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First it was boos that rained down upon Colby Covington. Then it was booze.
After his unanimous decision win over hometown-favorite Demian Maia in the UFC Fight Night 119 co-headliner on Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Covington proceeded to get on the microphone and call the host country “a dump” and the 10,000 Brazilians in attendance “filthy animals.” Derek Kronig was on translator duty for the event, but Daniel Cormier didn’t bother to pass him the microphone. Covington reveled in it: “We ain’t translating tonight, baby!” As he was rushed out of the arena by security, fans pelted him with cups of beer and whatever trash was within reach. Clearly, no translation was needed.
Covington and his antics became the most talked-about part of the show, despite his fight with Maia being altogether forgettable. On paper, beating a top-five welterweight in his hometown is impressive, but the manner in which Covington won did not make anyone clamor to see him in a title fight. Don’t be surprised, though, if that’s exactly where he ends up. In this era of the UFC, ratings trump rankings, and playing the villain -- even when it’s done poorly -- continues to work. Covington was the biggest story of the night because he made people angry. He failed to excite anyone with his actual fighting, but angering people is a fine enough substitute. Anger is a powerful source to tap into. It excites and energizes us in real, biochemical ways. Our brains secrete adrenaline, our hearts beat faster and our bodies pulse with the same evolutionary readiness to do battle that was a necessary survival tool for much of human history. Only now, our “battles” mostly take place via seething comments online.
It’s why Covington was smart to say what he said, even if it was an unoriginal copy/paste pro wrestling shtick. The Internet peddles anger, and business is good. There is a lucrative industry of sites that exist solely to make people more upset by the time they finish reading their articles or watching their videos. Almost on instinct we search for news that makes us salivate resentful venom. The feeling is addictive. It’s why an obviously -- and sloppily -- photoshopped picture of Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett burning an American flag for a post-game celebration was shared hundreds of thousands of times by already-angry folks primed to be gullible. Anger fogs our thinking, and for the most part we prefer that impairment to sober clarity.
Stories that anger us are so much more invigorating than the bland sustenance of levelheadedness. They are almost always more interesting than stories about good things going well. Feel-good narratives have their place, but they work because they’re rare, the relationship between scarcity and value being another bottomless reservoir of human attention. They let us come up for air, briefly, so that we’re renewed for the next prolonged session submerged in the rush of being pissed.
It’s no wonder that fighters, whom very few of us ever know beyond a screen, sell anger to sell themselves. It does more for their career than trying to make us genuinely care about them. As spectators we’re funding the business of seeing their physical welfare jeopardized. Getting people to pay attention is hard currency, and it’s easier to get the audience riled up than it is to get it interested in real-life personalities.
Any fighter with even a cursory understanding of Ultimate Fighting Championshiphistory understands that playing the heel works. In every era, villains have either been the biggest stars or provided a platform to create the biggest stars through direct contrast. Tito Ortiz was the promotion’s first leading man because he was “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy,” the “bad boy” bit being much more resonant than the locale from which he hailed. His brash personality enabled the Styrofoam charisma of Chuck Liddell to become an even bigger star. Matt Hughes was as dominant in the cage as he was arrogant and cocksure outside of it, and his selling power transferred over nicely to the eminently humble George St. Pierre, whose popularity exploded when he was pitted against trash-talking rival B.J. Penn. The same can be said of Anderson Silva, who wasn’t much of a draw until Chael Sonnen needled their fights into mainstream relevance.
When fighters who play the heel aren’t setting up their peers for stardom, they cultivate their own, as long as they win. The three biggest draws in MMA history -- Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor -- each had passionate haters and passionate supporters in roughly equal number. The desire to see them lose drove legions of fans to fork out cash for every one of their pay-per-views, which was matched by fans who wanted to see them win. Winning was important, but as fighters like Demetrious Johnson and Jose Aldo have shown us, winning itself doesn’t get our attention. They “walk the walk,” but with no talk behind it, people don’t care. People love the dynamic of “Fighter X talks a lot of trash, but he backs it up,” but one half of that statement does a lot more work than the other.
Covington has been working hard to get fans angry with him in order to get them to pay to see him lose. He’s not alone. UFC 217 on Saturday card is headlined by all-time heel Michael Bisping and, to a lesser extent, the emerging bro-villain character of men’s bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt. They won’t be the last to play the villain, either. The fact is, it’s hard to get people to care about you, but it’s easy to get them to hate you. Being good wins fights, but it’s not enough to win fans. As sales numbers increasingly dictate which bouts get booked, having rabid detractors is functionally the same as a winning streak. Even if you get objects thrown at you, it takes much less brain trauma to get fans angry than it does to win fights.
For those who thought Covington’s comments went too far or wish he would simply suck less at performing his bit, buckle in. It’s going to be a long ride. No matter how poorly or unoriginally he plays the part, the part will almost always be more profitable than the alternative. It’s the oldest trick in the book for a reason: It works.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.