In what has been referred to as the “wrestliest matchup” of UFC 245, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will be facing the polarizing challenger Colby Covington.
Fan predictions regarding this matchup have centered around a few broad generalizations.
One is that Covington, a Division 1 All-American for Oregon State as a senior, is objectively a better wrestler than Kamaru Usman, a Division 2 NCAA champion and domestic freestyle contender at 84 kg.
While statistically speaking “Division 1 wrestlers > Division 2 wrestlers” holds weight, it’s not true in this instance, nor should it be a point for analysis in the first place. This matchup should be dissected on a technical and strategic basis, not by blanket statements regarding credentials. This article will aim for technical analysis, but first let’s address credentials anyway.
Wrestling Pedigree Mythbusting
After wrestling since he was six years old, Covington began his collegiate career at Iowa Central Community College, a power JUCO program that has lead to many high-profile Division 1 transfers. Jon Jones was a national champion for Iowa Central and Covington’s roommate. Division 1 All-American, Junior World silver medalist and 2019 World team member Pat Downey won a national title for Central, and Rutgers wrestler and U23 World champion Richie Lewis brought home first place for Iowa Central in 2015.
Covington transferred to Oregon State and won All-American honors at 174 pounds his senior year by placing 5th at the NCAA tournament, entering as the #4 seed. His run was decent - his best win was over the four seed Chris Henrich on the back side, who knocked him out of the championship bracket after fighting off a late takedown attempt.
That’s more or less where Covington’s amateur career ended. His All-American finish is a tremendous achievement, but as far as AAs go, he’s middle of the road. The top few wrestlers in the bracket proved to be a tier above Covington.
Usman, on the other hand, did not begin wrestling until high school, much like freestyle standout and Oklahoma State alum “King Mo” Lawal. After a decent high school career in a non-power state, Usman had an adequate freshman run at William Penn at the NAIA level, qualifying for nationals. After transferring to Division 2 powerhouse Nebraska-Kearney, Usman began to realize his potential, and fast. Following an All-American finish as a sophomore, Usman made the finals as a junior, and dominated his senior season with a national championship run at 174 pounds.
With plenty of room to grow, Usman continued his training in freestyle at a smaller wrestling club, now up at 84 kg, around 185 pounds. He made a run for a 2012 Olympic team, attending multiple qualifying tournaments and notching solid wins over wrestlers like 2012 Junior World silver medalist Pat Downey.
I can’t say Usman was close to beating the very best in the country, but the weight was especially tough in the Olympic year. Usman had a relatively close (5-1, if I recall correctly) match with the eventually team member and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Jake Herbert at the Last Chance Qualifiers.
If I had to pick one wrestler whose credentials stand out above the other, I’d err in favor of Usman. But generally, there is no objective superiority between the two. Both wrestled tough competition and did well, so don’t fixate on credentials. It’s about what they’ve done with those skills since then that matters.
To attempt to predict the dynamics of their matchup in wrestling and clinch situations, let’s examine each man’s fight against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos.
Colby Covington vs. Rafael dos Anjos
Covington and Usman have vastly different pressuring styles. It’s at his most intense as a pressure fighter that Covington earns his nickname “Chaos”.
Against Dos Anjos, Covington ran right into the pocket and started swinging. Regardless of technical efficacy, this early charge made RDA uncomfortable enough to back him up. With the cage in striking distance, Covington feinted a flying knee, bringing up RDA’s guard and straightening his posture, and shot.
On this initial takedown attempt, Covington used a deep level change, dropping to his knees, doubled and angled off to his left. In this instance, RDA’s defense was an arm-in guillotine that he didn’t change posture on, he just held it. Given that defensive tactic, it’s no surprise Covington finished the shot.
As RDA worked to stand, Covington went to a tight-waist and puts one boot in.
So far, so good. But once Dos Anjos returned to his feet and Covington worked to control, things began to get messy.
The Definition of Insanity
Covington’s cage pressure involves leaning hard with his upper body and legs back, a lot of literal pressure, essentially. He’ll drop to a single attempt, but ultimately he comes back up to his right side underhook.
To maximize the drive in his legs, Covington turns sideways off that underhook pressure, only looking to strike by turning back in. In response to the underhook, RDA used a whizzer on the underhooking arm, and used a frame, or forearm across the face, to create space and disrupt Covington’s head positioning.
At first, Covington was fairly successful handfighting to remove the frame, but he didn’t have any answer for Dos Anjos repeatedly slapping it back on. Frustrated, he disengaged. That frame was trouble.
Back leaning from the underhook, Covington kept his head buried underneath RDA’s, he sacrificed offense for safety, for fear of the frame.
But because he’s leaning over across RDA’s body, knees to the midsection were an effective tool for Dos Anjos. Given his fear of the frame, Covington committed to fighting RDA’s hand, but unfortunately that only left him more vulnerable to knees.
Perhaps realizing that Dos Anjos was carving him up off his own heavy underhook pressure, Covington stood taller and lightened up a bit. Unfortunately for him, this meant Dos Anjos could opt for either the frame or a collar tie, which allowed him to pull Covington to the weaker side and create space off the cage, or switch to a double collar tie and smash away to the body.
When Covington postured up to strike on his terms, RDA was able to grab an underhook on the striking side, underneath the punch. As Covington reset to a low pressuring stance, RDA turned the newfound over-under into a bodylock. Because Covington’s hips were so far back and his upper body so far forward, his base was compromised and RDA could use the leverage of the underhook to turn him off the cage and disengage fairly easily.
These moments of quick turns off the cage proved valuable in the fourth round, where Dos Anjos caught Covington standing tall with shot entries against the cage of his own. It’s extremely telling that while Covington definitely wore down Dos Anjos, he was quite fatigued himself.
While sticking with the underhook was a poor defensive choice, Covington was still in position to drop to singles, right? But with RDA already in a stable stance, and the whizzer in place, the level changes weren’t particularly deep and RDA was able to straighten him back up, along with using his free arm to elbow and fight the connecting hand.
Covington continued pressuring in and working shallow entries. On some occasions, RDA controlled the head with the double collar tie and halted his momentum, forcing Colby to settle for the underhook. Even when he was able to settle in on a shot and work for the double, after only a few seconds, and eating an elbow to the side of the head, he realized it was the exact same situation as before and disengaged.
At times, Covington’s pressure as a striker was actually pretty smart, I’ll give him that.
As they approached the cage, Covington would jab to draw a response then level change under. However, since he’s constantly crashing forward, Dos Anjos learned to anticipate his distance and positioning. Being hammered with intercepting shots certainly took some steam off Covington’s clinch entries and leg attacks.
Even halfway through the first round, Covington’s striking entries were demonstrably sloppier, he stood out of stance and threw without looking clearly at his target. He even started reaching and wading forward with his head down just to be in a clinch situation.
Dos Anjos must have observed that Covington tends to shell up and duck his head on his way into clinch entries against the cage. RDA capitalized with wicked body shots, that’s effective offense plus a link to an underhook.
When RDA was smarter about his counters and work off the back-foot, Covington’s pressure regressed into disorganized following or even chasing. In these moments, he was lit up with powerful shots.
When Covington got back to his linear pressuring strikes, he was able to drive RDA back, but the clinch dynamic remained. The whizzer and wrist fighting or frame combination was giving Covington fits, and it was a position where RDA could easily transition into a side-on takedown defense from where he could elbow.
What’s concerning is that despite Covington’s issues with RDA in these positions, he kept going right back to it. The essence of his game is to constantly work and wear down his opponent, which worked against RDA, a smaller man content to defend, to a decent degree. But what happens when he’s putting himself in bad positions against Kamaru Usman? The biggest difference here is that if Covington enters the clinch with Usman and the tide turns in Usman’s favor, the champion is highly unlikely to disengage.
Consider that Covington wore himself down as well, to the point where a tired Dos Anjos was able to work his own offensive wrestling and grappling against Covington.
It was really only when RDA got away from whizzering on Covington’s strong side that he gave up takedowns against the cage, even then he had an exceedingly difficult time establishing control. Otherwise a knee tap off the underhook when RDA’s stance was narrow knocked him off his base, that takedown starting from open space was the first time Covington was able to net any real time in control on top.
As the fight wore on, Covington’s size and tenacity wore down Dos Anjos. RDA was finding the same positions, but didn’t have the energy or muscular endurance to execute the same maneuvers in earnest. Again, the size and strength of Usman combined with his ability to turn these exchanges in his favor offensively, rather than just constantly defending, makes this matchup significantly tougher for Covington.
Kamaru Usman vs. Rafael dos Anjos
Between the two, Usman’s pressure is more patient and measured, his entries are far less predictable, often giving way for deeper shots and easier finishes into control positions. The long, power combination striking attack of Usman, combined with the threat of the shot, made Usman’s pressure and offense near the cage a nightmarish assault for Dos Anjos.
You must realize that Usman doesn’t immediate plow forward or shoot once that cage range is there, he measures with his jab and has the patience to watch the situation play out. He stays far enough that he can read the strikes coming, and if he sees his opponent loading up on something he can level change under, there’s the entry.
It’s also noteworthy that Usman is able to deal with lateral movement in response to his pressure, unlike Covington who often found himself running past dos Anjos, if not for planting his man’s feet with a lead round kick first.
Usman made use of cage-cutting tactics like lever punching to halt RDA’s retreat and reestablish control near the fence.
In contrast to Covington, Usman is much more capable beginning wrestling situations from space, using the motion of his distance-covering rear hand to mask the level change for a snatch single to the lead leg. He’s quick on that setup, shooting right after showing the rear hand look.
Of course, he still prefers to wrestle on a barrier. Combined with feints and his other pressure tactics, Usman has a number of safe, repeatable shot entries both from space and near the cage.
Usman can shelf the leg and go head inside on the single, he’s much better at pressuring with his head to methodically get in position against the cage. Even so, RDA was able to stand him up with the whizzer, just as he did to Covington. But the fight had only just begun.
As a cage control artist, Usman stays tight and upright, pressuring more so with a low underhook or hip block on his left side and switching between the underhook and strikes on his right. Covington’s space allowed RDA to fight with his non-underhooking hand, shutting down most of his offensive potential. Usman is also much more active offensively with knees and stomps, and he targets the body frequently, meaning he can switch his focus of control between his arms and legs without giving up too much ground, and his punches to the body can quickly be converted to under or overhooks.
Some may see Covington as the more dynamic fighter, due to his activity level, but Usman has more variety as a wrestler and grappler by far. He’s not married to the underhook or shooting against the cage, he can jack up the head with his forearm and unload with his other hand, he’ll slap on a double collar tie, he feels comfortable working offense from a multitude of clinch positions against the cage.
While there is a higher chance of losing cage control when switching off to these different looks, is it any more risky than going back to a position which you’ve repeatedly been outstruck and reversed from?
Usman wasn’t hugely effective from these positions early on, but he chipped away and developed answers for RDA’s defense, he certainly wasn’t losing. That’s entirely different than outpacing and wearing down your opponent while being outstruck, as Colby was.
And once RDA did wear down against Usman, the Hooft-trained fighter’s advantage snowballed. Usman might work at a slower rate than Covington, but he maintains that pace, it’s something he can build upon. Covington, on the other hand, comes out hot, slows down but keeps pushing at a solid, but clearly diminished rate.
The biggest technical difference in my mind is that Covington treats the clinch solely as a transitional phase, not a sticking position or intermediate offensive position like Usman often does. That space that Covington left when solely trying to control was hugely impactful. You’ll see that when RDA looks for the double collar tie to pivot off, Usman pressures in with his hips and digs beneath for his underhooks. Usman kept his head positioned over and to the side of RDA’s, making it difficult to find room for elbows, or to control his head in any way.
The tradeoff is this is a harder position to transition to leg attacks from, and there’s less potential for potent striking offense, but it’s so much more effective for control.
However, when Usman gave up a little room to strike and RDA began to commit his hands to pushing off, that’s when Usman level changed and worked his shot.
This is not to say that Usman didn’t encounter many of the same issues Covington did - the whizzer and handfighting skills of Dos Anjos proved troubling early on. But in light of that, another key difference in the grappling adaptability of Usman shone through. Instead of single-mindedly trying to find ways to double off on the head inside single, Usman lifted the leg and made a sharp cut away from the cage and cracked down, opening up a wrestling situation away from the cage.
Over halfway through the fight, Covington was taken down by Dos Anjos. When RDA shot on Usman in the third round, he locked through the crotch, sat the corner and reversed position. Covington’s pace is indeed chaotic, and can certainly ruin a fighter’s gas tank as the fight wears on, but Usman is designed to win rounds by an increasingly comfortable margin, building on his lead.
What’s going to happen if Covington is losing clinch and wrestling exchanges early, and Usman hasn’t been forced to work beyond a pace he’s comfortable with? Will Covington change plans, or will he continue to enter Usman’s domain?
These are the questions that will likely determine this championship fight. The striking matchup has factors of its own, but ultimately I feel this fight will be decided where both athletes are strongest.