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With his winning streak in the Ultimate Fighting Championship now standing at six fights and a piece of the welterweight title in tow, it’s high time I wrote something about Colby Covington. The man who goes by “Chaos” has certainly provided plenty of material over his 9-1 run with the promotion, and I can’t say I’m not a little excited to dig in.
With a hard-fought but clear decision victory over Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 225 on June 9, the 30-year-old Covington accomplished two things. One, he won the interim UFC welterweight title. In light of the UFC’s proclivity for handing out interim titles like party favors, how much that strap truly means is up to the reader to decide. The value of Covington’s interim title is especially questionable in this case considering that undisputed champ Tyron Woodley -- who happens to have a miserable relationship with his promoter -- has been out of action for less than 11 months. It is easy to dismiss the interim belt as a ploy by UFC President Dana White to add some luster to the Chicago card while at the same time thumbing his nose at his least-favorite champion.
Whatever you think of the validity of Covington’s interim belt, it is the less important of his achievements at UFC 225. The true takeaway is the manner in which “Chaos” handled his latest and, on paper at least, sternest challenge to date. I always find it an eye-opener when an up-and-coming fighter beats a more established veteran at his own game or by using the other fighter’s own trademark tools. Though it may not have featured a shocking inversion of expectations like Gabriel Gonzaga knocking out Mirko Filipovic with a head kick, Covington’s victory was impressive in its own right. While their specific skill sets differ somewhat, Covington won Rounds 2, 3 and 5 with the same kind of withering, physical pressure dos Anjos has used to bend or break some of the best fighters in two divisions over the last five or six years. In short, Covington had dos Anjos looking like dos Anjos usually has other fighters looking: reeling, reactive and on the verge of being overwhelmed. I would argue that, win or lose, dos Anjos had not been physically pushed around like that since fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2014. That is an impressive achievement and places Covington in rare company.
However, not all is perfect in the land of “Chaos.” His win over Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 119 in October may have moved him up the rankings and positioned him for the interim title fight, but it told us little about the progression of his skills. After all, Maia was fresh from a dismal performance against Woodley in which it was made painfully clear that the grappling wizard had nothing to offer if he could not bring a fight to the floor. Worse, the craft and sneaky athleticism that had once allowed him to dump a credentialed wrestler like Chael Sonnen on his head or take Carlos Condit’s back as if teleported there had waned as Maia approached 40. Maia went 0-for-21 trying to take down Woodley, and there was no reason to expect him to do any better against Covington, who was comparable to the champ in both amateur wrestling pedigree and MMA wrestling efficacy. Sure enough, Maia failed to take down Covington once in 13 tries and found himself on the end of a predictable, lopsided defeat. Nonetheless, the two-division UFC title challenger, Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist and Mundials winner is a great name on Covington’s ledger.
When a fighter progresses from prospect to contender to champion relatively quickly, as Covington has, fans and analysts alike tend to look for the gaps in the armor, the unproven skills. The question becomes, “What will he do when __________?” In the case of Conor McGregor, for example, doubters wanted to see how he would deal with a strong wrestler. After he answered that, they wanted to see what would happen when he stopped making the extreme cut to featherweight and started fighting people closer to his own size.
The most obvious test missing from Covington’s résumé to date is a great kickboxer with size and length. Welterweight has plenty of them to offer -- either side of the recent Stephen Thompson-Darren Till main event would fit the bill beautifully -- but through no particular choice or fault of his own, Covington’s road to the interim title did not bring him face to face with any. Thus far, “Chaos” has been a willing and effective standup striker, aided by the fact that even against the likes of dos Anjos and Dong Hyun Kim he has been the better wrestler in all of his UFC bouts. It remains to be seen whether a fighter with power, good fundamentals, footwork and superior reach will give him pause.
Covington’s presumptive next opponent, Woodley, does not fit that bill, but he does present some unique challenges. Like Covington, Woodley is used to being the superior wrestler, which means he is used to having the final word on where the bulk of his fights take place. When Woodley wanted the fight on the ground, the aforementioned “Wonderboy” was frequently unable to prevent it across a combined 10 rounds of fighting. When Woodley wanted to keep the fight standing, Maia’s efforts to dictate otherwise were an exercise in depressing futility. It will be interesting to see where the two former NCAA All-American wrestlers think they stand the best chance of winning the fight and who is able to impose his wishes more often.
While Woodley is not a great kickboxer in the classic sense and nobody would accuse him of being a high-volume striker, he is one of the hardest hitters in mixed martial arts. In a sport where promoters love to sell the idea of “one-punch knockout power” -- think of Dan Hardy telling the UFC’s cameras “I only need to touch [Georges St. Pierre’s] chin once” -- Woodley is one of the very few who has demonstrated the ability to knock people silly with single blows. He will absolutely be the most dangerous striker Covington has faced, and some of the biggest unknowns about a Woodley-Covington unification bout are whether Woodley will commit to letting his hands go, whether he will land cleanly on Covington and how Covington will react if he does.
For these reasons and many others, I am interested in seeing Colby Covington’s next several fights. There are questions to be answered as he enters his fighting prime, and the first will be answered in his very next fight: Was UFC 225 the start of a legitimate title reign or will that interim belt end up being a souvenir from the best win of his career?