American Top Team is home to many of the world’s top MMA fighters. It’s also housed a few rivalries, several of them the product of UFC star Colby Covington’s promotional style.
Starting now, Covington and the rest of the team will have to look for targets outside the Coconut Creek, Fla., facility. Unless someone has a contract to fight, there’s a “zero tolerance” policy for trash-talking.
”It’s gotten personal, and I think I was wrong,” ATT owner Dan Lambert told MMA Fighting. “I think I made a mistake. I think I should have nipped it in the bud, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s trickled down where it affects coaches, it affects training partners, it affects vibes at the gym, and as a result, we’ve adjusted and come up with a new policy.
”Unless you have a bout agreement to fight someone, in which case there obviously needs to be some promotion, there’s a gag order on talking about people at the gym. If that’s something a fighter chooses they need to do, then they have to go train somewhere else.”
Lambert decided to make the change after Covington recently made amends with Dustin Poirier, deescalating a situation that at one point threatened to get physical in the gym. Despite the apparent ease in hostilities, the team owner said Covington had broken a previous vow not to get heated with Poirier.
When the drama came up during a weekly coaches’ meeting, Lambert decided to act.
”I don’t know if it was this last round of talk where Colby came out and kind of violated a truce I had between him and Poirier, or some of the talk between him and Joanna (Jedrzejczyk). It may be just the big scheme of things, dealing with some of the other problems that affect our sport and everybody’s lives; I see how petty some of this sh*t is, and why the f*ck am I dealing with it and (have) allowed it to become an attraction?
”I think part of it just might be that I’m such a pro wrestling nerd; I kind of like the promotional side of it and the trash talk. It’s on me. I f*cked that part up. I should never have let it get to that point. It’s my job to stop sh*t like that from happening and causing distractions in the gym. I think I made a mistake on that one, so live and learn.”
Covington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Poirier declined comment.
Lambert, who once cut a promo alongside Covington and other ATT fighters at an Impact pro wrestling event, traces the issue back to one of Covington most famous heel turns at UFC Sao Paulo in 2017. The veteran welterweight unleashed a rant at Brazilians that resulted in the promotion hiding him from angry fans after his win over Demian Maia.
As Covington doubled down on his persona, drawing more ire from fighters within ATT, Lambert said he tried to intervene.
”I basically handled it by bringing everybody in the gym together and saying, look, this happened,” he said. “This is the way Colby’s choosing to promote himself – it happened outside the the gym. Brazilians might think he’s a f*cking assh*le. You both might be right, you both might be wrong. Not my problem. In this gym, you’re all ATT. If you have a problem in the gym, we deal with it. Outside the gym, that’s your problem.”
”I thought that was the proper approach at the time, and in retrospect, I see where it’s gone.”
Since that meeting, Covington has clashed with other notable ATT fighters, including Jedrzejczyk and Jorge Masvidal, his former training partner and roommate. A dispute over payment of a coach prompted Masvidal to break ties with Covington, and the two engaged in a public war of words that involved threats of physical violence. The gym reportedly took steps to make sure the two never crossed paths in the gym.
Warnings, one-on-one conversations and personal deals didn’t have any long-term effect, Lambert said, so it was time to make sure such a situation never happened again.
”I don’t think there are options – it’s an absolute zero-tolerance policy,” Lambert said. “If you do it and you break it, go somewhere else. People come, people go – no individual is bigger than the team, and the fact of the matter is, the team’s going to be here 30 years from now, still doing the same thing when certain individuals are long gone. We’re going to set up something that’s best for the environment in the gym and for the people in the gym today and tomorrow.”
ATT coach and veteran fighter Muhammad Lawal didn’t quite know what to make of the policy. Reached for comment, he downplayed recent teammate drama as the exception rather than the rule in the way fighters and coaches interact with each other.
”If it was a real problem, I’d be 100 with you about it,” he said. “But honestly, everyone at the gym is getting along. We all joke, we all clown, we train hard, we train smart. If there’s problem, it’s probably something I’ve never heard of.”
But for Lambert, a few high-profile incidents are enough. He plans to send a team-wide email notifying everyone of the new policy. As for what constitutes a crossing of the new line, he said it should be self-evident.
“There’s no conversation to be had with anybody now as far as what’s tolerated and what’s not tolerated,” he said. “That’s another part of reason for having the policy in the first place. I don’t want guys having to look over their shoulder at the gym and worry about seeing this guy, and this guy said this about me, and I’ve got people on Instagram blowing me up every time this guy says something and I need to go and respond to this guy, or I’m going to look like I’m weak,” he said. “I’ve never really subscribed to the idea that it’s going to cause fights in the gym, because I think everybody’s respected our gym, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of setting that up from the beginning: respect the gym.
”I just think I underestimated the trickle-down effect of what stuff outside the gym does to people in how they feel and the pressure that they feel from others. I think it will help easing tensions at the gym between individuals, but I’m not thinking I need to get security at the gym, or have people stand between these two guys. You work here. It’s a place of business. Come and do your business. I’m not asking anyone to train with somebody they don’t like. This gym’s 40,000 square feet. If you don’t like someone, f*cking walk down a different hallway.”
For a fighter like Covington, who’s staked his career on a polarizing persona and also pledged undying loyalty to ATT, the question now might be which position wins. Lambert believes it will be the latter.
”If you want to relate it directly to Colby, when you break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mom tells you there are plenty of other fish in the sea,” Lambert said. “There’s plenty of people that Colby can talk sh*t with that aren’t in our gym. I’m not really worried about that.”