Little more than a year ago, Colby Covington was mostly hot air, a young man with big aspirations and an abrasive public personality who had not yet accomplished anything of note on the elite MMA scene. Things have changed since then, at least somewhat. Covington still has the big aspirations and an abrasive public personality, but he’s bolstered his resume to the point where he is indisputably a factor in the UFC welterweight title picture.
After beating Demian Maia this past Saturday, Covington has now won five straight, a significant streak in a division that has generated some fresh talent over the last 12 months including Darren Till, Santiago Ponzinibbio, Kamaru Usman, Emil Meek and Mike Perry.
Covington currently stands at the top of that heap, an upward rise that is to be commended. It was less than two years ago when he was choked out by Warlley Alves in just 86 seconds. A short time later, he can call out champion Tyron Woodley and it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.
That speedy rise should be the thing that people are noting about him, but instead, it’s his straight-out-of-1980s-sports-villain-central-casting mouth that is making most of the headlines.
To his credit, Covington is a brave man. To go into a country of 200 million people, insult and offend them while the prospect of getting strangled by one of their nation’s sporting heroes hangs around your neck, well, that takes a certain kind of American chutzpah.
He did just that, going into Maia’s hometown of Sao Paulo, Brazil and emerging—some might say escaping, since he needed to be quickly escorted out of the arena—with a win.
The end result was good! He took out someone ahead of him in the rankings, and he got some fans invested into the fight and its outcome.
But if the ends were good, the means were ... mean, unsportsmanlike, disrespectful. Covington drew in attention by calling the locals “filthy animals,” Brazil a “dump,” and capped it all off with a “f--k Brazil.” It was all lowest-common-denominator stuff. Even if most walk in the MMA door expecting to relax their standards for a few hours, they shouldn’t have to abandon them completely.
Prior to the fight, Covington told MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz that he wouldn’t cross the lines of religion and racism. To characterize Brazilians as “animals” apparently isn’t past the line as Covington sees it. As if demoting a nation of people to a primitive state below human existence is no big deal.
“I just didn't like how they treated me in the tunnel before the fight and they're yelling all these things,” Covington told Ariel Helwani during Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “They're saying, 'I f----d your mom,’ this and that. ‘You’re gonna die,’ throwing cups and hot dogs. You’re going to treat me like this when I’m walking out for this fight to put on a good, entertaining show for you? Whether it's your hometown guy or not, you need to respect me. I’m going into a fight. I'm professional. I just felt disrespected by them. I hadn't said anything too outlandish.”
Any abusive fan behavior should not be tolerated. Athletes should not be vulnerable to thrown objects or vile words. But let’s keep in mind that by the time he got to the cage, he’d already called Sao Paulo a dump and its people animals, words that got extensive local coverage in the lead-up to the bout. Try walking into someone’s house and calling it a dump and see how well that goes; the raucous atmosphere was one he helped create.
Some might argue that this is all good, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and that the only bad outcome is one in which nobody cares. To that, I say, how many people truly care, anyway? There is evidence that it’s not a large number. In the grand scheme of things, Covington isn’t a high-profile fighter; after nine UFC fights, he has amassed just over 34,000 social media followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook combined. Though that number is sure to be growing, that’s hardly a wave of support.
Developing a marketable personality is among the most important career moves a successful fighter can make, with millions of dollars potentially hanging in the balance, and while the entire Covington package remains a work in progress, the current promotional version, to be blunt in a way that he seems to appreciate, is both offensive and derivative. Offensive because the characterization of an entire country as a “dump” and its people as “filthy animals” is a clear verbal attack of prejudice, however contrived it may be. Derivative because he’s not doing or saying anything that others like Chael Sonnen have already said (and at least Sonnen brought a sense of humor along for the ride).
This isn’t some moral soapbox judgment only because it doesn’t need to be. It’s simple logic that if he feels wronged by the Brazilians’ behavior, he should understand the effects of his own.
Until then, Covington’s act is likely to come with a side of cringe.
And let’s be clear, it is an act. Covington has basically admitted that on more than one occasion during the course of his career. Maia said so, too, acknowledging that Covington privately told him he was merely promoting their fight.
Any act can be updated, improved, made more authentic. There will be time for Covington to make changes, but right now it’s bottom-scraping stuff. At 29, he has the future ahead of him, and while we know he’s working on his fight game, will there be a will to work on his promo game, too?
Covington has made himself a name that matters, and he should be proud of that. The things he’s said to get there? That’s not exactly a cause for celebration.