About 30 minutes before the champions fighting at UFC 245 showed up for a fan Q&A in Las Vegas, Colby Covington held court with the event’s challengers, wearing an orange suit he said was a tribute to pro wrestler Nick Bockwinkel.
Covington’s brand of outrage bait also was on full display. Predictable as it was cringe-worthy, the former interim champ thumbed a copy of Donald Trump Jr.’s new book and used his first question to claim deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein didn’t commit suicide; UFC personality Megan Olivi was briefly rendered speechless.
None of Covington’s behavior would have been out of the ordinary but for his recent admission that most of it was merely an act. Like a pro wrestler breaking kayfabe, he told conservative media personality Candace Owens that his two-year campaign of verbal combat was all a ploy to get noticed after the UFC threatened to end his octagon career.
To Covington, it was a perfectly logical response to a tough spot. But to the champs fighting in earnest to protect their gold, it was a head-scratching move for a guy who’d turned himself into the UFC’s biggest heel. Featherweight champ Max Holloway noticeably reacted when the Edwards interview was broached during his interview panel.
”That’s heavy, cuz,” he said. “If you’re going to put up an act, I think you’ve got to stay with the act. When you retire, like WWE guys, they do their stuff, and they keep that act no matter where they’re at, and then when they retire, then they talk about, oh, it was an act. I’m kind of surprised that he came out of nowhere and said it.”
Holloway joked: “It’s got me shook.”
For welterweight champ Usman, who’s tasked with beating Covington, the switch was viewed through the framework of competition, and it was just another sign that his opponent’s chosen persona was crumbling along with the will to win.
”If you’re putting on an act, you’ve got to sell that,” Usman said. “That’s your sh*t. But that just lets me know his weakness...come on, let’s dissect this thing. You’re already finding a way out. ‘People don’t hate, once I get beat up on Saturday, don’t hate me because I was just putting on an act because when they were going to cut me.’
”Did you guys realize when I fought Tyron Woodley here in this same exact building, I had my open workout. He showed up at somebody’s open workout – if you want to be the champ, you want to show up at the champ’s open workout and try to distract them, right? Why you [didn’t] show up at mine? Because he knew what was going to happen. He knew I was the fight he didn’t want. He’s already been showing his cards for a long time.”
Usman said Saturday’s fight is the fifth time he’s been matched with Covington. Most of those meetings are well-known at this point; most recently, the pair were supposed to meet at UFC 244 before negotiations broke down over pay. Usman claimed Covington’s dodges went all the way back to 2012 following his first professional fight, when he was a wrestler transitioning to MMA.
”I was 1-0; I’d never done jiu-jitsu,” he said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t give a sh*t.’ I was broke as hell, so I said, yeah, I’ll fight him. Give me 1 and 1, and I’ll fight him.
”I knew of him loosely, because the wrestling world is so small of the elite wrestlers. So I took the fight, but he turned down the fight. And I know he turned it down, because his coach at that time is my coach now, who happened to be my first wrestling coach.”
Two-division champ Amanda Nunes said she couldn’t entertain the idea of putting on a persona because her family and friends would quickly bring her back to earth.
”They have me on a leash, for sure, because this lifestyle is crazy,” she said. “You don’t know how to handle it some times, but that’s why you surround yourself with good people who have your back.”
Back at Covington’s gym, which resides a 30-minute drive from Usman’s, the words that have sent fan and fighters into fits have reportedly driven a wedge between he and his teammates at American Top Team. While his colleagues praise his support on the mats, some say they’re afraid to support him publicly because of what he’s said.
For Holloway and the other champs, there’s a much easier way to get along in the world.
”People are going to believe you,” he said. “Go out there and win fights, and everything will fall into place.”