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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday touched down at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with UFC on ESPN 5. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THE INTERIM NUMBER ONE CONTENDER
If there was any doubt in Colby Covington as the rightful No. 1 contender in the UFC welterweight division, it should’ve been firmly erased with his latest performance. The American Top Team rep made sure he preserved his high ranking with a dominant decision over former welterweight champion Robbie Lawler in the main event. Using an unforgiving pace, Covington put an amazing amount of pressure on the veteran and essentially neutralized any threat he posed.
Quite frankly, Covington maintained nearly total control during the 25-minute bout, while Lawler struggled to gain any sort of advantage. Similar to his performance against Rafael dos Anjos that earned the interim belt he proudly wears but no longer bears, he managed to stay active to the point of exhausting and overwhelming his opponent. While “Chaos” isn’t known for fight-ending power, his volume is remarkable. With 510 strike attempts, he set a new record for output and drowned Lawler in deep water.
Accepting the fight was a significant risk for Covington. After having gold wrapped around his waist over a year ago at UFC 225, inactivity due to injuries and event scheduling put his contender status in question. Look no further than longtime teammate and friend Jorge Masvidal, who during that same time bounced back from an extended layoff and two-fight losing streak to take out two top contenders in highlight-reel fashion. A misstep against Lawler would’ve certainly removed Covington from the conversation, with a clear fan favorite ready to replace him.
Adding to the risky nature of the bout, it was scheduled on a relatively short timeline. About a month ago, the booking was made official, leaving plenty of observers confused. Why would Covington, who stubbornly held his ground for a title fight and went out of his way to make his presence felt, risk that opportunity to fight a particularly dangerous opponent who was coming off of a loss? What was likely an attempt to get back in the promotion’s good graces after apparently turning down proposed dates and attempting to embarrass UFC President Dana White via Instagram Live could’ve backfired.
Fortunately for “Chaos,” that didn’t happen. He managed to kill multiple birds with one stone. He added the scalp of yet another former champion to his collection and ended a year-plus layoff looking like he hadn’t missed a day. More than that, he showed exactly why he won an interim title in the first place while reminding everyone watching that despite his nauseating methods of getting attention, he is a real threat to the undisputed crown.
THE BAD: RUTHLESSLY OUTWORKED
It appears that Lawler’s time as a top contender has come to an end. In such a stacked welterweight division, three consecutive losses represent a tremendous setback that figures to shatter the high hopes of a 37-year-old veteran with more than 40 bouts on his resume. Of the three losses, this was the first that had no question mark surrounding it.
Against dos Anjos, Lawler tore his ACL during the fight. It’s understandable if such a catastrophic injury contributed to dos Anjos getting the best of him in a five-round affair. Lawler emerged with a healthy knee against Ben Askren and once again failed to get his hand raised. However, the bulldog choke that prompted referee Herb Dean to stop the fight may not have actually put the former champion to sleep. It was also after Lawler had severely battered Askren in what could’ve easily ended up being a fight-ending sequence. Against Covington, there was no doubt. There was no controversy. Lawler simply got beaten. He was swarmed upon and given little to no breathing room to operate. Succumbing to constant takedowns, smothering clinch grappling and surprisingly effective striking, there just wasn’t anything that went right for “Ruthless Robbie.”
This loss follows a steady pattern since Lawler reinvented himself as a top-tier welterweight in his second stint with the UFC. High-paced grapplers seem to be the kryptonite. While Tyron Woodley’s belt-stealing knockout was the outlier, his other defeats follow a similar path. Dos Anjos, Covington and Johny Hendricks all managed to stick to Lawler, negate his power striking and ultimately convince the judges. Lawler remains capable of beating a number of fighters on the 170-pound roster in the UFC, so there’s no need to send him out to pasture just yet. Realistically though, a three-fight skid for an aging and battle-worn fighter, when paired with a clear blueprint for success against him, isn’t exactly screaming another resurgence.
THE UGLY: AMERICA’S TOP TEAM?
When it looked like Covington was going to face Woodley for the title, it was seen as a serious grudge match that had the potential to be a big box-office hit. Of course, a big part of that drawing power was based on the low-brow nature of promotion. The white, conservative, hardcore Donald Trump supporter facing the outspoken socially conscious black champion provided the kind of identity politics that has fueled a significant portion of combat sports over generations. It would’ve tapped into an ugly racial undercurrent that is an unfortunate part of society. It would have drawn a distinctive line between the diverse multicultural nature of mixed martial arts and strong contingent of vocal right-wing fans. Considering the current sociopolitical climate in the country, which is also picking up steam in headlines worldwide, there was an undeniable ability for that fight to cross into the collective consciousness.
With Woodley dropping his belt to Kamaru Usman in March, Covington has simply swapped out targets for his purposefully inflammatory self-promotion. Usman and Covington also have a personal feud. Usman, a Nigerian immigrant who came to the United States at 12 years old and became the first African-born champion in the organization, fits very neatly in the role Woodley played as the contrast to Covington’s political leanings. If the UFC does book the obvious choice for the next welterweight title fight, “Chaos” can count on the same dynamics to boost the profile of the fight.
At an otherwise pedestrian fight card, Covington managed to lure two of Trump’s sons into sitting cageside for a UFC event. With Secret Service visible during the broadcast, the No. 1 contender wearing his favorite baseball cap and video package dedicated to his love of the military, there was no separation from politics and sports. Against a man like Lawler -- a man who gives very little in the way of trash talk and gave nothing back in response to the American Top Team rivalry angle Covington tried to play in the buildup -- there was still enough meat on the bone to inspire the Trumps to attend. With an unusually early time slot and little to promote outside the merits of the fight itself, President Trump felt the need to give Covington a congratulatory call, even with another fresh mass shooting tragedy demanding his time.
Imagine the amount of heat that would be generated for Covington challenging Usman in a major market on a high-profile pay-per-view card. Judging by their post-fight interaction, the two men would certainly do a great job of antagonizing one another in front of cameras and microphones. Judging by President Trump’s love of the limelight and odd priorities, a Madison Square Garden event headlined by a Covington-Usman title fight seems like too great of an ego stroke for him to pass up. Expect the divisive nature of the 24-hour partisan news cycle to run headfirst into a personal rivalry that will be settled in a violent sport. What could go wrong?