Over its near-three decade history, the UFC has crowned a number of interim champions, with those fighters going onto very different degrees of success.
We’ve seen some interim titleholders eventually unify their titles to become undisputed champions, while others have fallen in their attempts at this quest despite giving it a good go.
So with that in mind, here are the five greatest interim champions in UFC history, ranked in order.
#5. Max Holloway – interim UFC featherweight champion (2016)
To be frank, by the end of 2016, the UFC featherweight division was an extremely messy place, largely due to Conor McGregor. ‘The Notorious’ had famously knocked out longtime champion Jose Aldo to claim the UFC featherweight title at the end of 2015. He then moved up in weight, choosing to largely ignore his newly-won crown.
The promotion, clearly hoping McGregor would return to 145 pounds at some point, allowed him to keep the title. However, they also crowned an interim champion in the form of Aldo, who beat Frankie Edgar for the title at UFC 200.
At the same time, Max Holloway was putting together one of the most impressive winning streaks in UFC history, defeating nine opponents in a row and finishing the majority of them.
It was clear that ‘Blessed’ deserved a shot at the title, but with Aldo on the shelf, the promotion made a curious decision. They stripped McGregor, upgraded the Brazilian to undisputed champion and put together an interim title fight between Holloway and Anthony Pettis.
‘Blessed’ duly shellacked Pettis to win the title and then managed to dethrone Aldo to become undisputed champion six months later. He would go onto defend his title on three occasions before losing it in 2019.
The fact that Holloway wasn’t required to defend his interim title keeps him low on this list. However, the fact that he cleaned up a foggy division makes him one of the best-ever interim champions.
#4. Israel Adesanya – interim UFC middleweight champion (2019)
Like Max Holloway, it’s hard to rank Israel Adesanya all that highly on a list of the UFC’s best interim champions, purely because he was never required to actually defend his title.
Instead, ‘The Last Stylebender’ fought for the undisputed UFC middleweight title in his first clash as interim champion. He knocked out Robert Whittaker to ensure that he was recognized as the world’s best 185lber. Two facts land Adesanya firmly on this countdown, though, and ensure that his brief reign as interim champion won’t be completely forgotten.
Firstly, unlike other interim titleholders such as Carlos Condit (welterweight), Shane Carwin (heavyweight) and Colby Covington (welterweight), Adesanya not only became undisputed champion, but he also made it look easy. More importantly, Adesanya’s interim title fight against Kelvin Gastelum may well be the greatest interim title fight in UFC history.
It was a back-and-forth war that saw Adesanya pushed harder than we’d ever seen up to that point. Gastelum even knocked him down during the contest. However, the Nigerian-New Zealander came roaring back to cement his victory in the final round as Gastelum began to flag.
Essentially, judging by the fight, Adesanya was taking his opportunity to become an interim UFC champion just as seriously as he would’ve taken an undisputed title fight. That makes him one of the best interim champions in UFC history.
#3. Georges St-Pierre – interim UFC welterweight champion (2007)
Another fighter who didn't defend his interim title is the legendary Georges St-Pierre. Like the aforementioned Max Holloway and Israel Adesanya, GSP was able to unify the UFC welterweight title when he stopped Matt Serra just four months after claiming interim gold. However, the Canadian belongs firmly on this list for more than one reason.
Firstly, ‘Rush’ never lost another fight after claiming the interim UFC welterweight title at UFC 79. After winning the undisputed belt in his very next fight, he went onto defend it on nine occasions, turning back the challenge of some of the toughest fighters on the planet. By the time he stepped away from the UFC in 2013, GSP was comfortably recognized as the greatest 170lber in MMA history.
More to the point, the fight that saw him win the interim title was also a historic one. It saw him face arguably his greatest-ever rival in the form of legendary former champion Matt Hughes for the third time.
The two fighters had split their previous two bouts. In the third one, St-Pierre left no question as to who the better man was. He dominated Hughes, throwing him around like a ragdoll before submitting him in the second round.
For that historic victory, as well as the massive achievements he went onto following his interim title win, Georges St-Pierre definitely belongs on any list of great interim UFC champions.
#2. Andrei Arlovski – interim UFC heavyweight champion (2005)
Ranked in second place on this list is Andrei Arlovski, who stands as one of just two fighters in UFC history to successfully defend an interim title before becoming the undisputed champion. ‘The Pitbull’ became the top contender in the UFC heavyweight division in 2004 following an impressive win streak.
However, a planned fight with UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir fell through when the Americam was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, sidelining him for a lengthy period of time.
With Mir on the shelf, the UFC put together an interim title fight between Arlovski and Tim Sylvia. In one of the best performances of his career, ‘The Pitbull’ dropped his opponent before submitting him with an Achilles lock in under a minute. Just four months later, Arlovski was back in action, defending his interim crown successfully against Justin Eilers, who he stopped with strikes in the first round.
Finally, with a return date for Mir still unknown, the UFC booked Arlovski in another title defense against Paul Buentello just four months after the Eilers fight. However, this time, the promotion decided to upgrade ‘The Pitbull’, declaring him undisputed champion.
Arlovski turned back the challenge of Buentello, only to lose the undisputed title in a rematch with Sylvia in early 2006.
However, the fact that ‘The Pitbull’ held the interim title for essentially a full year and no UFC fans really missed the undisputed heavyweight champion during that time, means he remains one of the promotion’s greatest interim champions.
#1. Renan Barao – interim UFC bantamweight champion (2012)
While Renan Barao would not rank highly on a list of the greatest UFC champions of all time, the Brazilian should probably be recognized as the greatest interim champion in the promotion’s history.
That’s because he actually made two successful defenses of his interim title. By the time he was upgraded to become the undisputed champion, he’d been at the top of the division for two years and was clearly seen as the top bantamweight in the world.
Barao was initially thrust into an interim title fight when then-UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz suffered a serious knee injury that landed him on the shelf for an undetermined period. ‘The Baron’ replaced Cruz in his fight with Urijah Faber at UFC 149 and outpointed ‘The California Kid’, becoming the interim UFC bantamweight champion in the process.
While it was widely known that Cruz would not be back for a long time, the UFC chose not to strip him and crown Barao the undisputed champion. The Brazilian defended his interim crown against Michael McDonald in early 2013. Later in the year, he returned to defend the title for a second time, this time knocking out Eddie Wineland with a spinning kick at UFC 165.
Finally, the UFC booked a title unification bout between Barao and Cruz at UFC 169 in early 2014. When Cruz was forced out with another injury, ‘The Baron’ was finally declared undisputed champion.
While he only made one successful defense of that title and then saw his career fall apart completely following a loss to T.J. Dillashaw, he remains the only fighter in UFC history to defend an interim title more than once, making him the promotion’s greatest interim champion.