Opinion: The Best Rivalry in MMA

By Lev Pisarsky Nov 9, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Having followed MMA closely since 1995 and witnessed countless thousands of fights, Kamaru Usman’s first fight with Colby Covington at UFC 245 was one of the greatest battles I'd ever seen. Easily in the top 10. A much greater fight, for instance, than Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar 1 or even Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen 1. However, for a reason we will discuss, I doubted that their rematch would come close to those lofty heights. But at UFC 268 Usman and Covington not only matched the skill, drama and heart of their first encounter, but in some ways they even surpassed it. On a card that saw an all-time classic in Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler, for my money the main event was the best match.

What makes the fights between these two men so special? As I've noted before, despite their differences outside the cage, Usman and Covington fight very similarly inside of it, representing the same style. They're great grapplers with tremendous cardio who can chain-wrestle forever and are masters of wrestling against the cage, always holding that weapon in their back pocket, but who have developed impressive, advanced kickboxing, throwing a variety of technical strikes, firing off crisp combinations, and using kicks far more effectively than just the occasional blow to the legs. The main fundamental difference is that while Usman has opted to prioritize size and strength, Covington has chosen speed and endurance. To use a video game analogy, they have the same class and build, but their allocation of resource points is slightly different.

Now, fighters that replicate and neutralize one another can make for potentially boring matches with plenty of stalemates. However, in their first fight, neither man had any interest in a wrestling match where neither would have a clear edge, or an overly cautious kickboxing contest, both of which we've seen plenty of between great grapplers. Instead, they met in the center of the cage and proceeded to go to war in the pocket, trading heavy blows while displaying superlative toughness. Not just for a minute or a round, but the entire 24-minute fight. Covington was faster and hit Usman more often, but the champion's strikes were heavier. Covington coming back from a broken jaw sustained in Round 3 to win Round 4 was nothing short of heroic, and Usman regrouping and knocking out Covington in Round 5 when it looked like he might be fading showed his own endless heart and keen mind, brilliantly taking advantage of an opportunity when so many others would have been overwhelmed and fighting on pure instinct. And despite the physical differences, I believe Usman won their first fight due to an advantage in pure martial arts skill. He repeatedly threw a fine front kick to the body to great effect which Covington lacked at the time. The big, powerful wrestler triumphed due to his mastery of a fundamental karate strike. A truly magical fight which reminded me of why I love the sport so much.

I doubted that their rematch would live up to it. Let's go back to the much-lauded Griffin vs. Bonnar fight at the finale of the first Ultimate Fighter season. While I think it's a highly overrated bout in terms of all-time rankings, it was still a very exciting scrap. And the two men would rematch only 16 months later in the co-main event at UFC 62. What happened that time? Griffin won a simple, one-sided decision, 30-27. Having improved technically while Bonnar remained the same, it was no longer a back-and-forth slugfest between the two, but Griffin consistently out-striking his opponent. That's always a worry in rematches, and there was reason to believe it would happen here. Usman's striking had improved considerably under the direction of coach Trevor Wittman, including a textbook, piston-like jab and a very deadly, straight and accurate right cross behind it. Covington had also shown some improvements in his victory over Tyron Woodley, such as effectively adopting that same front kick Usman used to defeat him, but it didn't appear to be as much.

Early on in the main event of UFC 268, that concern appeared realized, despite both Usman and Covington making adjustments. Covington wisely decided to fight more at range, darting in for quick punches, and used a lot more movement and defense, both with his feet as well as his head. The challenger also scored on multiple occasions with a solid roundhouse kick to the body, showing that he had improved since his last outing against Woodley. He also used a more bladed stance, probably to avoid the devastating front kicks from their first fight. He interestingly decided to mix in takedowns, a contrast to the first fight, likely emboldened by taking down Woodley and finishing him. Unfortunately for him, Usman was up to the challenge, consistently frustrating his efforts. Usman even scored a well-timed takedown of his own, although not surprisingly, Covington quickly got up and separated. For his part, Usman was also more cautious, getting a sense of the distance, flicking out a jab that looked faster and better than ever, and looking to set up a fearsome one-two. He too had notably improved his defense, as Covington wasn't hitting him nearly as often in the first two rounds with punches as he had the first time around. With Covington struggling to connect flush early, Usman could be patient and look for an opportunity. After winning the first round, he found an outstanding short left hook in Round 2 that dropped Covington and had him very close to being out. Covington may well have been saved by the bell, as I don't know that he would have survived another 30 seconds.

Much like he did in the first fight with a broken jaw, Colby showed all-time great toughness and heart. Never doubting his ability to win against such a fearsome champion, he came back and won the next three rounds in my eyes. In the process, he also proved that he likely has the best pound-for-pound cardio in the entire sport. A lot has been made of how good Usman's cardio is for such a huge welterweight, and rightfully so. His endurance is excellent. But Covington's turned out to be even better. Usman slowed down just a little beginning in Round 3, and that was enough for Covington to start landing cleanly. Not that Usman ever went away. I thought he came back very strong in Round 5 and it was very close, with Covington just barely edging out. I had the fight 47-47, a draw, although a score of 48-46 for Usman is perfectly reasonable, too. With that, another all-time great war had ended. Some were surprised by the mutual show of respect at the end, but I wasn't. It's simply impossible for two highly skilled martial artists to fight in a cage for over 49 minutes, both displaying endless toughness and will, and not have a respect for one another at the end, no matter how much they may hate one another.

As for their personalities, that added to the excitement of the rivalry for me, but perhaps in an unusual manner. Much has been written about Colby and his pro wrestling heel persona, but while not nearly as abrasive and attention-seeking, Usman has also cycled through a variety of contradictory personalities, as this popular, funny video from Jorge Masvidal illustrated. I've never met either fighter, so I can't even begin to guess at who they really are. However, given that both were largely humble and respectful early in their careers, before the realities of fight promotion and MMA as entertainment reared their ugly heads, it's safe to assume they're different from either of their current public characters. In that sense, the cage was a truth machine, washing away all bravado, hype, and fakeness, and leaving only their genuine identities as fighters. In this case, both were found to be in possession of not only the highest caliber of skill, but also of warrior spirit.

Where do this rivalry go from here? Normally I have no interest in a trilogy when one fighter is up 2-0, but with Usman and Covington, I could gladly watch them fight 10 more times. Covington has a lot of exciting fights on the horizon, such as Gilbert Burns and either the winner or loser of Edwards-Masvidal. I would love to see him challenge for the title again a year or two down the line after some more wins and possible improvement.

Usman, meanwhile, is close to cleaning out the division. Only Leon Edwards looms as an interesting, credible threat at present, provided he defeats Masvidal. There is a lot of excitement about Khamzat Chimaev, but he still hasn't faced a serious contender. Vicente Luque is a tremendously exciting fighter, but likely offers very little challenge for the champion. There is a good chance that he will return to Covington at some point simply due to a lack of other choices.

And I for one am very happy about that, because Usman vs. Covington is an all-time great rivalry, the best in MMA today.
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