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Colby Covington is perhaps the greatest Rorschach test in the Ultimate Fighting Championship today. Fans of his see him as a Making America Great Again patriot dunking on the nerds and virgins of the world; detractors see him as a corny caricature who thinks being annoying is the same as being alpha. Some love him for his toughness and tenacity in the cage, while others loathe him for his inability to finish fights. Regardless, people seem to love and hate him for the same reasons, and whatever you think of him probably says a lot more about you than it does about him.
This gives Covington a veneer of complexity, but in reality, he’s one of the most straightforward and simple fighters to understand. He’s an astute observer of what makes fighters successful, both in and out of the cage, and he has dedicated himself to realizing those traits to the fullness of his potential.
Speaking purely in competitive terms, there is no denying Covington’s success. After his sole career loss in 2015, he has since gone on a tear, winning seven consecutive fights in increasingly dominant fashion against increasingly tougher opposition. It’s not just the results that are important, though; it’s how he has won. Covington began his career as a gritty wrestler -- he was an All-American and Pac-10 champion at Oregon State University -- and that’s still the base of his game. Yet Covington uses his wrestling in a way that is trickier than meets the eye. Consider his win against Robbie Lawler at UFC on ESPN 5 on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey. Covington went 10 for 18 on takedowns, yet had exactly zero guard passes, ground strikes or submission attempts. That’s worth consideration.
What Covington realized early on is that nearly all UFC champions, regardless of their skill set, have two things in common: pressure and volume. His takedowns enhance both. They sap the energy out of opponents and force them to move backwards, and all but the most advanced strikers in the sport still struggle to mount meaningful offense off of their back foot. Just as important, the threat of takedowns disrupts opponents’ rhythm, effectively freezing them in place and allowing Covington to throw endless barrages with little fear of counters. Against Lawler, his striking looked cleaner and more precise than ever, but on its own, it’s still not great. His defensive holes are mostly covered by the fact that his takedowns are an ever-present threat.
“Chaos” also lands more strikes per minute than most of his Top 10 welterweight peers. The average of the rest of the top 10 is 3.34 significant strikes landed per minute; Covington clocks in at 3.9, trailing only Kamaru Usman, Jorge Masvidal and Santiago Ponzinibbio. That may not seem like much, but that includes his early fights, where he hadn’t yet figured out how to apply his game. He has steadily increased his output with every appearance. In his last three fights -- against two former champions and a former title contender -- he has landed 5.63 significant strikes per minute. That’s impressive enough on its own but even more so when considering the fact that two of those fights went 25 minutes and his output still increased considerably. Against Lawler, he landed 7.16 strikes per minute across five rounds, a ridiculous pace. All of this is by design. He saw what worked and made it work for his specific skill set. It might not look pretty very often, but it consistently and clearly wins fights.
Covington’s success inside the Octagon made his out-of-cage success possible. Winning fights is a necessity, of course, but it is not always enough. What truly matters is the combination of wins and a sellable personality. Covington knows this, too, and has amplified his heel persona accordingly. Again, whatever you think about his public brand, be it calling Brazilians filthy animals, making a joke about Matt Hughes’ near-fatal train accident or surrounding himself with models whose enthusiasm appears to be somewhere between “on the clock” and “proof of life,” he has embraced a role that he knows works: pissing people off. Personally, I don’t think his schtick is all that interesting or well-done, but there are a few things to consider.
First, it might not be a gimmick so much as an amplification of his real identity, in which case it is an honest representation of himself. That’s all we can really ask for from an athlete. If he is, however, putting on a pro wrestling-esque performance, then perhaps there is good reason behind the calculation. If you don’t have much of a personality to sell -- or an exciting style of fighting -- then playing the bad guy is a tried and true way to make yourself more interesting. Plus, it was only a matter of time until someone tapped into the Trump-supporting crowd, a non-negligible demographic of the UFC’s audience. Regardless of what you think of the president, it’s clear that he has plenty of fans who watch fights, and no other fighter has tapped into that market quite like Covington. He understood the opportunities that were there and capitalized on them.
Covington saw what was successful in the general meta-game of UFC champions and adapted his style accordingly. In the same way, he understood that self-promotion matters and began promoting himself in a style that has always worked. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s doing it well. You can love him or hate him; both options are what he’s going for. It makes no difference, so long as he keeps winning.
Eric is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.