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‘Runner-up for prom queen’: Tom Aspinall, Jon Jones and the nature of UFC interim titles

Tom Aspinall knocked Sergei Pavlovich out with punches to win the interim UFC heavyweight title at UFC 295 in November. Since then, all he has been able to do is throw shots via social media.

Aspinall is asking — begging, in some cases — for something that should be a natural next step for an interim champion: a fight against the undisputed champ to unify the titles. But his keyboard correspondences are likely to all be for naught.

Jon Jones is the UFC heavyweight champion, not to mention arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time. He was scheduled to defend that belt at UFC 295 in New York against Stipe Miocic, who has the best résumé in the history of the promotion’s heavyweight division. But Jones tore his pec, forcing the bout with Miocic to be postponed. The UFC put together Aspinall and Pavlovich for the interim belt in its place.

When Jones returns from injury, the plan is to rebook the matchup with Miocic. It’s a legacy bout between two future Hall of Famers. Both men are being promised a boatload of money for the high-profile clash. Jones wants that fight. Miocic wants that fight. And it’s the fight the UFC wants, too.

That leaves Aspinall out in the cold, holding a gold belt that doesn’t mean much on the surface. All Aspinall wants to do is prove himself the best heavyweight in mixed martial arts. There’s a chance he won’t be able to do that against legends like Jones or Miocic, if both retire after that bout, which is a distinct possibility.

In most cases, the UFC interim champion does get a chance to unify the title with the incumbent champ. But not always. Colby Covington and Tony Ferguson were interim champions in their respective divisions and never got a chance to unify the belts.

This situation at heavyweight has many — perhaps even Aspinall himself — questioning the point of an interim title without a clear path for unification in the near future. ESPN asked fighters, coaches and managers during UFC 297 fight week in Toronto about their thoughts on interim belts — and got mixed feelings.

“I think interim titles are used to work in the favor of the promotion,” one high-profile MMA coach said under condition of anonymity. “I think that there’s no clear-cut rhyme or reason on why they use them, when they don’t, who gets them, who doesn’t.”

Aspinall vs. Pavlovich did not have to be for the interim title. It was more of a way to sweeten the UFC 295 card after the loss of Jones vs. Miocic, as well as compel Aspinall and Pavlovich to take the fight on short notice. The UFC decides on interim title fights arbitrarily. There is no set rule. Sometimes, champions can be out for many months or even a year without an interim title fight being held. Other times, like when Francis Ngannou won the heavyweight title in 2021, the UFC set up an interim title fight with Ciryl Gane and Derrick Lewis just five months later.

“If the UFC always knew that it was going to be Jones and Stipe, then there was no reason to make an interim to muddy the waters,” one coach said. “You’ve got a runner-up for prom queen? Like f—, dude.”

The idea of an interim titleholder isn’t a bad one at face value. If a champion is injured and going to be out a significant amount of time — and Jones could be out eight months or longer — then it’s a way to keep the division active and moving. At least, theoretically. In this circumstance, Aspinall’s path is unclear because Jones seems unwilling to fight him next. So does Miocic, the two-time former champion who turned down a bout with Aspinall at UFC 300.

Maybe Aspinall will end up defending the interim belt. It has been done before, by interim champions Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Renan Barao, but not since Barao did it 11 years ago. If Aspinall does, there is a pretty decent consolation prize. According to managers, in many cases, interim champions get paid like undisputed champions. So no, Aspinall might not get his crack at Jones. But his next bout, if he defends the interim title, will be more lucrative for him.

“It’s all how your manager negotiates,” said a manager who has represented undisputed and interim champions. “I can tell you for the one interim champ we had, he was paid exactly as if he was champion. And the incidentals were exactly as if he was champion. … I’m all for [interim titles]. I think the difference in pay matters, the difference in incidentals matters — tickets, hotel rooms, flights. All that stuff changes as an interim champ.”

Another manager said that given the pay structure, the “interim” distinction doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.

“At the end of the day, you get to carry that belt around,” the manager said. “There’s really no, ‘Oh, but you’re the interim.’ No one really cares. What’s the difference between Aspinall carrying around an interim title and Jamahal Hill carrying around the real [light heavyweight] one because [Jiří Procházka] relinquished it? It’s the same thing.”

In a perfect world, the UFC champion would be the best fighter in the world in his or her respective weight class. But it doesn’t always work that way. The UFC title is a promotional one. It’s not like winning the Super Bowl or World Series. Being a UFC champion is far and away the greatest accomplishment in MMA. But it can also be circumstantial and based on timing, like the scenario mentioned above with Procházka giving up the 205-pound title because of injury and Hill winning the vacant title last year by beating Glover Teixeira.

Many people already believe that Aspinall is the best heavyweight in the world, and few would disagree that he’s the division’s future. Aspinall is 30 years old. On the other side, Jones is 36, and Miocic is 41.

All Aspinall is asking for is a chance to prove himself as the top guy. And it’s difficult to do that, all other things aside, without stepping into the cage with either Jones or Miocic. It’s like that old Ric Flair saying: “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”

“If you’re an interim champion, in most cases that interim champion needs to fight ‘the man’ to build their name,” a former UFC champion said. “That Pavlovich fight didn’t do much for Aspinall’s name value and pay-per-view worth. He needs Jones or Stipe.”

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