Preview: UFC 268 ‘Usman vs. Covington 2’

Usman vs. Covington

By Tom Feely Nov 5, 2021

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 268 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

For the first time in a long while, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will run back-to-back numbered events, with the Oct. 30 offering from the United Arab Emirates giving way to UFC 268 and its return to Madison Square Garden on Saturday in New York. The strong main card features two title rematches. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman meets Colby Covington and revisits their excellent 2019 encounter, while Weili Zhang looks to regain the women’s strawweight belt following a quick knockout loss to Rose Namajunas in April. Elsewhere, Justin Gaethje meets Michael Chandler in a showdown between two of the most violent lightweights on the roster, and Shane Burgos-Billy Quarantillo is not far behind in terms of excitement at featherweight. Add in the Frankie Edgar-Marlon Vera opener that appears quite crucial for both parties, and this looks to be about as solid a five-fight slate as you can find nowadays.

Now to the UFC 268 ‘Usman vs. Covington’ preview:

UFC Welterweight Championship

C | Kamaru Usman (19-1, 14-0 UFC) vs. #1 WW | Colby Covington (16-2, 11-2 UFC)

ODDS: Usman (-290), Covington (+245)

Now seemingly firmly ensconced as the top male pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Usman continues to build upon a resume that may wind up with his being regarded as an all-time great. Usman came into the UFC with a rightful amount of hype via “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2015 and quickly lived up to the billing with a series of dominant wins, including victories over Leon Edwards and Sean Strickland that have aged particularly well in the ensuing years. There was never any question at any point that Usman had championship-level upside, so most of the focus centered around how much “The Nigerian Nightmare” could build around his dominant wrestling game, which alone was enough to control seemingly any opponent he would face. Usman continued to flash some potential as a striker during his rise on the ladder, most notably and obviously hunting what wound up as a brutal knockout over Sergio Moraes. However, it was still a clear weakness. While Usman was well-schooled technically and had the requisite level of durability, there was still a bit of a stiffness to his game that suggested the potential for him to be caught at some point. That was true even after Usman captured the UFC’s welterweight strap from Tyron Woodley in early 2019, but in his first title defense later that year against Covington, it quickly became apparent that he had finally turned himself into an all-around terror. A grudge match between two wrestlers instead turned into an amazingly high-paced striking match, with both men having their moments but Usman obviously hitting the harder shots, keeping up with Covington every step of the way before breaking his jaw and finishing the fight with just 50 seconds to go. After a 2020 title defense against Jorge Masvidal, an upcoming bout against then-teammate Gilbert Burns led to Usman changing camps and training with Trevor Wittman, which has paid even more dividends. Burns managed to clip Usman early in their bout, but the champion is now an even cleaner one-shot striker with an ability to end a fight in an instant. After staging a comeback and finishing Burns, Usman turned around just two and a half months later and became the second man to knock out Masvidal in their rematch, doing so with one of the most beautifully brutal punches in recent memory. With the welterweight contender picture taking a bit to replenish itself, Usman is left without a clear fresh challenge at the moment, even if the next few months figure to finally shake loose some new and exciting fights for the UFC’s most dominant titleholder. For now, Usman takes on a familiar foe in Covington and looks for an even clearer victory in the rematch.

Covington’s talent is undeniable, but his rise sure has been eventful. Covington did not come into the UFC with a particularly high profile. He was well-regarded as a prospect but spent the early part of his UFC career grinding out wins on undercards, with a quick submission loss to Warlley Alves temporarily slowing his ascent. Eventually, Covington got to the point where he had a sterling record but did not seem to have anyone particularly excited; even the UFC apparently warned Covington that he may not be re-signed to a new contract, mostly due to his grinding- and wrestling-heavy style. Then came his October 2017 fight against Demian Maia, which provided a breakthrough in a few different ways. Covington was finally able to establish himself as an exciting fighter, as facing the best grappler of his career led to his eschewing wrestling in favor of a high-paced and relentless striking approach. Covington also finally found a way to market himself, mostly leaning on right-wing xenophobia—particularly in regards to the Brazilian crowd at the Maia fight—to pick up a built-in fanbase. Covington was not necessarily gifted at his act, as he is far from the most charismatic speaker, but the combination of his willingness to market himself and his success in the cage eventually made him the obvious contender to Usman, even before factoring in the political and racial dynamics that could make it a more marketable fight. Then came the fight itself, where Covington always figured to be a bit outgunned; his high pace is at its most effective when backed up with the threat of his wrestling, and against an opponent he never figured to be able to take down, Covington was left to put up a game effort as he lost a war on the feet. It has been a quiet two years for Covington since, at least in terms of his career, as a September 2020 bout against Tyron Woodley has been his lone post-Usman showing. Having gone through a camp change himself, Covington showed a bit more of a patient approach and could be pivoting towards something interesting, though it is difficult to tell. The late-career version of Woodley was about the best name opponent for Covington to be able to take his time and show some progress. A shade under fourteen months later, Covington has hopefully continued to lock in on things that could make him a much tougher test for Usman this time around.

Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 268 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.

As mentioned, Usman seems to be about the worst possible matchup for Covington. The challenger’s high-pace and low-power approach is effective to the extent that it is due to the threat of Covington’s wrestling acting as a change-up. Without that wrestling threat—Covington did not pursue it much in their first fight and never threatened Usman in the first place—the Clovis, California, native is left to trade on cardio and durability to outweigh the fact that he is not a particularly hard puncher. Covington also lost that calculation against Usman the first time around, and it will be interesting to see how much he builds on the more balanced approach he used against Woodley. If Covington shows up unchanged from his 2019 form, this figures to end in quicker and possibly more brutal fashion than it did the last time around; even if Usman’s more patient and less wrestling-focused approach in recent years leaves him a bit more open to giving up the initiative, that version of Covington simply does not have the tools to score a finish against him; and this more modern edition of Usman is much more likely to end the defensively void Covington’s night with one punch. However, if Covington has continued to build on that more measured approach from the Woodley fight, it could greatly up his chances. Sitting down on his punches rather than selling out entirely on volume could at least make a knockout win possible, and that slower pace should at least lessen the probability that Covington runs headlong into one fight-ending shot. Still, even if Covington has progressed, he is clearly fighting an uphill battle against someone who is further along in his progression and has much better physical tools. The pick is Usman via fourth-round stoppage.

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