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UFC 284 preview: Yair Rodriguez, Josh Emmett putting respect on the oft-maligned interim title

UFC Fight Night: Korean Zombie v Rodriguez Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Interim titles are widely regarded as being ... well, kind of stupid.

The promotion typically creates interim titles to add a little sizzle to mediocre pay-per-view (PPV) cards, like the one headlined by Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane. I already took a big, steaming dump on that decision (my reasons explained here) but I find myself more forgiving in the case of UFC 284, where reigning featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski will jump up to the lightweight division to battle current 155-pound titleholder Islam Makhachev this weekend at RAC Arena in Perth, Western Australia.

LIVE! Watch UFC 286 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

CHAMPIONSHIP TRILOGY! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to The O2 in London England, on Sat., March 18, 2023, with newly-minted Welterweight kingpin, Leon Edwards, running it back with former 170-pound champion, Kamaru Usman, for a third (and likely final) time. In UFC 286’s pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, all-action Lightweight knockout artists, Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev, will lock horns with the winner inching closer to a future Lightweight title shot.

Don’t miss a single second of EPIC face-punching action!

There’s a lot that can go wrong (or right) in that five-round affair but more importantly, there are enough unknowns to warrant a backup plan, which comes in the form of a interim featherweight title fight between top contenders Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett. Volkanovski could win the 155-pound strap and make his first title defense at lightweight — depending on the mood of matchmakers — or he could (and I hate to put this out into the universe) get injured and find himself benched for the foreseeable future.

At this point we can’t even rule out a split draw, so the insurance policy makes sense.

“I’m not going to throw it on the ground, but in my eyes, there’s only one featherweight champion, and that’s Alexander Volkanovski,” the typically-pragmatic Emmett told reporters at the UFC 284 media day on Wednesday (transcribed by MMA Junkie). “So, this is more like a No. 1 contender belt. It also gives me feedback on how good I am and leads me in the right direction to where I want to go. But, I have to get through Yair first in order to do so. So, I’m solely focused on him at the moment.”

Emmett is referring to the interim belt Justin Gaethje won by ruining Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 back in early 2020. “The Highlight” tossed the title to the floor and refused to recognize the substitute strap because Khabib Nurmagomedov was still ruling the 155-pound roost. Gaethje is not alone in his disdain for all things “interim” and some former fighters, like ex-lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, insist the strap-hazard decision to invent a championship is a sneaky way to deny fighters what they really deserve.

“When an interim title is given and the media makes a big fuss of it and a fighter makes a big fuss of it and the fans makes a big fuss of it, an interim title has value,” Alvarez said during a recent ONE Championship media day. “That’s the saddest thing that can happen in the sport. An interim title is given in replacement for money. We don’t wanna give you money, but we’ll give you an interim title. We don’t wanna give you money, but we’ll give you a main event spot. We don’t wanna give you money, but we’ll give you that opponent you want. We’ll give you everything but what you deserve, and that’s money.”

Fortunately for the promotion, who will be handing out a gold belt this weekend “Down Under,” Rodriguez has a far gentler take on what the title means, regardless of whether or not it comes with an asterisk. In his conversation with the media earlier this week, “El Pantera” explained how the title awarded at UFC 284 could become the undisputed championship under the right set of circumstances, making it silly to trash it beforehand. Naturally, it all depends on what happens between Volkanovski and Makhachev.

“The journey’s been long,” Rodriguez explained. “It’s been like 10 years for me to get here to this point finally. I don’t want to be disrespectful and say there is no true belt or whatever, it’s just what it is. If I get to fight for the actual belt then that will be the belt. If the actual champion decides not to come back to 145 pounds, then the champion of the division is whoever has the interim belt.”

Expect these questions (and more) to be answered this weekend in Perth.

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