If you’re of the mind to finally and begrudgingly hand Colby Covington a compliment, it’s this: in everything he does related to his MMA career, he’s all-in. Covington talks like a motormouth and fights like a hellion. He pushes deep into the red both cardiovascularly and politically. He is relentless in his pursuits to offend and to win. He’s committed.
All of this is by calculated design, formulated by one part inspiration and one part desperation. Covington was going places athletically but stuck in neutral through most of his UFC career until he found a voice, though not exactly a unique one. When he speaks, you can hear his influences: a dose of Chael Sonnen, a dash of Ric Flair, a few dollops of Sean Hannity. The recipe is as obvious as it is over-seasoned. But that is the whole point for Covington. He wants opponents and fans alike to feel overwhelmed. Your anger is his pursuit. Hate is an easy emotion to spark.
What he does in the cage? Not so easy. Last night at UFC on ESPN 5 in Newark, New Jersey, Covington sliced through former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler in his same kind of insufferable style. “Insufferable” in the sense of overwhelming, not in the sense of the “unpleasantness” often associated with his name. With Covington, the two are easy to confuse by design. Despite a short-notice pairing, Covington fired off 541 strikes during the five-round bout, a UFC record. He jabbed and pawed and fired, and left Lawler only slivers of time to operate his usually fearsome offense. He also took Lawler down 10 times. On the judges’ scorecards, it was a shutout.
It was a victory that was actually stunning in execution given the personal stakes for Covington. Following a seven-fight streak, that should be enough to cinch Covington a title shot, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Covington’s fight weeks have equally become about pomp and bluster, MMA’s most controversial showman.
His “Make America Great Again” hat is his favorite accoutrement, he arrives with a melange of under-dressed women, he solicits venom by co-opting Kurt Angle’s infamous “You Suck” WWE walkout music. To Covington, anything is a prop. The U.S. flag, the interim title, the First Family. Yes, the Trumps (Eric and Don, Jr.) were at Prudential Center, front-row center, to watch him fight.
The President of the United States, 14 minutes after tweeting about the horrific El Paso shootings yesterday, had moved on to wishing Covington luck. He later privately congratulated Covington on his win through a phone call. Reminder: this wasn’t even a title fight!
Seizing the moment, Covington used their presence as a tentpole argument for his championship aspirations.
“What else could I do, man?” He asked in his post-fight press conference. “I’m the first fighter in the history of the sport to go to the White House and hang out in the Oval Office. That was history made a year ago. I made history again tonight. I’m the first fighter to ever bring the First Family in the front row. What else do I gotta do?”
Here’s another question: For the “stick to sports” crowd, what do we do with that? Covington doesn’t necessarily put politics in our faces as much as he puts polarization in it. For him, it’s not about being conservative; it’s about being divisive. The confrontation is the whole point. He lights the match and doesn’t much care what catches fire.
The returns on his philosophy are still mixed. On one hand, his ability to make MMA headlines has no doubt exploded over the last two years. On the other, yesterday’s event in Newark drew a gate of just $687,778—the fourth-lowest gate out of 25 UFC events so far this year. Like a certain president he’s so fond of, he may be vastly overstating his financial worth.
From a pure fighting perspective though, Covington has certainly stamped himself as an elite welterweight following consecutive defeats of Demian Maia, Rafael dos Anjos and now, Lawler. In the cage, his style is no less thorn-in-your-side than it is out of it. It was somewhere around the third round when it became apparent to everyone that yes, Covington could stand in the pocket with Lawler and not just survive, but actually win exchanges. It didn’t even take that long to see that yes, he could match up well with champion Kamaru Usman.
And oh boy, could that get ugly. Usman is a Nigerian-born immigrant and Covington is MAGA, and do I have to remind you of his commitment to conflict?
Covington has always been headed for a day of reckoning—whether glorious victory or spectacular defeat, and that day is nigh. He’s all-in, and whether you’re a Trump, whether you’re praying for Covington to win or Usman to knock his block off, it’s time to brace yourself.