What is an Interim Champion? A Guide to the Concept in the UFC

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The UFC first held an interim championship fight more than twenty years ago now in 2003 and ever since, they’ve sporadically brought in the concept when they felt necessary. Some of the greatest MMA fighters of all time have at some point been interim champs; similarly, some interim defenses have been incredible fights. Below, we’ve outlined what an interim champion is, how the criteria to become one has changed at the hands of the UFC and more.

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What is an interim champion in the UFC?

A UFC Interim Champion is essentially a temporary champion who holds a belt that looks identical to the UFC Championship. Each weight class will typically have one champion, other than those that have an interim champion and the idea is to keep the division moving until the champion can become active once again.

Why does the UFC have interim champions?

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Interim championships initially appeared in scenarios where the current champion of any given division was forced to sit out for a long time, likely due to an injury. The first ever UFC Interim Champion was Randy Couture, who beat Chuck Liddell at UFC 43 in 2003 and that interim title bout was set because then-champion Tito Ortiz was out for an extended period of time. Historically, if the interim champion couldn’t attempt to unify the belts by fighting the UFC champion anytime soon, they’d go on to truly be a placeholder champion in the division, defending the belt. A great example of this is Renan Barão, who won the interim belt when Dominick Cruz was forced out of action. He defended it twice before being promoted to the undisputed champion.

This was the justification for most interim title fights until this modern era of the UFC. Nowadays, the UFC believes that title fights add value to PPV events and so there’s some extra incentive for adding extra belts into the mix when possible. It only takes a champion being out for a shorter amount of time, or fighting in another weight class, for an interim championship fight to be booked today. It’s looked at these days as more of a #1 contender belt than anything and even if you’ve been watching the UFC for the best part of a decade, you’ll struggle to remember a time when this hasn’t been the case.

How have interim champions performed in title unification bouts in the UFC?

There have been 24 UFC Interim Champions in the company’s history, but of course that doesn’t mean there have been 24 title unification bouts. There have been circumstances where interim champions have been simply promoted to unified champions and even scenarios where interim champions have been stripped of their belts before they had the chance to unify.

There have been 15 title unification fights in UFC history and interim champions are 7-8 in those bouts.

Notable UFC Interim Champions

Randy Couture

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  • Date of championship won: June 6th, 2003.
  • Why they’re notable: Randy Couture was the first ever UFC Interim Champion.

Andrei Arlovski

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  • Date of championship won: February 5th, 2005.
  • Why they’re notable: Andrei Arlovski was the first UFC Interim Champion to be promoted to undisputed champ without a title unification fight.

Israel Adesanya

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  • Date of championship won: April 13th, 2019.
  • Why they’re notable: In the current era where title defences determine how many gems are on your UFC belt, Israel Adesanya has made the case that interim champions who win their title unification bouts should have those fights count as title defences, since they’re defending the interim belt which eventually became the unified belt.

Renan Barão

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  • Date of championship won: July 21st, 2012.
  • Why they’re notable: Renan Barão is the only UFC Interim Champion to have defended the interim championship multiple times; once against Michael McDonald and once against Eddie Wineland. He was later promoted to the undisputed champion and defended that belt once more, against Urijah Faber. 

Jon Jones

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  • Date of championship won: April 23rd, 2016.
  • Why they’re notable: Jon Jones was the first fighter ever to be stripped of a UFC Interim Championship, with Tony Ferguson and Colby Covington following him a few years later. He was stripped due to a failed drug test.
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