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What if Colby Covington wins?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After five years of winning and two years of his controversial persona, Colby Covington has finally gotten his long-desired UFC welterweight championship match. Only Kamaru Usman stands between Covington and the undisputed position as the best 170-pounder in the world. Given his glee in antagonizing the fan base and bickering with the promotion, it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider what a Covington reign would look like.

Until now, Covington’s act has mostly been contained within the MMA bubble. While he frequently describes himself as the “A-side” of rivalries and portrays himself as a star, this has been, at least for now, a case of “fake it ’til you make it.”

While on one hand, he’s gained the approval of the First Family, other metrics aren’t so favorable. In his first headlining fight, the show drew a disappointing number, averaging 680,000 viewers for ESPN. Further evidence is also underwhelming. Out of the 11 ranked UFC welterweight fighters — the champion Usman and the top-10 contenders — Covington ranks ninth in social media followers. As of Friday night, he had about 395,000 combined followers on Instagram and Twitter, leading only Santiago Ponzinibbio (146,000) and Leon Edwards (69,400). By contrast, Usman had 903,000, while Nate Diaz leads the pack with 5.5 million.

To be fair, this version of Covington is fairly new to the scene. It’s been only three fights in the making, and the visibility of fighting for the title no doubt will increase the awareness of him, for better and for worse.

Make no mistake, his personality is an act. His political views may be real, but the outrageous deliveries, the offensive phrases, the outlandish outfits, they are all intentional with the hopes of generating media coverage. On that end, it is working. Mostly everything he says does end up as a headline on several MMA sites, including this one. Yet he is still firmly working inside that bubble.

The question for him is, can he break out? And if so, what will that look like?

To find out, Covington needs a win at UFC 245.

While the prestige of UFC championships may have taken a hit after the flood of interim title fights in the last few years, there is still a certain amount of cachet that comes with it. Covington clearly needs that collateral to vault himself into a draw, and to increase his negotiation power with the UFC after complaining he is underpaid. (For the record, his $500,000 purse for this fight is the same as the champion Usman’s.)

A victory would put Covington into the driver’s seat for a matchup with Jorge Masvidal, a newly minted superstar on the heels of his “BMF” win over Nate Diaz. It’s a matchup that makes sense given the built-in storyline between the two former friends turned rivals.

In a way, that’s exactly what Covington needs. A fight that has built-in rather than manufactured stakes may allow him to ease off the gas pedal and let the tension breathe.

Because here’s the issue with Covington’s schtick: it’s exhausting. He literally wears it as part of a uniform that enters the room before him. No matter where you live on the political spectrum, you most likely agree that we get enough coverage of the divide during the week and that you don’t need an IV injection of politics into your sports. A commercial here, a statement there? That’s inevitable in these times, but Covington has made it his identity.

Obviously, that is a means to an end. But it’s worth wondering if it’s ultimately self-defeating. When he’s turning off a large chunk of viewers from the get-go, is there any evidence he can win them over?

If you listen to Covington, he’ll say it doesn’t matter, that he doesn’t care what the fans think, but that is demonstrably untrue. After all, he has publicly admitted that he changed his approach to promoting to get attention. If he didn’t care about public reaction to him, he would have never changed. He did it specifically because he cares what fans think.

He is not the first fighter to make these calculations and conclusion, of course – just the one who’s gone to the furthest extreme. Much of what he does draws upon the blueprint of Chael Sonnen, another Oregon native who realized he needed to embrace the entertainment side of business. Sonnen, too, cast himself as a “villain.” The difference is, he did it with a knowing wink toward the audience. It was apparent in the on-the-nose nickname he gave himself, “The Bad Guy,” and with the absurdity of some of his monologues. Yes, he may have crossed the line a time or two. But it rarely felt malicious, as Covington invoking Usman’s late manager Glenn Robinson’s death and saying he would watch the fight “from hell.”

There was a joyous silliness in most of what Sonnen did. Remember when he recounted his suspension and while discussing his testosterone level result said, “You’re telling me I’m one-tenth higher than the average man? Re-test that. You must have caught me on a low day.” Or when he described his political ambitions by saying, “I actually held public office and I left the only way a person should — in handcuffs.”

While Sonnen never broke through to a UFC championship, his rambunctious personality had a spark of charisma that was undeniable. He could crack off a one-liner with the best of them, but he also showed moments of vulnerability, like his advice to Uriah Hall on doubt and failure, and his stated motivation to win the title in honor of his late father. Those glimpses may not have been in line with his “Bad Guy” character, but they served to humanize him.

Covington offers only one flavor, and it’s take it or leave it. The danger is that many will continue to go for the latter.

While they are cousins on the same family tree, Sonnen was a humorist while Covington is an antagonist. It’s outrage by design, trolling in real life. This is where Covington is now in 2019, where his fantastic work ethic hardly matters and his professional success is mostly an afterthought. He has reduced all of his achievements to a footnote in his own story. And even if he wins and goes on to a lengthy title reign, the danger to his legacy is that they may stay there forever.

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