Renan Barao, Carlos Condit, and Why the UFC Needs to Eliminate Interim Titles

Urijah Faber and Renan Barao

(“OK guys, the winner gets an interim belt, the loser has to purchase a replica from Wal-Mart. I assure you that they both carry the exact same value.”) 

In a recent interview with Latin American online news network, UOL, bantamweight interim champion Renan Barao‘s coach, Andre Pederneiras, declared that Barao would not be defending his interim strap and instead would wait for Dominick Cruz to recover from the ACL injury that set up Barao vs. Urijah Faber at UFC 149. And before the MMA media could even begin to make the comparison to Carlos Condit, Pederneiras did it for us, stating:

[Barao] just won the title, he just fought. We will wait. Look how long the wait was for Condit and GSP to unify the belt?

Where Pederneiras was attempting to use the Condit comparison as a justification for Barao’s decision to essentially put the bantamweight division on hold for the time being, he unknowingly summed up the inherent pointlessness of the interim title in the first place.

As you are all aware, the interim title essentially serves as a placeholder for the division’s number one contender (at the time) in the absence of a champion. The problem being that, by declaring the number one contender to be “a champion” when they are anything but — and I mean this with all due respect to Condit and Barao — you are basically giving a contender a power that they have not rightfully earned: the power to pick and choose who they fight.

Whether you agree with or not, there are certain perks that come with being the alpha male of your division. One of them (although this fluctuates from division to division) is the ability to turn down potential matchups. Jon Jones has done it, Anderson Silva has done it, and even Captain America has done it. Is it fair? Well, we’re really not going to get into that, but when the UFC gives a power normally reserved for champions to an interim champ, not only does it 1) clog up the division indefinitely, but 2) cripples your promotion’s ability to hype any other top-level matchup in the division until the champion/interim situation is resolved and 3) cheapens the value of the actual title.

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If you’re looking for an example of this, look no further than the welterweight division. It was first reported that Georges St. Pierre had blown out his ACL back in December of last year. Using a combination of freakish genetics and determination, St. Pierre is on schedule to defend his title on November 19th at UFC 154, nearly a year after he was struck with the injury. And that’s a speedy recovery, folks.

Meanwhile, Dana White and the UFC have declared Martin Kampmann vs. Jake Ellenberger, Josh Koscheck vs. Johny Hendricks (for “Bigg Rigg” at least) and now Martin Kampmann vs. Johny Hendricks to be “number one contender” bouts. The problem being that the division already has a number one contender; his name is Carlos Condit, and he has apparently been able to hold his status as such despite the fact that he hasn’t fought since February. It would be no leap in logic to declare that Condit could have fought either Hendricks or Kampmann while GSP was away, which would have 1) helped clear up a division that is rife with contenders 2) kept Condit fresh and in fighting mode and 3) kept Condit’s name fresh on the tongues of the fans.

Instead, we’ve been forced to sit on our thumbs and wait on a division that has not one but two champions that have been out of action for the better part of 2012. From both a business standpoint and a fan’s standpoint, this makes absolutely no sense. If the UFC wants to declare Condit “the champion,” then he better be willing to defend his title against however many contenders arise in the actual champion’s absence. When you take the belt out of the picture, the number one contender is usually determined by the man who has scored the most impressive wins recently. MMA is a “what have you done lately” sport, and allowing one of your top contenders to take a year-long hiatus for his shot while other title-worthy contenders wait in line, risk injury, or risk getting upset in one of the less meaningful matches they are forced to take because of the wait is a backwards policy to say the least.

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Barao can almost get a pass in his case because the bantamweight division does not have nearly the amount of potential contenders waiting in line as the welterweight division does. But who knows who could emerge as a potential contender before Cruz actually returns to action? Cruz tore his ACL back in May. Given a minimum recovery time of 9 months, we’re looking at a tentative return for the champ of February 2013. Elsewhere in the division, Michael McDonald has gone a perfect 5-0 in the UFC and just knocked out one of the division’s most dominant champions in his last appearance. Rather than having Barao sit around staring at the clock for the next 4 months, why not have these two square off for the right to face Cruz? Again, it would keep both men fresh, as well as set up a clear contender that fans might actually recognize when it’s time to start hyping up the Cruz match.

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With St. Pierre, Cruz, and now Aldo out of action yet again, their respective divisions have become ghost towns, due in part to the UFC’s decision to crown interim champions (with the exception of featherweight) who seem content to do anything but reassert the fact that they are the true top contender in said divisions in the first place. And because of this, we’re stuck with a bunch of number two contender bouts being passed off as something more than they are.

Don’t get us wrong, Kampmann vs. Hendricks is a great pairing, and a lot of these matchups, or lack thereof, can be attributed to the great injury curse of 2012. But what if Hendricks/Kampmann is a lackluster, tedious affair ala Cote vs. Almeida at UFC 86, or ends in a controversial decision? You’ve essentially eliminated the credibility of two top contenders in order to ensure the credibility of one (your interim champ), who should have fought at least one of these two gentlemen to begin with. And God help us if Condit and St. Pierre fight to a draw or a controversial decision themselves, or get injured after doing so, because then we’ll be seeing Nick Diaz vs. Kampmann/Hendricks, or Diaz vs. Rory MacDonald (if he gets past Penn), or Kampmann vs. Macdonald for the new interim title and this mind-numbing process will start all over again.

It’s time to put an end to this “interim champion” business, because it is costing the UFC a ton of meaningful fights in a time where they are coming fewer and farther between. But above all, it is costing the UFC money. And to quote the man himself, “It doesn’t make sense.”

Agree or disagree?

-J. Jones