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Colby Covington talked the talk, and then he walked the walk. After more than a year of trolling Rafael dos Anjos on social media and campaigning for a title shot of one variety or another, “Chaos” earned a unanimous decision over the former lightweight champion and the interim welterweight strap at UFC 225. The victory sets him up for a unification bout opposite Tyron Woodley sometime later this year, conceivably on the Madison Square Garden card planned for November.
With the dos Anjos win behind him, Covington wasted little time basking in his achievement. Not wishing to be defined by his dynamic performance inside the cage -- he mixed takedowns with improved kickboxing chops and a more reliable gas tank than many expected -- the American Top Team rep quickly sought instead to court more controversy, proclaiming his intention to present President Trump with the championship “like a real American should do.” In the post-fight press conference, Covington doubled down on this sentiment, repeatedly throwing shade at the Philadelphia Eagles, whose invitation to celebrate the NFL championship at the White House was rescinded after a majority of players expressed reservations about the visit.
For a sport that’s more apolitical than most, at least as far as the athletes are concerned, Covington’s vocal support of Trump is sure to earn him more mainstream attention than MMA fighters are used to getting. Despite having only 35,000 Twitter followers, Covington’s past antics -- they include repeatedly labelling Brazilians as “filthy animals” and using a gay slur in a confrontation with Fabricio Werdum in November -- have attracted the interest of such outlets as the BBC and Forbes Magazine, and in the build up to UFC 225, it was he, not the middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who was featured on ESPN. With a shiny piece of gold around his waist and the prospect of a photo-op with the commander-in-chief in his future, that interest and a healthy dose of criticism from progressive commentators is sure to increase.
What does it tell us that the Ultimate Fighting Championship seems to be rewarding this kind of behavior? Nothing that Chael Sonnen’s three title shots shouldn’t have already told us. The UFC -- especially under Endeavor -- has made it clear that it sees entertainment value as equally as important, if not more so, than preserving a meritocratic architecture. Though Covington’s heel persona comes off more crudely and less sincerely than Sonnen’s or Conor McGregor’s, it’s undoubtedly made him a more eye-catching figure in the stacked 170-pound division; and with fighters like lightweight James Vick, a winner in nine of his past 10 fights in the UFC, still struggling to get matched against ranked opponents, it’s little wonder that fighters like Covington feel the need to generate interest using a lowest-common-denominator approach.
Perhaps a better question is whether more fighters will begin following the Covington blueprint. With a president who’s willing to disregard putting a dolly through a bus window if you make his company money but breathes fire when you attempt to exercise some influence over who you fight and where, it seems obvious that creating controversy is as reliable a path to job security as any. That and forming some kind of fighters’ association to address the massive power asymmetry between the promotion and its athletes, but that’s a conversation for another time.
Should we be concerned that this cheapens MMA and the titles that induce so many young men and women to make face-punching their vocation? Only if you fundamentally misunderstand its origins. As Sherdog’s Ben Duffy argued in relation to the Phil Brooks-Mike Jackson fight which took place on the same card as Covington-Dos Anjos and went about as horribly as you’d expect a fight between two 0-1 fighters to go, the UFC -- much less now-defunct promotions like Pride Fighting Championships -- has never abided by some sacred code in the way it does business. Title shots and UFC contracts are awarded for no other reason than to advance the promotion’s long- and short-term financial interests, and unless change in the form of the Ali Expansion Act or a militant fighters association is around the corner, the UFC will continue to enjoy the power to do whatever it wants.
Covington is the symptom of a system that is part sport, part professional wrestling dictatorship. A fighter with genuine ability who is keenly aware of UFC President Dana White’s lagging interest in MMA and the corresponding impetus to be a squeaky wheel.
Now that he has a belt around his waist and a date with the real champ booked, Covington can probably let his fighting do the talking for him. With that said, don’t hold your breath; he looks like he’s just getting warmed up.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.