Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington headlines UFC 245 this December 14, 2019 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada, United States.
One sentence summary
David: Somebody’s fifteen has gotta be weaned
Phil: The end of your time is over now, buddy
Record: Kamaru Usman 15-1 | Colby Covington 15-1
Odds: Kamaru Usman -185 | Colby Covington +160
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Usman began his career like most elite UFC prospects: with zero fanfare thanks to a debased farm system. Well, there is no system. But still. It’s hard to sell a story about a rising star when nobody knows how he rose, or where the hell he came from. I hate to start out Usman’s profile with another UFC criticism, but it’s such a dramatic experience: I watch a lot of other sports, and I can’t think of a single sport in which their major stars/champions routinely come from absolutely nothing. Does TUF still have cache? I feel like the only people who watch TUF are writers who feel like they’re doing forced labor when they have to watch that crap, and frat bros who accidentally stumbled onto something they consider worth watching. No offense, hardcore fans with a brain and no shame.
Phil: Kamaru Usman was marked for greatness from an early point. His wrestling career? Joining the Blackzilians? TUF? No, it was when Bloody Elbow marked him out as the #1 welterweight prospect in the world, an assessment which has proven to be more than justified. Since then he’s gone undefeated (hell, he hasn’t even conceded a takedown in the UFC) on his way to taking the belt from Tyron Woodley. Along the way he didn’t build much buzz, which meant that his belt win ended up being somewhat of a passing of the unpopular torch. But, like Woodley before him, I like Usman. He seems a good guy with a grounded understanding of the realities of the UFC’s corporate hell-machine and what he needs to do to succeed as champion. Moreso than Woodley, I actually enjoy watching Usman fight. Unrelenting pressure wrestling is fun! Just, you know, not if you’re rooting for the other guy.
David: So let’s get this straight. I don’t like Covington. I apologize to fans of our Toe to Toe’s if you are loathe to hear sports and politics meet, but I hate Covinton’s politics. Yes, I know the difference between an act, and reality. But fiction can be political too, and when you wear a mask long enough, the joy of leaving it on becomes as much a part of the man behind it as the empty symbol in front of it. Why do you think Marxist philosopher Slavov Zizek has so much to say about Jim Carey’ The Mask? It’s not that I hate Covington because he’s a Republican, or conservative. Or that he supports Trump. I majored in philosophy. I love Immanael Kant and David Hume. And they were racist shitheels. Individuals highlight chaos. Perspectives highlight clarity. I can appreciate the latter even when there’s a douchebag attached. What I can’t appreciate, on any level, is the failed seriousness of the edgelord: the person whose beliefs shift like some birdbrained chameleon to serve whatever common denominator the moment demands. Those are the actual politics of Covington: the grifter’s insincerity. And yet I’m willing to accept Covington’s legitimacy as elite fighter because that’s the real measuring stick in this sport: the hurt you put on others. In truth, I never felt that legitimacy. Lawler had racked up several losses before Covington, the weird maze of interim nonsense that allowed beating Rafael dos Anjos to mean so much still left me wanting. Would we be here if he ever fought Woodley? If he never grifted? He’ll have the chance to prove me wrong.
Phil: At some point (before the Maia fight, his protestations aside), Colby Covington decided that he was going to become saleable, like Chael Sonnen. All he had to do was work at it, and man has he worked hard. Day and night he has slaved away to be controversial, or funny, or something, anything, that’ll get people engaged. The only thing that really seems to have worked has been the Trump schtick, but even then it works against the man’s natural charmlessness. Bow-taut, marble-mouthed and awkward, he ups the ante on Chael’s racism and general gross takes, without an iota of the charm which allowed people to swallow it. Tito but less funny. It’s hard to say any of this even helped him out. It’s taken him a really long time to get a title shot.
What’s at stake?
David: Welterweight has a clearly defined hierarchy, even if it’s just a gondola of distractions from other weight classes at this point.
Phil: The winner is doubtless going to try and fight Masvidal, who is now a decent prize in the welterweight division. The winner is also going to do his best to not fight Leon Edwards.
Where do they want it?
David: Usman might seem like a pile of fast twitch muscle fibers that Joe Rogan will inevitably point out requires too much oxygen, but he’s cared out a career for himself long before he entered the octagon and his technique shows. I’d argue that Woodley is probably technically the stronger man, but Usman tossed him all over the cage with excellent fundamentals. The thing that separates Usman from other fleshy, shark tank wrestlers is that Usman never feels rushed into scoring a takedown just to score a takedown. He maps each technique out in his head, executes, and should he fail, he’ll spend time on the feet before re-engaging. His striking isn’t his best mode, but like Yoel Romero, he moves forward with so much muscled momentum that there’s nothing to really deter him from advancing. We haven’t seen him exposed at the center of the octagon. But as our colleague Ed Gallo pointed out, Usman does a great job of timing, and anticipating the right clinch/takedown entries by measuring both his positioning, and the predictable counterattacks of his opponent. Usman isn’t just a wrestler who took up MMA. He’s a fighter who just happened to sharpen his skills on the mat.
Phil: Usman was always a phenomenal wrestler, inexhaustible, perhaps the strongest elite athlete we’ve ever seen in the welterweight, and someone who could simply crush his opponents underneath him, even if they came in with a good anti-wrestling gameplan (see: Edwards, L). The problem was historically when he tried to do something else, namely striking. He would come out and run through the motions for a decent kickboxing game with teeth-gritting determination, clubbing away with the Hooft right hand-left hook combinations and occasionally getting punched and ploughing right through it. That has changed in recent fights: his footwork has cleaned up, he’s learned how to probe with a jab, and he seems more comfortable with defense and moving his head. I wouldn’t class him as a good striker, but that Maia fight did him a world of good I think. In the clinch and tie ups he remains monstrous: happy to hit singles or bodylock takedowns, and a voracious interstitial fighter. Those rib roasters he hit on Tyron Woodley were nasty stuff. I am somewhat concerned that most of his best striking has come with his opponent’s back to the fence, however. It may be a key comfort factor.
David: When I got my first taste of Street Fighter IV online, I always found myself randomly losing to “flowchart Kens”: players who spammed uppercuts; an attack that semeed to penetrate almost every other counter. Covington is Flowchart Ken in the flesh. He spams one specific technique, and lets the overwhelming pressure score points to win rounds. It sounds dumb at first. Just like it did in Street Fighter. At some point I had to ask ‘what does that say about my ability if I keep failing to anticipate?’ I feel like Covington’s victims are like me in the dark nerdy room against the bright monitors of digital pugilism; losing via ragequitting. This obviously does a disservice to Colby’s overall game. While his game has all the assembled depth of a Candace Owens talking point, there’s a dynamism at work which pairs well with his singular wrestling attack. He’s not a good striker, but there’s a wide toolkit he has access to, and it has the same effect of letting the box spill out over the table. It may take awhile to find what you need, but as long as it’s there, the job’s gonna get done.
Phil: Covington has had an approximately similar path to Usman where he had to learn how to strike, but whereas Usman’s problem was a lack of comfort, Covington’s was that he was perhaps too comfortable, and just wasn’t very good. A steady diet of spinning backfists and wacky kicks defined Covington’s striking game (and I think was the reason why he had the Chaos moniker, iirc), before he’d just charge straight into the clinch. There he’d just relentlessly mash his way into bodylock takedowns. In the same way that Usman’s unbelievable physical power always made his wrestling work, Covington’s was enabled by an endless gas tank. That ended up transferring to his striking, and he’s a genuinely decent striker at this point. Behind a jab and a slappy high kick he throws endless volume and is very hard to dissuade. His takedown defense has been less bulletproof than Usman’s, and his takedowns less effective, but he’s typically the spray’n’pray kind of fighter in all areas anyway: he doesn’t care how many fail, as long as some of them work.
Insight from past fights
David: There’s no real solid point of comparison other than common opponents. Their matchup is pretty style specific though. This will ultimately come down to how their respectively wrestling matches up. In that sense, I think it comes down to who initiates first. If Covington spams a double leg, will Usman simply defend rather than scramble, switch, and reverse/reset? If Usman goes in for a double, will Colby simply defend rather than scramble, switch, and reverse/reset? That is the question.
Phil: The comparisons between their RDA fights have been covered admirably by Ed Gallo in his fantastic piece. I’d also note their common fights against Maia, though: in a pure kickboxing match Usman won more cleanly, but Covington undeniably did the more damage to the aging Brazilian. As he proved in the Lawler fight as well, he just seems more able to snowball rounds behind his striking more than Usman can.
David: Welterweight isn’t as tough on the longevity as middleweight. This won’t end the way Struve’s balls did, in other word. (Fingers crossed)
Phil: Does Covington’s dire, sub-Tito trash talk get in Usman’s head? I’m going to say “no,” but who knows. These are two men who do not like each other, from rival Florida gyms in ATT and the Blackzilians / Team Hard Knocks / Imperial Athletics / Team Evil / Whatever.
David: Usman has a difficult path just as Colby does. I’ve gotta err on the side of power though. Usman isn’t the victim of his own muscles. If he were, I’d pick Covington. But I just prefer the variation Usman provides to his punch/takedown entries. That’s where I believe the fight will be won. Kamaru Usman by Decision.
Phil: Many people are confident in Usman. I am not. If Covington fights him in open space, and keeps a high pace striking, then I’m not sure that Usman can keep up with his pace on the feet, and there’s a chance that Usman will start initiating the classic Blackzilians “swing mad and get tired and get more mad and swing again” doom loop. That being said, I don’t trust Covington to actually be able to execute that gameplan, and I do trust Usman to mash him into the fence where Usman is a much more powerful and effective wrestler. Kamaru Usman by unanimous decision.