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Of UFC belts, interim titles and other fun fairy tales

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With any luck, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier might soon find themselves with hand-scrawled graffiti on their faces as part of the UFC 200 promo art. But for now, that rematch ain’t happening. In another late scramble to save an event, Cormier -- who suffered a leg injury and was forced to withdraw from his UFC 197 main event with Jones three weeks out -- now becomes Ovince St. Preux. And a knock-off of Cormier’s belt goes up for grabs in the purgatorial haze we like to call…the interim title.

Of course, this time the interim title is a little more complicated than your usual secondhand symbolism. As everyone knows by now, Jones never lost the belt inside the eight walls; he had it taken from him by losing in life. Cormier, who dropped a decision to Jones at UFC 182, simply excelled in his stead, aided by the fact that he was something that Jones wasn’t (active). For all intents and purposes, Jones is still the rightful titleholder, which will make his fight with OSP feel a bit like watching a dog chase his own tail.

All of this got me to thinking about interim titles, and what they (might) mean.

At this point, the interim title appears to be nothing more than a marker that ensures a title shot for somebody who can’t get it right away. It’s no longer the placeholder belt while a champion recovers from an injury in an effort to keep things moving along. It’s just a promise ring.

At UFC 200, Conor McGregor will redo his fight with Nate Diaz at the shoulder-shrugging weight of 170 pounds while his two biggest challenges at featherweight (where he holds the actual belt) duke it out for the interim title in the co-main event. These fights will happen on the same night. None of that makes any sense. Unless you view the interim belt as a kind of pinky swear that fastens around your waist while some other shenanigans play out. To help qualify the fight, Dana White went on record guaranteeing that the winner of Edgar-Aldo would fight McGregor after his Diaz mulligan.

That helps, too. I guess. If you squint.

But with 10 belts in eight men’s divisions and two women’s, and with at least two interim titles now going into circulation, there’s enough ore to produce a pot of gold. Maybe Diaz was right when he said that titles, like pots of gold, are a little bit like fairy tales at this point. After all, Diaz learned along the way that trolls often-frequent fairy tales.

And that, my friends, was a seven-digit realization. 

Yet there is something more to the interim title that hovers a few inches above meaninglessness. In the case of Edgar and Aldo, a second belt becomes a dinner bell to bring McGregor back home. If one of them isn’t masquerading with a featherweight belt, who knows how long McGregor would stray in other weight classes? The dude wears Versace better than he does a curfew.

In the case of OSP and Jones, it’s even more peculiar.

Should Jones win, he regains the shell of his legitimacy as a titleholder, and can face Cormier to "unify" the titles (perhaps at UFC 200). In a roundabout way, that could make some sense. That grudge fight, which has been through brawls, suspensions and threats to kill, should carry a big word like "unification" with it. Jones and Cormier are tied at the hip until they’re not.

The monkey wrench is St. Preux, who as of Friday was without a fight and by Saturday afternoon was booked into a bout with the greatest mixed martial artist the sport has yet known. For him, the interim title is very much like a fairy tale. This is a golden chance. As unlikely as it is, if he beats Jones, St. Preux becomes the impromptu interim champion, which then redirects Jones out of the picture and himself towards Cormier. Think about that: The legit champ would have lost a makeshift bout en-route to the current champ via an interloper that climbed in through a window.

That’s storybook stuff, at least for OSP.

Just like that, he would be a champion. And the tale of how he got his belt could double as a reminder that titles used to mean something more. It could begin, "Once upon a time…"

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