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Am I The Only One Confused About The “Interim Lightweight Title?”

By Ben Fowlkes

My brain hurts. It’s tired of trying to sort this mess out, and it’s getting nowhere. But it’s not my brain’s fault. At least, not this time.

If you’re on the UFC’s mailing list, as I am, you received an email alerting you that B.J. Penn and Joe Stevenson will be fighting for the “interim” lightweight title at UFC 80 in January. And if you also compulsively follow MMA news, as I do, you know that Dana White has said he will not strip lightweight champion Sean Sherk of his title because of the way the California State Athletic Commission has bungled his appeal of a positive steroid case.

But if Sherk isn’t being stripped, why is there an interim title at all?

This feels like one of those situations that only gets more confusing as you try to sort it out. I almost understand the reasoning. White seems to feel that Sherk is innocent when it comes to steroid use. From what I’ve heard, the levels of nandrolene detected in Sherk’s system were so low that it’s not unbelievable to think this might be a false positive.

So, okay, I get it. White feels that the CSAC, which has a reputation as the most difficult commission for MMA organizations to deal with, by far, is screwing this thing up. They postponed Sherk’s appeal hearing because they didn’t read all the material submitted by his lawyer, which makes them seem more like the Mayberry Athletic Commission than the California one. White was angered by this, as was Sherk, and understandably so.

That’s why White announced that Sherk (who White says he considers a friend) will not be stripped of his title. Okay. That makes a certain kind of sense. It seems like he might be blowing off the CSAC, and maybe somebody should.

But now I have to ask again. Why is there an interim title?

I understand that Sherk is stilll under suspension pending his appeal, but if the UFC’s position is that Sherk is going to hold onto that belt unless the CSAC can produce photos of a needle going into “The Muscle Shark’s” arm, there shouldn’t be any interim title. It’s meaningless. The winner of the interim title has essentially just earned number one contender status, only he’s got a belt to show for it.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t know why the UFC is doing this. They don’t want the belt to be out of circulation while they wait for this appeal, because a title fight always makes for an instant main event on a pay-per-view card. They already have a heavyweight title with no one to defend it after Randy Couture’s “resignation”, and they’ve kept their welterweight title in reality TV land lo these many months.

But they can’t have it both ways. They can’t refuse to strip the title-holder and also have two other guys fight for his title. That essentially creates two champions in one weight class, which defeats the purpose of having a champion at all.

Do you see now what I’ve been going through? Maybe it’s my fault for even trying to understand this, or for assuming that it’s supposed to make sense. As it is I feel like I’m standing in the mall and looking at one of those magic eye pictures that has an image of a sailboat somewhere in it, only I can’t see it and I just keep staring while old people and children pass by me with pity in their eyes.

Much like those magic eye pictures, this situation will leave me with nothing but a headache and a nagging sense of failure. I just know it. And at the end of the day, we’ll still have two guys walking around claiming to be the UFC lightweight champion.

Ben Fowlkes is the writer of the blog The Fighting Life and the editor of IFL.tv, the official website of the International Fight League.