Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in October of 2020, after beating Justin Gaethje and unifying the lightweight and interim championships. The UFC lightweight title would remain vacant for seven months. Then at UFC 262, Charles Olivera would knock out Michael Chandler to become the current champion.
Before UFC 254 and his retirement, Khabib had not defended his title in 13 months. It took eight of those months for the UFC to crown an interim champion in Justin Gaethje.
Stipe Miocic defended his heavyweight championship only once a year for three years straight. After winning it off of Daniel Cormier in 2019, he actually would not defend that title for 363 days.
Alexander Volkanovski, current UFC Featherweight champion, has not defended his title in almost a year now.
The UFC tends to let their champions be very picky with their schedules. Champions run the show, so what they want is typically what they get. The very loose rule of thumb is that champions fight twice a year. Although, as you see above, that is not necessarily a universal ruling.
Because of these lenient schedules, the UFC very rarely creates interim titles. They usually only resort to this when champions are unable to defend their title due to injury or personal restriction. In 2020, a lightweight interim champion was crowned because Covid restrictions kept Khabib from traveling. In 2015, Mcgregor became interim champion when champion Nate Diaz pulled out of their bout due to a rib injury.
Normally these situations make sense. If the champion can not compete, there is a hole at the top of the division. The division, and the UFC, need their champions.
Then There is the Interim Heavyweight Title
It was announced last week that UFC 265 would be headlined by Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane. This would be completely fine if it stopped right there. However, the UFC has managed to mishandle this and make a crucial mistake that will hurt them long term.
The UFC is making Gane-Lewis an interim heavyweight championship bout.
Francis Ngannou, the current UFC Heavyweight champion, won his title back in March of 2021. He (via his agent) was in the process of negotiating his first title defense in September. The UFC wanted that fight to happen in August, but due to a scheduling conflict, Ngannou’s team could not make that work. Ngannou was nominated for an ESPY and is currently celebrating with his friends and family in Cameroon. He is healthy, he is ready to fight again, and he is being screwed over.
There is no argument that makes this decision make sense.
Even looking at the rest of the UFC, it makes even less sense. Aljamain Sterling became Bantamweight champion on the same pay-per-view as Ngannou. He won that title via DQ and has become the butt of the joke in MMA fan circles. He has recently stated that he will not be able to negotiate a title defense until at least October. Yet there is no plan currently to create an interim Bantamweight champion. Sterling remains the undisputed champion and holds up the division.
It is also going to cost the UFC money
This is a terrible mistake. Francis Ngannou is the fastest rising star in the UFC right now. Thanks to an unbelievably brutal knockout of Stipe Miocic to become champion, Ngannou is becoming a household name. Huge names like Jon Jones and Tyson Fury are itching for the opportunity to throw hands with the pride of Cameroon. The heavyweight division, which has struggled to maintain relevance since the downfall of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier’s transition to commentary, is finally gaining some public recognition, thanks to Francis Ngannou.
If you are a business that relies on getting people to buy your shows, you want to build your shows on fighters and clashes that people want to see. There’s a reason that Conor Mcgregor’s name almost guarantees one and a half million buys. Nate Diaz returns to the octagon at UFC 263 and even had non-MMA fans buying the pay-per-view. It is why pay-per-views are titled after their main event, and not just their number.
If you are that business, why would you not use one of your biggest stars?
By scheduling the interim title fight for August, they eliminate their ability to do that with Ngannou for almost the rest of the year. His next opponent has to be the winner of that clash and the interim heavyweight champion. Fighters get three months between fights, so his next opponent can not be available until at least November. Unless a more exciting fight is put on the card, Gane-Lewis is not going to sell nearly as well as any event with Ngannou’s name on it.
It is beyond clear why this could be happening: Francis Ngannou is everything that Dana White and the UFC hates.
Firstly, Francis Ngannou is one of the loudest critics of the way the UFC pays its fighters. He was paid a disgustingly low 580,000 dollars for his championship fight with Stipe Miocic. In 13 fights with one of the biggest companies in the world, Ngannou has only seen an estimated 2.7 million dollars. After taxes and gym fees and medical bills, Ngannou has likely not even earned a million dollars for himself yet.
He does not stay quiet about that either. When the payouts for the exhibition between Logan Paul and Floyd Mayweather were revealed on Twitter, Ngannou immediately took to Twitter to draw the comparison.
Ngannou is also making sure that moving forward, he does not get shorted the cash he deserves. He has brought in Marquel Martin and the CAA to help move his career forward. Martin is already showing his readiness to fight on Ngannou’s behalf, getting in a spat with Dana White on Instagram over the disrespect to his client.
Ngannou is a challenge to the UFC, a company that is built on the abuse and exploitation of their fighters. His vocal opposition to that system and his work to protect himself from that system is an obstacle to Dana White. However, unlike other fighters who have taken the same position, Ngannou’s rising popularity and calm demeanor make him a legitimate threat for changing the MMA world.
For that reason, the UFC can not let Ngannou succeed. They can not let Ngannou get too big. They can not let Ngannou win ESPN awards. Ngannou’s success will diminish the success of the UFC, so that will not be allowed to happen.
It is a shame, because Ngannou is one of the most exciting champions in modern MMA history.
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