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To those who follow the professional wrestling industry closely, the reaction to Colby Covington’s recent statements about Brazil largely inspire bemusement and incredulity. Covington is adopting in a not- exactly-subtle manner the persona of a pro wrestling “heel” in an attempt to make himself a bigger star. Like fellow Oregonian Chael Sonnen (Covington wrestled for Oregon State University while Sonnen did the same for the University of Oregon) or American Top Team mentor Dan Lambert, Covington has been running down others to bring attention his way. He had a fight with Demian Maia in Sao Paulo, so Brazil made for an easy target.
What Covington said about Brazil was certainly rude, but there didn’t appear to be sincerity to it. He was just donning the black hat and being mean because he knew it would get a reaction and make him more of a star. It would generate “heat,” or an angry reaction, from Brazilians who would then be more invested in seeing one of their Brazilian favorites defeat him. This is all pretty standard stuff. Wrestlers -- and for that matter boxers and martial artists -- have been doing these sorts of things for decades to sell tickets. What has been most remarkable about the whole episode is the reaction to it.
When Covington badmouthed Brazil after his win over Maia, it seemed like a borderline-dangerous scene in the arena. Objects were hurled at Covington, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship distanced itself from the welterweight. It got even worse in Australia, where Fabricio Werdum threw a boomerang at Covington and allegedly punched him. It’s understandable that a person would be protective of his or her country, but it’s still striking to see anyone get so bent out of shape over what amounts to trolling for professional notoriety.
While this type of marketing is a longstanding pro wrestling staple, the irony is it doesn’t really work in pro wrestling anymore. For years, pro wrestling’s head honcho, Vince McMahon, has struggled to connect with the desires of his fan base. Promoting the wrong wrestlers in the wrong positions and telling subpar stories, World Wrestling Entertainment has hemorrhaged fans for over a decade. Unsatisfied by the stories being told, remaining fans have taken to entertaining themselves and have become more detached and ironic. Rather than losing themselves in the matches like wrestling fans did in previous decades and MMA fans do today, wrestling fans instead engage in self-aware chants congratulating the wrestlers on the quality of their performance art.
Despite this atmosphere, pro wrestlers still try to generate “heat” in similar ways to Covington. Wrestling villains will insult the city in which they’re performing, the fans with whom they interact and the beloved heroes against whom they’re matched. However, it rarely generates much in the way of real anger. Oftentimes, fans will just laugh if the heel is clever in the way he or she mocks the audience. Sometimes the fans will boo, but it’s usually half-hearted and never seems like a dangerous scene. Wrestling fans just don’t buy in.
While there’s a lot of consternation within the MMA community about Covington’s words and the reactions to them, in a number of senses it’s an encouraging sign. In recent years, there has been much more discussion about the business of MMA among fans and fighters. They acknowledge that certain fights may be made because they’ll draw, even though the more deserving fighters are being bypassed for premier pay-per-view slots. Fighters have been encouraged to call out other fighters in the media and to create personal issues to generate interest. Fighters regularly acknowledge that other fighters are just trying to stir up controversy and don’t take seemingly harsh words personally.
Given this scene, it would be easy for fans and fighters to maintain a cool distance from harsh words like Covington’s that are used to sell fights. They could blow it off as harmless calculated banter that doesn’t reflect how Covington truly feels, like pro wrestling fans emotionally disconnected from even the most villainous of scripted actions. The fact that instead there is anger and controversy directed Covington’s way is in significant measure a very good thing. It has made people care more about Covington and shows in general that they are invested in MMA’s feuds and competitive rivalries. That can be used to grow the sport, not only by Covington but by others.
There are of course boundaries fighters can cross where controversy becomes counterproductive. Genuine bigots don’t make a sport more “fun.” Antics that go too far can turn off casual fans and give a sport a bad reputation. Fans can also become desensitized, at which point grudges lose their meaning and it’s harder to sell individual fights. The anger directed at Covington suggests we’re a long way from reaching that point. MMA fans still believe, and that’s an important first step towards opening up their wallets.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.