Last night, the UFC announced that welterweight champion and master of winning 25-minute staring contests Tyron Woodley will defend his title belt against pluckish undefeated British lad Darren Till. While Till’s near-life-threatening weight cut is a warning sign that he really should not fight at 170 pounds anymore, this matchup seems like a fun one. Till is a skilled enough striker that he might actually make Woodley fight a bit, which the champ never had to do against Stephen Thompson or Demian Maia. However, this fight is still bullshit.
This is because the welterweight division has an interim champion who is not Darren Till. World-class asshole and middling troll Colby Covington may be the most performatively odious man in MMA, but he did take a resounding decision win against Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 225, earning the interim title belt, and with it, theoretically, the right to challenge Woodley.
An interim belt only means something if it can be unified with the real thing, yet the UFC booked reportedly rushed to book Till vs. Woodley for the September pay-per-view because they needed a main event and because Covington won’t be ready to fight until November. Covington will be stripped of the belt when Till and Woodley fight, which means he will have held it for three full months and never lost and never gotten a title shot, because the UFC prioritized selling a few thousand more PPV units over having its titles mean anything.
While it is funny and righteous that Covington, an ingrown asshole, will not get a chance to fight for the belt this year, the decision to strip him and book Till is a misstep. And so, ultimately, was the initial decision to create an interim welterweight champ at all. The UFC has awarded more interim title belts (winners get the same physical belts hat undisputed champs get too) in the last four years than they did in the first two decades of the organization’s history. Since 2014, there have been, at various times, interim champions in the featherweight, lightweight, welterweight, middleweight, light heavyweight, and heavyweight divisions. The purpose of an interim belt is to have someone step in as champion if the rightful belt-holder is out injured or idle for a long amount of time.
Now, a host of recent champions have had long layoffs. Conor McGregor has famously refused to defend his lightweight championship, and while he still considers himself the true featherweight champion, he held up that division for a while as well. Michael Bisping turned his unlikely middleweight championship into a year-long campaign to get one last money fight before calling it a career, in the process stalling out the title aspirations of a stacked middleweight division and forcing Robert Whittaker to win the interim title, miss out on a fight with Bisping, watch as Georges St-Pierre choked out Bisping, and finally inherit the real belt after St-Pierre decided not to fight anymore. Tony Ferguson won the interim lightweight belt while Conor McGregor looked at boats and cosplayed as a boxer, only to get it stripped months later because he tore his knee stepping on an electrical cord.
Some of those interim championships may have been necessary, but the interim welterweight title was not. Woodley defended his belt three times within a year of winning it, and was taking some time to recover from a shoulder injury before defending again. He was reasonably active, and it seems that the UFC only created the interim title as a way to force Woodley to fight the interim title-holder rather than seek some sort of money fight against someone like GSP, Nate Diaz, or, God forbid, McGregor. The only reason most stagnant UFC champions have been inactive is because they want to leverage their status to get paid what they’re owed before their brief careers end. That’s a reasonable demand, and if the UFC paid fighters fairly, then it wouldn’t be in this mess.
But the UFC under Dana White is as extractive as it could possibly be, which leaves us with a future where an interim championship belt is really just the new way to mark a fighter as the number one contender and motivate whatever disgruntled champ is looking for a big payday to instead defend their title. That the UFC is already ignoring its own half-measure shows just how empty of a gesture an interim belt has become.