Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC on ESPN+ live on your computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
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.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Colby Covington. When he adopted his troll persona and started trying to market himself as the sport’s biggest villain, it was supposed to help him jump the line and get in major fights. His victory over Rafael dos Anjos to earn the designation of interim welterweight champion in June 2018 was going to be the final step before his title shot against Tyron Woodley and his first pay-per-view main event.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Covington went to the White House and posed for pictures with President Trump and his interim title. That was quite the coup when it came to publicity and seemed to back up Covington’s lofty proclamations about his stature. He continued his war of words with Woodley, and many were bullish about the fan interest that fight could draw given the remarkable contrast between the two fighters.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Woodley defended his championship twice after Covington’s interim title victory, but neither of those defenses was against the American Top Team rep. Covington resorted to confronting UFC President Dana White about not getting his shot in a way that made him look desperate and kind of sad. Blocking his path to the title is now a bigger, younger champion who loves to engage in precisely the sort of fight in which Covington specializes. Of course, that’s if Covington can even get a shot at Kamaru Usman. That’s no sure thing.
In order to be in the conversation for that title shot, Covington has to win in the UFC on ESPN 5 main event this Saturday in a fight that’s about as close to nothing-to-gain-everything-to-lose as it gets. His opponent is Robbie Lawler, a proud former champion who remains a dangerous but who has also lost three of his last four and currently sits outside the Top 10 at 170 pounds. Lawler’s low-key, no-nonsense persona stands in stark contrast to Covington’s public persona. If Covington wins, he’s unlikely to get a lot of credit and he’ll basically be in the same position he was entering the fight. If he loses, his hopes of a title shot go up in smoke.
Even if Covington wins, the path to his title shot remains hazy and uncertain. White has said that Covington would receive the next championship opportunity if he beats Lawler, but he has been known to change his mind on more than just a few occasions. If Covington isn’t impressive in victory, that could color White’s views. If he wins impressively, it’s hard to imagine he could do so more impressively than Jorge Masvidal did against Ben Askren. That was one of the most spectacular star-making performances in years, and there will be every temptation to strike while the iron is hot with Masvidal.
Covington is further undermined in his efforts by his villain persona. That role is an effective one for a champion, as fans rally behind challengers hoping that they can dethrone the big-mouth champion. That was the formula Floyd Mayweather perfected in becoming a massive drawing card. This equation doesn’t work nearly so well for a challenger, however. The challenger is receiving an opportunity, and that is driven by fan sentiment that is much more positive than negative.
If fans don’t like a challenger very much, they are unlikely to clamor for him to receive a title shot so he can get beaten. Rather, those fans are more likely to just want to see that fighter lose against someone else without getting the coveted title shot at all. That’s particularly true in a deep division like welterweight, where there are plenty of fighters in the title mix and plenty of fighters that fans think could potentially beat Covington. If the UFC reneges on its promises to Covington, it wouldn’t elicit anything resembling the backlash that would come with doing so to a beloved star with a built-in fan base.
Furthermore, as Covington has already shown, he’s much better suited trying to elicit anger than pity. Covington laughing at others for not receiving the same opportunities he has is an effective way of getting people to pay to see him lose. Covington lamenting that he hasn’t been given what he was promised by management does nothing to build interest in his future fights, even if it has to be cathartic for the frustrated ATT product. It undermines his brand rather than enhancing it.
While Covington is surely frustrated at the uncertainty still surrounding his title aspirations over a year after his win over dos Anjos, there’s little he can do about it. Quite simply, he’s stuck. His only option is to do what he can do to keep winning and hope for the best from there. Certainly, if he keeps winning, he’s not that far away. It’s not a great predicament, but it’s a problem largely of Covington’s own making.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.