Trading Shots: Did the interim titles on the line at UFC 236 help two great bouts seem even greater?

After two great interim title fights at UFC 236, we’re left to grapple with what those belts really mean – and how much depends on whether or not a unification bout follows soon. Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: Let me take you all the way back to one of our columns from February of this year, Danny. Remember this one? When Robert Whittaker ruptured his bowels and I admitted, actually here’s a situation where I don’t hate the idea of an interim title. You, as I recall, were not so enthusiastic about that idea. Didn’t see the need or the value in it, if memory serves. I’m curious what you think now.

At UFC 236 we saw two interim title fights, and they were both amazing. Five rounds of blood and guts and sheer stubborn will. I wonder, would they have been so good or felt so important without the interim hardware on the line? Do we actually need that physical reminder of the stakes involved in order to understand what we’re really doing here?

And if the answer is no and all the belt does is guarantee us two extra rounds, would that still justify their use here, especially considering what happened in the last two rounds of that fight between Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum?

Downes: I did not say interim titles have no value. Rather, I said that while they may have a limited benefit from a promotional point of view, their ubiquity has caused more harm than good. Interim title fights may have more panache than number one contender’s fights, but their repeated use has devalued the actual title.

If you’re worried about missing out on an extra couple of rounds, there’s already an answer for that. Every main event on a UFC card is already five rounds. Remember how the company brass instituted that? By saying so. There’s no reason why they couldn’t do the same thing for co-main event fights.

Also, it’s a little flimsy to say that interim titles are a good thing because we saw some really good fourth- and fifth-round action. Who’s to say those fights wouldn’t have been incredible three-round fights? Think about all the crappy five-round fights we’ve witnessed.

Seeing Dustin Poirier hold up a belt was emotional for him and fans. It’s been a long, difficult road for him and an interim title feels like a more satisfying payoff than “guy who (might) fight Khabib Nurmagomedov next.”

But let’s say he doesn’t have an opportunity to unify the titles. Let’s suppose he fights Conor McGregor next and loses. Now McGregor has a lightweight title and Nurmagomedov has a lightweight title. Do you see each title as having equal weight? If yes, then why? If no, doesn’t that prove my point?

Fowlkes: See, that was going to be my next question. Now that Adesanya is the interim middleweight champ, I actually believe that his next fight will almost certainly be a title unifier against Whittaker.

But Poirier? He has to convince Nurmagomedov to put his lightweight belt up for grabs in a bout that probably won’t be the guaranteed pay-per-view payday that Nurmagomedov has been angling for. And honestly? I’m not sure I believe he’ll do it. And as a result, I’m not sure what to make of that belt.

Still, didn’t Poirier beat a champion in Max Holloway? Didn’t it feel like a powerful moment when he got that belt wrapped around his waist? Would it have felt the same if he were fighting for some vague top contender status?

I don’t think it would have, and I say that as someone who has mostly rolled his eyes at the UFC’s love of interim titles over the years. Usually it does feel fake and contrived. But here were a couple instances where it actually felt special, and I’m not sure what to make of that.

Downes: Poirier beat a champion, but not the 155-pound champion. I’m not saying that to diminish his accomplishment. Holloway is a tough out at whatever weight he fights at. Beating a tough opponent doesn’t mean you should get a belt, though.

Tony Ferguson never lost his title in a match, so should his next opponent fight for a title? Let’s say Jose Aldo and McGregor have a rematch. Should that be for a title? Let’s create an interim moneyweight belt while we’re at it. Who’s the Fight Master nowadays?

Again, I understand how seeing a title wrapped around someone’s waist is powerful, but it’s a marketing gimmick. That recent Budweiser ad with Dwayne Wade choked me up, but I also realize it was purposely manipulative and done by a giant beer conglomerate.

How should we reconcile those two things? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is we should stay alert – which is much different than being a cynic.

A lot of fighters barely register with us anymore. That’s not true of Holloway and Poirier. Fans like each one of them as people in addition to liking them as mixed martial artists. McGregor made you interested in a freak boxing fight. Not because of the stakes, but by his pure magnetism. Perhaps the interim title gave you the feels, but maybe it was really the actual combatants.

The 14th anniversary of Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar at the first Ultimate Fighter Finale was earlier this week. It was a fight that changed the course of MMA. Fight fans all around the world had an emotional reaction to it. If the action inside the cage doesn’t entertain us, interim titles and other bells and whistles mean nothing. We’re fight fans, not title fans.

For complete coverage of UFC 236, check out the UFC Events section of the site.

Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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