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Love him or (probably) hate him, Colby Covington got screwed

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It might be too much to expect sympathy for Colby Covington after everything he has done and said in the last few years in an effort to drum up interest in his career. Covington has badmouthed nearly every fighter in his path, trashed an entire nation, used offensive language. Those transgressions are numerous and regular, and they are also by design, which is another strike against Covington from those in the know. Hatred is his business plan.

Because of that, Covington’s current plight has mostly gone dismissed by most, the top welterweight contender skipped by the UFC for no good reason. It is true that the irony of a MAGA-espousing hardliner getting passed over for an American immigrant (Kamaru Usman) is chef’s kiss perfect, but when you get past the comeuppance that Covington gleefully invites, it’s a wildly unfair decision.

Covington won the right to challenge for the belt fair and square when he defeated Rafael dos Anjos six months ago. The UFC said so at that time, and UFC president Dana White reiterated it in September very clearly. Covington was next in line for champion Tyron Woodley — until he wasn’t.

So what happened? Simple. Covington fell out of favor. The falloff was slow but steady. First, Covington was unable to agree to a September 8 fight with Woodley after undergoing surgery on July 24 to repair a deviated septum and chronic sinusitis. It was a procedure that the UFC brass felt to be “elective” and likely unnecessary. Then, Covington dug in his heels, saying he would not take any fight unless it was for the championship.

Meanwhile, Usman was saying yes to whatever came his way. Usman agreed to be a backup fighter when Woodley faced Darren Till on the Sept. 8 date, then turned around to blow out dos Anjos in November, then suggested he’d happily fight either Covington or Woodley next.

In this day and age, “availability” may be a fighter’s key title qualification.

Usman is clearly an excellent fighter. A 13-fight win streak is all the evidence necessary to prove that, but Covington did what he did first. He beat Demian Maia first, he beat dos Anjos first. And he captured the interim belt.

By bypassing him, what the UFC reminds us is that that definitions of “champion,” “interim champion” and “top contender” are wildly flexible, depending on business needs and whims, and therefore inconsequential.

After all, less than two weeks ago, White threatened that a welterweight title fight would take place at UFC 235 in March, though the only guaranteed participant at the time was Usman. The champ and the most recent interim champ were optional, at seems. What a way to do business.

The UFC is already difficult to keep track of as it is. There are dozens of events and hundreds of athletes all competing for the same oxygen. You know what helps? A narrative. Fighters usually start mattering when they become contenders. Their paths become clearer, their capabilities move into focus, their personalities begin to emerge. With that, fans become aware and (hopefully) invested.

They were at least on the way with Covington. For better or worse, his fight performances and silly act had separated him from the rest of the welterweight contender pack. Some wanted to see him win the belt; others wanted to see Woodley whip him. There is no narrative with Usman-Woodley.

Beyond that, it’s worth considering the impact of this move on the rest of the roster. It’s important for fighters to be able to chart a logical path to the championship. Winning a No. 1 contenders’ fight is a natural path; winning the interim title is a natural path; being the most agreeable independent contractor is not a natural path.

The fighting has to matter the most. The competition must be king. No one will ever deny that other factors such as injuries sometimes play into booking decisions, but Covington stepped into a slot with defined stakes: win and you’re in. He held up his end of the bargain only to find that the UFC’s promise was as solid as jello.

Covington cannot pivot from brash and cocky to sympathetic victim in a blink, but right is right, and just is just, and the division’s top contender has been wronged. This time it’s him, next time it will be someone much more beloved, and nothing will change, because the fighters don’t have the will to organize themselves into an association or union with collective bargaining power. It is every man (or woman) for themselves, and none (except Conor McGregor) has the power to meet the UFC on its own terms. Until they do, this is what they will get and what we will get.

MMA has come a long way, and the UFC has led the charge. Yet there is still so very far to go. After all this time, it is still a sport with no clear path to the top, and where even if you win, you might lose, depending on the promoter’s whim and schedule. Covington did what he was supposed to do and instead of getting what he earned — love him or hate him — he got screwed.