Monday, February 6, 2012

Interim titles: A necessary evil of the combat sports world

LAS VEGAS -- Interim titles.

They're a necessary evil in the combat sports world. Most mixed martial artists who win them go out of their way to say they don't consider themselves the true champion.

Carlos Condit said as much about his upcoming UFC interim welterweight title bout against Nick Diaz on Saturday night, a bout necessitated by the torn ACL suffered by champion Georges St-Pierre.

"If I win, that's nice, but I'm not the real champ," Condit said. "Everyone knows Georges is the champ until someone beats him."

And yet, interim titles serve a real purpose, keeping a the top of a division focused whenever any of the things that can go wrong in the wild world of MMA occur, from injuries to contract squabbles to brushes with the law.

Diaz-Condit will mark the seventh interim title fight in the Zuffa-era UFC, not counting unification bouts with returning champions. Here's a look at the interim champs over the years and the situations which produced them:


2005: Andrei Arlovski
. Frank Mir's first heavyweight title reign came to an abrupt end in 2004 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident, which nearly finished his career. So Arlovski fought Tim Sylvia at UFC 51 in the first fight of their trilogy, and won with an Achilles lock in just 47 seconds. The extent of Mir's injuries were such that he didn't end up returning until 2006, so Arlovski was later named the official champion and held the title until losing his rematch with Sylvia at UFC 59.

2007-09: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir. Heavyweight champion Randy Couture was the feel-good story of 2007 after winning the title from Sylvia at the age of 43. Then he listened to some of the worst advice a fighter's ever gotten and tried to get out of an ironclad contract. For legal reasons, the UFC continued to recognize Couture as champion. UFC president Dana White announced an interim title bout at UFC 81 between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Sylvia, which "Big Nog" won by third-round submission after suckering Sylvia into going for a takedown.

As the UFC-Couture legal battle dragged on, the UFC announced an interim title defense for Nogueira against Mir at UFC 92. But then Couture settled with the UFC, and White set up a heavyweight mini-tournament, with the winner of the UFC 91 bout between Couture and Brock Lesnar meeting the Mir-Nogueira winner to claim the undisputed belt. Lesnar TKOd Couture for the heavyweight title at UFC 91; Mir did the same to "Big Nog" for the interim belt; and Lesnar finished matters by pummeling Mir, also via second-round stoppage, at the famed UFC 100.

2010: Shane Carwin. In late 2009, Lesnar had to pull out of his scheduled title defense against with Shane Carwin due to what turned into a career-derailing ordeal with Diverticulitis. In stepped Mir, who had his chance to become the first two-time interim UFC champ, against Carwin. But Carwin absolutely smoked Mir in their UFC 111 bout in Newark, needing less than three minutes to score a brutal TKO. Carwin seemed ready to do the same to Lesnar at UFC 116 before he ran out of gas and was submitted by Lesnar to unify the belts.

Light heavyweight

2003: Randy Couture. For those who wonder why the UFC is so vigilant keeping their championships strong and champions in check, they need only look back at the Tito Ortiz saga. Ortiz was a workhorse when he first won what became known as the light heavyweight title, defending the belt four times in nine months. Then he fought just once in a span of nearly two years, with that one defense his famed win over an already-past-his-prime Ken Shamrock at UFC 40. All sorts of things were blamed for the inactivity, including, at times, legitimate injury concerns. But many perceived that Ortiz was ducking up-and-coming Chuck Liddell. So White ordered an interim title bout between Liddell and former heavyweight champ Couture.

In the first bout of their epic trilogy, Couture stunned Liddell with a third-round TKO at UFC 43. Ortiz finally returned to the cage on Sept. 26, 2003, where Couture both literally and figuratively spanked him en route to unifying the crowns.


2007: Georges St. Pierre. On April 7, 2007, Matt Serra stunned Georges St-Pierre for the UFC welterweight title in the upset still cited to this day as proof that anything can happen in MMA. A herniated disc, however, put the new champ on the sidelines soon thereafter, so GSP and Matt Hughes were put together in an interim title bout at UFC 79. This was a trilogy fight; Hughes submitted an inexperienced GSP in an armbar with one second left in the first round in 2004; St-Pierre won the title from Hughes at UFC 65 in a bout held just seven weeks after Hughes won a three-round war over B.J. Penn.

The UFC 79 bout served as the signal that GSP has clearly surpassed Hughes in the division. St-Pierre dominated Hughes, and in a poetic finish to the trilogy, caught Hughes in the waning seconds of the third and made him tap to an armbar. St-Pierre then trounced Serra in front of a raucous Montreal crowd in April, 2008, beginning a reign that continues to this day and leads to Saturday's Diaz-Condit interim title bout.

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Matt Andersen  Alex Andrade  Jermaine Andrè  Yoji Anjo  Ao Hailin  Shinya Aoki  Andrei Arlovski 

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