result interim belts feel only slightly more authentic than the replica belt Chael Sonnen was ridiculously carrying around before his second fight with Anderson Silva. Instead of sending a clear message that whoever holds it is the best in the world, an interim title says that its wearer is kinda, sorta the man - until the real champ is ready to come back that is.
The equivocal nature of interim titles only serves to muddy the waters and detract from the prestige of the actual championship. For an example look no further than this week's episode of UFC Primetime hyping up the GSP/Condit bout. During the show both men spoke as if they were gearing up for a title shot rather than a title defense. Condit thinks he isn't the real champ because he never defeated the former champion, but GSP feels his title is inauthentic because he was gone for so long without defending the belt. What are fans supposed to think when even the combatants involved in a title unification bout can't make up their minds as to who the real champion is?
Condit's interim "reign" is illustrative of yet another problem. Although interim belts are ostensibly a means to keep the division going while a champion sits out for whatever reason, more often than not interim champs follow the same path Condit has and opt to wait on the sidelines until the actual champ is ready to return. This renders the interim championship little more than a tangible manifestation of number one contendership status, and in the process defeats the purpose of creating an interim strap in the first place.
Not to disparage Condit's accomplishments in the sport in any way, but realistically his interim welterweight belt is nothing more than a fancy trophy he was awarded after defeating Nick Diaz in a hastily made title eliminator after GSP was forced to withdraw from their title bout due to injury. It doesn't make him the best, it just makes him the next in line.
Therein, however, lies the rub for Michael Bisping. He knows that with a victory over Belfort in an interim title match he can punch his ticket for a fight with Silva whenever the unpredictable champ decides to defend his belt again. "The Count" has assembled an impressive resume during his time in the UFC but a title shot has always remained just outside his grasp. At 33 years old, and with the temperamental Silva nowadays putting the tile up whenever he damn well feels like it, this might be Bisping's last, best shot at capturing championship gold.
Of course the question remains, does he - or for that matter does Belfort - deserve to challenge for a championship at the moment? Belfort is coming off a trouncing at the hands of Jon Jones and was outclassed in a bout with Silva back in February of 2011. Bisping won his last fight against Brian Stann, but before that he lost via controversial decision to Chael Sonnen. He has a stronger case than Belfort in that many felt Sonnen was lucky to walk away with the decision when they fought, but if we're booking meritoriously here then there are stronger contenders than Bisping waiting in the queue.
Assuming Silva is indeed sitting out for the next year or so the upcoming Chris Weidman/Tim Boetsch fight makes more sense as a title eliminator. That way the division keeps moving forward while Silva channels his inner Steven Seagal and, more importantly, the integrity of the middleweight title remains intact. It would be a real shame to tarnish the legacy of the belt with an interim asterisks in the history books after the epic six year-plus reign Silva has been on.
Whoever the next man is to have Dana White strap the middleweight title around his waist, here's hoping he's earned it by proving he's the best in the world rather than just the best of all available options.
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