MMA

Bisping vs. GSP likely a first step to more interim belts

The UFC held a press conference tonight to promote the recent Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping middleweight title fight announcement. Not many details are complete regarding the time and place of this fight. Although, Dana White expressed that he would love to have it as part of international fight week this July.

Since the announcement, much of the feedback leans more towards disappointment rather than excitement.

In short, the arguments against this fight are:

  1. It stop-gaps the list of contenders at the top of the middleweight division waiting for a legitimate shot at the title (Romero, Jacare, Rockhold, Weidman, Mousasi, et al.).
  2. It dispels GSP’s claims for not facing Anderson Silva when he was active – citing issues with going up to 185 pounds.
  3. It gives GSP a title shot in a division he has never competed in before after a three-year layoff.
  4. It adds fuel to the argument that Bisping is not willing to face any of the aforementioned contenders.
  5. It highlights the UFC’s public negotiation ploys. From openly dismissing GSP’s motivation to claiming they would have to re-invest heavily to re-introduce him to the current market.
  6. It furthers the belief that, given the chance, the new UFC regime will lean more on the entertainment side than the sporting side.

White, Bisping, and St-Pierre had arguments for most of these criticisms.

White vaguely insinuated that Yoel Romero, the legitimate middleweight title contender, is going to be paid to sit out:

“We’re going to take care of him. We’ll obviously take care of Yoel and, you know, George is coming back. It’s not like George has a lot of time. Georges wanted this fight, Mike wanted this fight, I’m sure the fans want to see this fight, so we did it. I’ll take care of Yoel, I’ll handle it.”

Additionally, Bisping was confident that GSP won’t do anything to him and that he’ll get back in there to defend his belt against Romero in as little as six weeks:

“Georges doesn’t have the style to hurt me. I can show you a text message to Dana right now that said ‘Georges will not hurt me. In six weeks after this fight, I will fight Yoel Romero.’”

St-Pierre talked openly about his decision to came back as a middleweight. He says the fight game is like the stock market and at this point in time, Bisping at 185 lbs. was the most lucrative fight for him:

“Right now I don’t hold a belt, nobody’s waiting for me. I can do whatever I want. It was a perfect timing. I wanted to make a big boom in my comeback, and like I said, it’s like the stock market. Right now the guy who has the highest stock is Michael Bisping and it was a perfect timing for me to do it.”

Dana White spun his negotiation tactics and even ate some crow  by saying that breaking bread with the former welterweight king was what changed his mind on GSP’s willingness to come back:

“I’m very happy that Georges is back. I’m happy that Georges is happy to be back. I questioned for a long time if he really wanted to fight. After we had a dinner and a breakfast, you know, I believed that he did – so here we are.”

The argument that still looms over this fight, and the UFC, is the perception of this being the first real step towards a new era of a binary belt system. A system where you relegate a champion with enough of a name to the highest-value fight (despite merit) as an interim champ waits in the wings until further notice.

It’s easy to see a near future where either Bisping beats GSP but has to take an extended leave or where GSP wins and then decides to take another big money fight down at his former welterweight home. In either of those scenarios, it wouldn’t shock people to see the UFC book Romero against Jacare for the interim middleweight belt.

The interim title was only used sparingly in the past. It was brought out almost exclusively when a current champion had a long layoff due to injury. Now, they very well could start using them across the board to fit their promotional needs. Have a relatively weak card coming up? Throw in an interim title somewhere near the top of the card to give it more allure.

And yes, some could say we’re already there. We had Conor McGregor get an interim featherweight belt by defeating Chad Mendes in 2015. Jose Aldo was crowned interim featherweight champ in mid-2016. By late 2016, Aldo’s promotion to champion led Max Holloway to get a shiny new interim belt. Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov were supposed to duke it out tomorrow for the interim lightweight belt. That fight was canceled today at weigh-ins.

All those decisions, however, were firmly a consequence of one man – Conor McGregor. Until now, one big superstar with leverage encompassed this interim merry-go-round.

The new UFC ownership has not come out and talked about their vision and blueprint of how they matchmake. In that absence, it’s easy to speculate that from here on out the belief is that more belts equal more cash.

This notion, however, can produce serious problems. More belts will not always produce more pay-per-view buys. Look at UFC 206 and UFC 208, for example. UFC 206 (Holloway/Pettis) did an underwhelming 150,000 pay-per-view buys and while no numbers have come out for UFC 208 (Holm/de Randamie), the projections are not strong either.

Chipping away at a belt’s value is also a problem. When the best aren’t fighting the best anymore and when champs are fighting in super fights outside their weight class or fighting bigger names rather than number one contenders, what is the point of having a ranking system in the first place? Can someone be called an undisputed champion, if there are disputes to how they got there? It’s a slippery slope.

Now, there are some pros to this. Interim belts are still worth a lot to the fighters. Most UFC fighters get more financial benefits contractually if they are champions, regardless of classification.  More money for fighters is always a good thing. Another benefit is seeing more high-caliber five round fights. Throw an interim title fight as a co-main event and now a three round bout gets more time to play itself out.

All in all, It is not the end of the world that the UFC booked Bisping vs. St-Pierre. It might end up being a great fight. But, booking a 38-year-old middleweight champ against a 36-year-old former champ (coming off a three-year hiatus) when there are fresh contenders readily available might be the first straw of many that finally break the camel’s back some day.

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