UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra announced last week that he would have to pull out of his scheduled title fight with rival Matt Hughes due to a back injury. Right away, this seemed to spell disaster for the organization’s well-laid plans. This entire season of The Ultimate Fighter reality series has been devoted to building up this grudge match, and suddenly they were without a main event for their planned blockbuster show in December.
But give the UFC credit, they didn’t roll over and play dead. They quickly went out and signed a new main event: Matt Hughes vs. Georges St. Pierre. It’s a great choice – a rubber match between Hughes and the last man to beat him, who also happens to be the last champion before Serra. It’s a can’t-miss main event, by any standard.
Then they had to go and screw it up.
Apparently putting on a great match that makes sense for determining number one contender status in the 170-pound division isn’t enough. The title may be sitting at home with Matt Serra and his injured back, but the UFC got around it by simply inventing a new one. Enter the “interim” welterweight championship belt.
This isn’t the first time the UFC has done this. They did it with the heavyweight strap a few years ago, and have plans to do it with the lightweight one if Sean Sherk doesn’t get his steroid suspension overturned.
So what does it mean to have an interim title? Nothing, really. It means there are suddenly two titles, which automatically defeats the purpose of crowning a champion to begin with. It’s a way of creating a title fight out of thin air. Not only is it insulting to the current champion, it’s insulting to the intelligence of the fans to assume that they’ll swallow any pill the UFC forces down their throats.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the UFC. They put on some great shows and some not so great ones, and I watch them all. Hughes-St. Pierre will be a great fight, but the belt that the winner will take home with him doesn’t mean anything. It’s just leather and metal as long as the reigning champ – Serra – hasn’t been beaten.
It’s not that I don’t understand what the UFC brass is thinking. Serra’s injury (a herniated disk) could be serious. It might keep him out of action for anywhere from six months to over a year. They don’t want to wait that long for the title to come back into circulation, and they shouldn’t have to. But that doesn’t get around the problem of having two champions at one time.
My main objection to this situation is that the UFC isn’t consistent with its application of this loophole. When Randy Couture announced his retirement, they didn’t turn around and immediately hold an interim heavyweight title match. And why not? Because they’re hoping he’ll come back, and they hope to use it as both a carrot and a stick if he decides to try and fight somewhere else.
When it comes to Serra, however – who no one ever expected would win the title in the first place – they didn’t wait more than a day or two before undermining his championship status. That’s a problem. What the UFC needs is a stated policy on this type of situation, and they need to stick to it.
If a champion gets injured or has a contract dispute or doesn’t fight for whatever reason, there should be a set amount of time for him to get back into the cage. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, he gets a year. That’s a reasonable enough timeline for recovering from most injuries or dealing with other issues.
The first time a champ doesn’t make a scheduled defense, the clock starts ticking. After a year goes by, strip him of the title. No interim title, no half-measures, just take it away and let the two top guys fight for it. You could even hold a four-man tournament for it.
What you can’t do is have one set of rules for one guy and one set for another. You also can’t go around creating new titles in the same weight class just because you’re trying to sell a pay-per-view. If the fight is good enough (and in this case, it is), people will buy it without the title.
These made up titles will only hurt the UFC’s credibility, moving it more towards pro wrestling and farther away from legitimate sport. MMA didn’t come this far just to get knocked back by something so frivolous. At least I hope not.
Read more of Ben Fowlkes work at The Fighting Life.