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Kamaru Usman may have waltzed into the Octagon as the favourite to retain his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight title at UFC 245, but all week it felt like fighters, fans and media were bracing themselves for Colby Covington to pull the upset.
Covington, the walking embodiment of lowest-common-denominator-self-promotion, was ubiquitous during fight week. Despite the fact that “Chaos” possesses a much lower social media profile than many of his counterparts, not to mention the fact that his fights have drawn mediocre numbers to date, the media both in and outside the MMA bubble were occupied by the character he’s taken to playing -- and were amplifying every absurd thing that came out of his mouth.
From bragging about his “bedroom cardio,” to gloating about the death of Usman’s former manager Glenn Robinson, to accusing Usman of using EPO and endlessly moshing for Donald Trump and the First Family, Covington’s heel persona was all controversy and no charisma. He donned cheap suits and a Trump-branded baseball cap, stuck rigidly to a script manufactured to trigger and troll as many individuals and institutions as possible and generated attention and infamy the only way he knows how. It was cringeworthy and artless, but effective as hell, with Covington further embedding himself as both a gimmicky pro-wrestling heel and a cultural ambassador of reactionary right-wing politics. If his appearances on the Candace Owens Show and writeups from major outlets including Sports Illustrated, the South China Morning Post and the LA Times show anything, it’s that attention equates to influence.
And that has implications for MMA at large, because if Covington had managed to capture the undisputed 170-pound title, he would have had a hell of a lot more eyes on him courtesy of that hardware. Even if it was ultimately the UFC’s entertainment-centric promotional philosophy that put Covington at a fork-in-the-road in 2017, where he had to choose between being released from the organisation or cutting a promo controversial enough to secure him a new contract, in 2019 he had fully embraced his new identity. Dominant wins over former champions Rafael dos Anjos and Robbie Lawler were mere footnotes in a period defined by antics outside of competition, magnified by a media community that found a willing interviewee and easy clicks too good a proposition to pass up.
The upshot? Had Covington won, fans and fighters who’d thus far managed to ignore the Covington show would have found it inexorably difficult to continue living in blissful ignorance. And those outside the bubble would have been forgiven for thinking that the MMA community was a little less tolerant and cosmopolitan than it actually is. Despite Covington being cornered by legendary Brazilian MMA pioneer Conan Silveira, and rubbing shoulders daily with the likes of Thiago Alves and Amanda Nunes at American Top Team, Covington’s shtick is built on a crude jingoism that manifested both in his fights against Demian Maia and Dos Anjos and again in the build-up to UFC 245. Brazil was a “dump” and their people were “filthy animals,” Usman was at risk of getting “deported back to Nigeria” if he lost, America was the greatest country on Earth and if you disrespected its flag or its Commander in Chief then there was going to be a problem.
But then the fight happened, and, despite Covington proving once again that he’s legitimately one of the best welterweights on the planet, he wasn’t enough for his African-born adversary. Both champion and challenger eschewed their conventional wrestling-centric game plans and slugged it out on the feet, each inflicting damage and having damage inflicted upon them before “Marty” definitively closed the show in the final minute of the fifth round.
Covington lost the fight, had his jaw broken and literally sprinted out of the Octagon once the door’s opened, leaving the incumbent to dedicate his whooping to “the whole world” who’d been salivating at the prospect of Covington’s comeuppance since Sao Paulo.
It’s a strange, dirty feeling to actively root against someone, especially in a sport as unforgiving as MMA, but Covington ensured long before he stepped into the Octagon that a good portion of fight fans -- if not a significant majority – would be doing exactly that. There has quite simply never been a figure as repulsive or grotesque as Covington in “promotion” mode, and it’s an objectively good thing that his platform will be a little bit smaller in the immediate future.
Whether Covington has ever believed any of the asinine things that have come out of his mouth, or whether he ever decides to tone down his relentless shtick to focus on rebuilding towards the goal of challenging for the title once again, for the time being the malevolent potential that accompanied his shot at gold has been neutralised.
Crisis averted… for now.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.