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Top MMA storylines of 2017: 4. Money, merit and interim titles

Esther Lin, Showtime

There was once a time when interim titles were rare. The UFC only instituted one for a division if the titleholder was out (usually injured) for an extended period.

It took Dominick Cruz to be out for nearly a year due to surgery and facing another year-long injury absence for the UFC to put an interim title on the line between Renan Barao and Urijah Faber in 2012. Cain Velasquez didn’t defend the UFC heavyweight title between October 2013 and June 2015 and the UFC waited for him to be out a year and pull out of another title fight before dropping an interim label.

Go back further in time and interim belts were really only used in extreme situations, like when Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture were in contract gridlock with the UFC and their futures in the promotion were up in the air.

Now, interim titles are relatively commonplace. In 2017, there were three in play and one of them — lightweight — remains active.

The big difference between the stand-in belts these days, compared to the past, is that they are being used more and more as a consolation prize to the top contenders in the division while the champions of said division are off taking “money fights.”

For instance, Conor McGregor is the UFC lightweight champion. He didn’t fight at all in the UFC this year, but had a monster boxing match against Floyd Mayweather that became the second biggest pay-per-view event of all time with 4.3 million buys. The UFC needed to throw the other lightweight contenders a bone.

Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov, the next best two fighters in the 155-pound division, were supposed to fight in an interim title bout at UFC 209 in March before Nurmagomedov pulled out after he was hospitalized while cutting weight. Ferguson ended up fighting and beating Kevin Lee for the interim title at UFC 216 in October.

Michael Bisping came into the year as the UFC middleweight champion. His title fight against Georges St-Pierre — the legendary former welterweight champ who had not competed since 2013 — got pushed back to UFC 217 in November. GSP was far from the top contender for the belt, but he has always been a major financial draw and UFC 217 ended up being one of the highest grossing cards of the year.

So, the UFC opened up an interim belt and had Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero fight for it at UFC 213 in July. Whittaker beat Romero and has now been named the undisputed middleweight champion. GSP defeated Bisping and vacated the belt due to illness — and the very likely scenario that he won’t again fight at middleweight.

Max Holloway started the year as the interim featherweight champion after beating Anthony Pettis at UFC 206, because McGregor won the lightweight title in November 2016 and there was no sign immediate sign that he’d defend the featherweight one. McGregor earned the featherweight belt in December 2015 by knocking out Jose Aldo, but fought Nate Diaz twice at welterweight and beat Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight crown in 2016. Weeks after McGregor beat Alvarez, the UFC stripped him of the featherweight gold and made Aldo the undisputed champion.

Holloway became the undisputed champ when he finished Aldo at UFC 212 in June. He beat Aldo in a rematch earlier this month at UFC 218. Holloway had won an incredible nine straight fights before facing Pettis for the interim belt. He was the clear, deserving top contender for a belt that McGregor might not have ever defended.

Why aren’t fighters like Holloway, Whittaker and Ferguson getting shots at the legitimate titles with any kind of urgency? The answer to that is the conundrum the UFC has been faced with and will continue to encounter moving forward.

Those three are just not the kind of money draws that Diaz, St-Pierre and Mayweather were. The champions in those divisions weren’t ducking those three; they were using the leverage they gained as UFC titleholders to put themselves in a position to maximize their earnings. And the UFC didn’t stand in their way obviously, because the promotion stood to make a windfall as well.

The money vs. merit debate is not a new one in combat sports. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) grilled UFC regulatory head Marc Ratner over it last month at a hearing before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on the Ali Act’s extension to MMA. But there is nothing especially unique or groundbreaking by hotshotting the booking of a fight like GSP vs. Bisping. “Money fights” usurping the next best contender has always existed in boxing and the UFC is no stranger to the circumstances.

Remember the aforementioned interim light heavyweight title when Ortiz was out in 2003? Couture lost a fight for the vacant heavyweight title in 2002 and slid right into the light heavyweight title picture nine months later against Chuck Liddell. Nick Diaz got a title shot against St-Pierre coming off a loss. Ditto for Chael Sonnen against Jon Jones.

This is an old issue with some new wrinkles. The best fighters in the division are not always the biggest money makers. And once a fighter becomes UFC champion, he or she stands to make so much more than what contenders bring in that it gives a massive incentive to chase money fights. A champion also has some leverage over he UFC; contenders do not. The only thing the UFC can do to champions is strip them of a title or — you guessed it — institute an interim belt.

But again, the UFC stands to gain from their champions taking money fights. After all, the UFC still sees the bulk of that revenue. Why line up the next milquetoast contender when you can make double or triple on an undeserving, major draw?

The hardcore fans who watch MMA and want to see pure sport — title shots given out based purely on merit — have not been happy with the direction the UFC has gone in 2017. Even though this is the direction the promotion has always gone given the opportunity. The opportunities this year were just greater than the past.

Another odd byproduct of this system is fighters being much more vocal to promote fights, ramping up their trash talk. Colby Covington went from intriguing, albeit mundane, welterweight prospect to public enemy No. 1 in Brazil in the span of just a few months. And hey, maybe that’s what the UFC wants — fighters to grab the brass ring by figuring out a way to make themselves a draw on their own, for better or for worse.

The UFC has had trouble building stars over the last year-plus. McGregor is the only fighter on the roster that is a shoo-in for a 1-million-buy PPV at the moment. GSP is a few notches behind him. But both of their futures are unknown for different reasons.

After five pay-per-views did more than 1 million buys in 2016 (three headlined by McGregor), not a single one hit that mark in 2017. That is not a positive trend. The only PPV that surpassed 500,000 in 2017 and featured a champion against the real No. 1 contender was Daniel Cormier vs. Jones. Shortly after that fight, Jones tested positive for a steroid, had to give the light heavyweight title back to Cormier and is facing a lengthy USADA suspension.

Forget the money vs. merit debate for the moment. We all know a big corporation is going to chase the short-term cash, especially just months after selling for $4 billion. The real question the UFC needs to worry about is this: Is the hotshot booking of “money fights” conducive to building new stars?

If the promotion can come to a logical conclusion on that in 2018, things will be fine. But that’s the pressing enigma with the UFC’s broadcast deal with Fox expiring late next year.

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