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Colby Covington
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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Pulling the curtain back on the real Colby Covington

Colby Covington has made it his mission to irritate or otherwise anger almost every fighter, fan and promoter in the sport. But who is he behind closed doors, when the cameras stop rolling and the microphones are no longer wired for sound? We talked to those closest to him to find out.

For nearly 20 years, American Top Team has produced a bevy of champions and top contenders for organizations such as the UFC, Bellator, PFL, RIZIN and numerous others across the globe.

A visit to the main academy in Coconut Creek, Fla., gives you an instant reminder of the gym’s incredible success. A multi-level glass case filled from top to bottom with championship titles greets you almost immediately after walking through the doors.

Take a few steps further into the cavernous gym, and you’ll see wall-to-wall mats, multiple cages, weight machines, treadmills and a full array of heavy bags for boxing drills. The most noticeable decoration, however, are the scores of high-level athletes who call the Florida-based gym their home.

A huge number of those fighters travel from halfway around the world for the opportunity to work at American Top Team, not to mention the dozens of mixed martial artists who have uprooted their entire lives to relocate to Florida full time, just for the sake of training with this particular set of coaches and athletes.

On most days, one of the fighters almost always pouring sweat onto those storied mats is former UFC interim welterweight champion Colby Covington.

Colby Covington at an open workout for UFC 225 on June 6, 2018 in Chicago
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

To the outside world, the 31-year-old title contender, who fights in the UFC 245 main event, is one of the most hated men in all of mixed martial arts, the human equivalent of a YouTube comments section.

From his bombastic support of President Donald Trump to his outlandish trash talk, no subject is taboo when it comes to promoting fights. Covington relishes his role as the true villain of the UFC. While some fighters like Chael Sonnen play the bad guy, Covington genuinely appears to enjoy the constant disdain thrown his way as he works tirelessly to get under the skin of every fighter on the UFC roster. Then there are the casualties of his verbal war, which include managers, promoters, and even his own teammates.

It’s that last category that’s landed Covington in hot water as of late. After an attack bashing fellow American Top Team fighters Jorge Masvidal and Dustin Poirier over social media and through various interviews in the past few months, he’s been asked numerous times if his days at the gym were numbered, or at the very least if he felt like he had to watch his back with several fighters saying they’d gladly settle their beef behind closed doors.

The truth is Covington probably never feels safer anywhere in the world than he does when he’s at American Top Team. That’s because the person spending hours upon hours training on those mats is a much different animal than the outspoken, MAGA-hatted fighter who seems to bask in outrage.

No Place Like Home

Long before he chided his fellow welterweights and confronted his boss in the middle of a Las Vegas casino, Covington was a standout wrestler at Iowa Central Community College, where he counted future UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones as one of his roommates. After winning a junior college national title, Covington joined the squad at Oregon State University, where he became a two-time Pac-10 Conference champion as well as a Division I All-American in 2011.

As his college career was coming to an end, he was looking for the next opportunity to continue reaching for new athletic goals, and that’s when he saw an ad from American Top Team seeking wrestlers.

“Our general manager, Richie [Guerrero], he came to me seven or eight years ago and said ‘I think the quality of our wrestling at the gym is lacking,” American Top Team founder Dan Lambert told MMA Fighting. “I think we’ve got great striking, great jiu-jitsu, great overall coaching, but I think we’re lacking in wrestling, and I’d like to put out an ad in FloWrestling. Get it around in the wrestling community – any guys that are graduating college and are higher level wrestlers, send us your resume, and we’re going to choose a few and put them up in our apartment, give (them) $100 a week and food. We’re going to do a year (and) call it a scholarship.

“(We) decided that was a badass idea. Bring some wrestlers into the gym, and it brings the level of wrestling up. Colby was one of the first resumes we received.”

A quick glimpse at Covington’s accomplishments in college told Lambert and Guerrero everything they needed to know to extend a week-long invite to Florida.

In no time at all, American Top Team had found its newest member.

“We loved him,” Lambert said. “We identified the guys from the resumes who we thought had potential, let them train a little bit to see what they had, and then we selected four or five of them. Colby was one of them.

“It didn’t take long for us to see that he worked. It didn’t take us long to see that he had a third lung. It didn’t take us long to see he wasn’t losing scrambles to anybody.”

Covington’s relentless work ethic had defined him as a college wrestler, and he carried over that same attitude and ferocity when he decided to tackle the sport of MMA. He just didn’t push the pace of his newfound career.

Between his debut in February 2012 and May 2014, Covington fought only five times while scoffing at several offers that came his way from regional promotions seeking to give him opportunities. Lambert was disappointed.

“We were bringing some fights to him early on in his career, and he’s like, ‘That guy sucks, I don’t want to fight that guy, I want to fight somebody bigger,’” Lambert revealed. “And yeah, I’ll get you fights bigger than that after you’ve won some fights smaller than that. Go fight a guy who will resist a little bit in front of 1,000 people before you go do it under some big lights. He was training hard, but he didn’t want to take a bunch of fights. He wanted a bigger fight.

“I think he was like 4-0 at the time, and he came to me and said, ‘I’m ready to get in the UFC.’ I said I think you might be ready for the UFC, but you haven’t earned it yet, and I’m not going to put you in yet. Go win some more f*cking fights. That’s the way this process works.”

Turns out, the 5-0 welterweight was already plotting his Octagon debut.

“[The UFC] was doing a show in Macau [China], and I actually went to the show to corner Tyron Woodley for his fight against “Stun Gun” [Dong Hyun Kim],” Lambert recounted. “I’ve actually got a great picture of all of us in the locker room, which is kind of funny. Colby went around and backdoor’d it through another manager and got on the show because they had a bunch of locals who had no experience, because MMA in China at the time was nothing. They were looking for guys with five or less fights to fight some Chinese guys.”

“I refused to get him into the UFC at the time, cause I didn’t think he had enough fights. He got in, and f*ck, I cornered him, and he just came out and blasted the guy.”

A first-round finish against Anying Wang was enough for Lambert to concede Covington needed a brighter spotlight.

“It was almost like he needed that bigger stage to really show what he had,” Lambert said. “Because I had been to a couple of his other fights, and he fought Jason Jackson, who was a tough guy from [The Ultimate Fighter] show, and he won the fight, but he didn’t just come out and dominate.

“He came out [in the UFC] and absolutely smashed this guy, and I looked at him and said, ‘OK, I’m not too big of a man to admit I was wrong.’ I guess he needed what he needed to get motivated.”

No ‘I’ in Team

UFC 187 photos
Colby Covington at UFC 187 in Las Vegas on May 23, 2015
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Through his first few fights in the UFC, Covington didn’t make much noise.

He won three in a row to start his career with the promotion. Then he suffered the only loss of his career when he fell by guillotine choke submission to The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 winner Warlley Alves. He bounced back with three consecutive wins. While that success brought some attention based on his performances, he rarely said much of anything that got attention outside the cage.

By all accounts, Covington let his work inside the Octagon do his talking. That was an attitude that never changed in eight years with American Top Team.

“Colby’s a guy you don’t hear from in the gym,” Lambert said. “Colby’s a guy who just puts his head down and does his work. He’s not a guy that stands out for anything, other than he’s really good at what he does.”

Along the way, Covington realized something was missing. So he sought the attention of the fighters in the upper echelon of the division. Suddenly, he went from one of the quietest people in the gym to one of the loudest trash talkers in the sport.

His fiery attacks put him on the radar of virtually every athlete in the UFC – many of whom weren’t even in his weight class. But his gym demeanor never really changed.

“He takes his craft very seriously,” Lambert added. “Colby is a guy that likes to train. He has a really clean lifestyle. Outside of pissing off just about every fighter, promoter, f*cking fight fan in the world, he doesn’t really have any other vices. He lives a pretty damn clean lifestyle, and he just spends a lot of time in the gym getting better. He’s a guy who comes into work, and he works with anybody.”

For all his jabs at fans and fellow fighters, Covington has built a rapport with many of his teammates. They know when they call on him for help, he’s always willing to answer.

“I will tell you this, he’s a very high level fighter,” said Conan Silveira, Covington’s current head coach. “He’s a very complete fighter. That’s 100 percent that he’s very coachable. He’s always willing to learn, to improve, to get better. That’s one thing I’ve got to say about him.

“Whatever anybody needs, he’s always there. That’s something that I’ve got to say. I’ve never seen him refuse to help anybody.”

While he rarely talks about that work, Covington spends a lot of his time helping anybody who needs it, even outside his own training camp. Because he spends so much time at the gym, he’s a fixture on those mats. Many training partners still sing his praises.

“I’ve helped Colby in many training camps, and he was always there when I needed him,” said former UFC fighter Gleison Tibau. “He never left me hanging. He would always come to the gym to help me. He was very grateful. There are many athletes here that just want to get help, but don’t come here to help others back when they are not in camp. Colby always said, ‘No, I’m going there to help you.’ I have nothing bad to say about the guy.”

UFC featherweight Charles Rosa said Covington played a major role in his recent comeback, an Octagon victory nearly three years after a neck injury threatened to end his career.

“Colby’s been a huge asset for me in the gym,” Rosa said. “Great training partner. Just that day that I posted a picture with him [on Instagram], he was showing me some cool wrist-riding techniques off the cage that I was asking him about.

“No doubt he’s one of the best wrestlers in the world in MMA, and in the gym, it would be stupid not to use a guy like that.”

As a training partner, Covington has been an asset. But his promotional antics can’t be ignored. They’ve definitely brought blowback for other fighters at American Top Team.

One Brazilian athlete, who declined to be named for this article, praised Covington’s assiduous training and willingness to help others. But he was worried that a show of public support could lead to serious repercussions back home.

Before and after his fight against Demian Maia in 2017, Covington insulted the entire country of Brazil, calling fans in attendance “filthy animals.”

Since that time, numerous Brazilian fighters have taken shots at Covington, verbal and otherwise. Former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum nailed him with a boomerang during an altercation in Australia—and drew an assault charge. There’s a heavy contingent of athletes from the South American country who call American Top Team home, and Covington’s behavior has put them in a tough spot.

“I told [Colby] before, you’re a cool guy and I love you, but I can’t keep telling people that we’re cool, because you’re here in America and everybody is safe,” Covington’s Brazilian teammate said. “Reality in Brazil is a little bit different. People don’t like him there.

“He was supposed to fight there before, and it was in the news one of the big drug dealers out there, they wanted his head. They said they’d pay guys cash – bring me his f*cking head. So he understood. I would help him any time he needs, but when the camera comes on, I have to stay out, and he understands.”

Tibau, a Brazilian, doesn’t get bent out of shape about Covington’s attacks on Brazil. While fighters like Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva have redlined after hearing the insults, Tibau understands the promotion being done. After all, that’s how he and Covington got close.

“My manager Dan Lambert got a deal with a pro wrestling company when I was under USADA suspension, and we shot a show for two weeks,” Tibau explained. “I remember I was shooting this show and sharing the same hotel with Colby, Conan, Bobby Lashley and Steve Mocco for two weeks, so we really became friends.

“Colby respects everybody and has always respected me. The things he says, he comes to me and other Brazilians afterwards and says he’s just doing it to make money. I understand it. Bigfoot took it personal. He’s very emotional. He got a bit upset. (He told me), ‘Tibau, how can you say nice things about a guy that talks so much crap about our country?’ I tell him, ‘Man, as far as I know, he’s just doing it to make money.’”

The Asset

Fighters come and go from gyms in mixed martial arts all the time. Where an athlete starts their career is rarely the same place they finish.

For Covington, he’s never known a home that wasn’t at American Top Team. But has his inflammatory behavior become a bigger detriment to the gym than what he contributes? That’s a complicated question.

“I consider Colby a really important piece of our team,” Lambert said. “I think Colby has shown that you can come to our team as an amateur who knows nothing about mixed martial arts with just a pedigree in one discipline only, and if you put in the time, and you put in the effort, and you get absorbed in the process, you can become a UFC champion, which I think is the most difficult accomplishment in all of sports.

“Inside the gym, Colby’s a great teammate. He’s willing to show others and learn from others that might be better than him at certain things. He listens to his coaches. He’s a coachable guy. So yeah, from that perspective I think he’s great for the team and a great teammate.

“What Colby has chosen to do to separate himself from the pack for the last couple of years, I understand it. If I had my druthers, I would have it focused on people outside of our gym 100 percent. In my opinion, he doesn’t need to involve others in our gym and create that friction, but I understand why he does what he does.”

Covington has called Jorge Masvidal a “trash bag,” spent the better part of two years tearing down former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, and claimed one-time title challenger Dustin Poirier was an “egomaniac” and a “fake.” Those are slights that are tough to ignore; they tear at the fabric of what ATT has built over so many years. It took Lambert a while to make his peace with it.

“I understand what his thought process is, and as long as he respects the gym when he’s in the gym, I can live with the rest of it and I think I can get other people to as well,” he said.

As loud as Covington might be on the microphone, Silveira said the fighter couldn’t be further from the person he’s witnessed in the gym since 2011.

“When it’s time to work, there’s no bullsh*t,” Silveira said.

Still, there’s no avoiding the extra tension whenever Covington is training at the same time as a target like Masvidal. Teammates who know him best have decided that training with Covington doesn’t necessarily mean they’re betraying someone else.

“I don’t like that he’s fighting with our teammates, with Poirier and Masvidal,” Rosa said. “I don’t like that because I’m a team-oriented fighter. I always like having your people on your side, but I understand what he’s doing because he’s making money. You have to respect that in a way. I mean he got to meet the president, so what can I say about that? He’s done some really great things.

“Genuinely, he’s a good person. I went and hung out with him, went to play cards with him at the casino. I’ve hung out with him and Jorge at the same time before they had this beef. For me, my relationship doesn’t change with each one of them individually because their relationship changed with each other. That’s none of my business. They both treat me with respect, so I treat them with respect.”

Since two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison relocated to Florida, she’s interacted with Covington and Masvidal plenty of times. While the animosity is very real, she said she’s never been forced to pick sides in the ongoing battle.

“I will not lie, there’s definitely been a little bit of tension at the gym lately,” she said. “I’m very fortunate that I’m the kind of person that gets along with everyone. I get along with Masvidal, I get along with Colby, I get along with all of them.

“At the end of the day, Dan [Lambert] and all of the coaches, everyone there, they care about winning and they care about being the best gym in the world, which is why we are the best gym in the world. Because we don’t focus on any of that. We focus on winning and getting better.”

As much as Covington may have created the problem he now faces with some of his teammates, everybody involved understands that unnecessary drama will not be tolerated. Deep down, Masvidal might think about walking up to Covington, a former roommate, and feeding him a “three-piece and a soda.” When Poirier returns from his recent hip surgery, he might have the same idea. But it’s not likely anything will ever happen.

For all the back and forth exchanges, Lambert knows the warring parties are loyal to American Top Team first and foremost.

“If you asked me to give you my top-five list of people at our gym that respect our gym the most, Colby Covington, Jorge Masvidal and Dustin Poirier are going to be on the list,” he said. “When Jorge came to me and said, ‘I don’t play like that, it’s going to get ugly,’ I looked at him and said, ‘respect the f*cking gym, Jorge.’ He kind of looked at me like, ‘F*ck.’ Cause Jorge respects the gym big time.

“He realized, ‘Sh*t I can’t do it in the gym, or it’s going to be disrespectful to those guys.’ I’m not worried about it happening. He might want it to happen. Jorge is the kind of guy, you saw with Leon Edwards, you see what Jorge does. That’s Jorge. If Jorge was anywhere else in the world, you know how Jorge is going to deal with that situation. But the one place in the world that he’s not going to do that is in our gym, because he respects it.”

While a showdown between teammates might seem inevitable, Covington’s only focus right now is claiming the undisputed welterweight title from Kamaru Usman on Dec. 14 at UFC 245.

In the days leading up to the fight, he’ll almost certainly ratchet up the trash talk and try to find new and inventive ways to make the Las Vegas crowd despise him. But know that behind every bit of vitriol spewing from his mouth, there’s a method to the madness.

Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington will meet in the welterweight championship main event of UFC 245 on Saturday in Las Vegas
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“I don’t think Colby takes any of this personal,” Lambert said. “I think Colby just realizes what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. I think Colby wants to go to the gym and get better to reach the goals he wants. I don’t think Colby takes sh*t personally.

“I’m not saying that other people are wrong for taking sh*t personally. How do you not take sh*t personally, especially in that business? It’s a different mindset. I’m not saying one is right or wrong, but it’s just different.”

No one has to like what Covington is saying, much less agree with it. But love him or hate him, his antics have made him one of the most talked-about fighters in the sport. Maybe in his case, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Covington likely would argue it’s better to be hated than to be irrelevant.

Chances are he won’t enjoy many cheers when he walks out for his fight against Usman on Dec. 14. But there will most certainly be a group of fighters and coaches who compete under that same American Top Team banner who will quietly root for their teammate from the sidelines, and they’ll celebrate alongside him with a win.

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