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Chael Sonnen believes fighters will ‘start copying’ Colby Covington: ‘It’s interesting and it’s clearly working’

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Chael Sonnen is a fan of what Colby Covington is doing.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Regardless of whether you like him or not, it’s hard to argue that Colby Covington’s controversial approach to the fight game hasn’t been effective.

The 30-year-old ATT product flipped from being another faceless wrestler on the periphery of contendership into the interim UFC welterweight champion in a little more than a year after ramping up his willingness to trash talk and becoming a divisive, WWE-esque character on the mic. Covington is now slated to challenge welterweight king Tyron Woodley in a much-anticipated title unification match later this year.

Covington’s abrupt rise from the prelims to the belt stands as further proof that making one’s voice heard remains one of the most important factors in determining success in the sport, regardless of how polarizing the words behind that voice may be. And if fellow mic worker Chael Sonnen is correct, Covington’s methods may very well be the future of MMA.

“In many ways, he’s going to reinvent the sport,” Sonnen said Monday on The MMA Hour. “Is that for better or worse? Time will tell, and then you can decide. But people are going to start copying him. He’s the first guy ever to come out and say, ‘I’m just here to entertain you.’ So, yes, it’s an act, and yes, it’s a performance, but here it is and you guys seem to enjoy it. He’s the first guy. The only guy who ever did that in wrestling was The Rock. Everybody else stayed in character and held the old kayfabe montage.

“But he’s the first guy to come out and go, ‘Look, I’m just looking to entertain you. If the UFC isn’t going to bring me cameras, I’ll hire my own production crew, I’ll pay them, but I’m going to get this content recorded and out to the masses.’

“They’re scripted promos,” Sonnen continued. “He’ll admit they’re scripted promos — another thing that only The Rock would do, nobody else would ever admit to. And I think that he’s having fun. Now, I’ve known him since he was 11 years old — it’s going to be very hard for him to do anything that upsets me, because I just understand it a little bit differently. But I do think we’re going to see guys start to copy him. I think he’s an innovator in many ways. And again, is that a good thing or a bad thing? We’ll find out. But he does get credit, from me at least, for coming in and changing it. He is the first guy I’ve ever seen who has hired his own camera companies to come and go, ‘Hey UFC, you’re not going to do this for me? Great, no problem. I got some money, I’ll make a phone call. I’ll set the shot up myself.’ I think it’s interesting and it’s clearly working.”

Covington’s controversial approach has included heavily criticizing the country of Brazil, tweeting out spoilers of blockbuster movies Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War, attacking the physical appearances of several female UFC fighters, as well as other items. Of late, he has courted the American far right and embraced right-wing talking points regarding U.S. president Donald Trump and the debate surrounding NFL players’ protest against inequality and police brutality.

Those theatrics have resulted in a clear split developing among the MMA community in regards to the sentiment around Covington — some fans love him, while others loathe him. Many of Covington’s own teammates at ATT have fallen along those same lines, with some supporting his efforts and others condemning them. Nonetheless, it is rare to meet someone in the fight community who holds a neutral opinion of Covington, and Sonnen knows that fact alone means Covington’s shtick is working.

“I don’t know [why people say it’s not working],” Sonnen said. “You’ll hear that. That is one of the stages of this. I remember going through it too, and I had some advice from ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, who said, ‘Hey, over time, they’re going to love you for the same stuff they hate you for today.’ And, sure enough, if I wasn’t delivering vitriol at times, they were disappointed. The same stuff that they hated me for. And just what Roddy Piper had told me, turned out to be true. So, fans aren’t always going to recognize it.

“Fans don’t even know what they want at times. I hear fans say that they don’t want the talking and all of these things, but zero of those fans are watching these shows on mute. Even they don’t know, it’s a subconscious thing, they’re not aware that it is what they like. The fight takes 15 minutes. The build-up takes 90 days. It takes that for a reason. You and I are on this show with your massive audience for a reason, and we’re not throwing punches at one another. So, fans themselves don’t even know what it is they like and what it is they want, and they don’t need to. That’s not an insult. The fans get a pass. But it is up to the performer to be able to see through that and deliver his message.”