Colby Covington vs. Robbie Lawler headlines UFC on ESPN 5 this August 3, 2019 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, United States.
One sentence summary
Phil: Ruthless vs Charmless
David: Make Welterweight Straight Again
Record: Colby Covington 14-1 | Robbie Lawler 28-13-1 NC
Odds: Colby Covington -220 | Robbie Lawler +200
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Gentlemen! Prepare the soapbox! [Steps atop soapbox] As little as I understand politics, I understand even less, the person who complains about it when it mixes with their sports. Motherf’er, the beginning of big money in public games was used to gain votes by Roman rulers. John Carlos, Billie Jean King, Muhammead Ali, Colin Kaepernick, etc — the list goes on. If sports are part of the common good, then good luck pretending there is nothing political about the forums we use for the common good. Where am I going with this? You can’t talk about Covington without talking about the garish audience in attendance. And if you can talk about his “garish” audience in attendance, you’ll probably find yourself rooting against Covington just for guilt-by-association over comments like this. It’s not much of a connect-the-dots exercise given Colby’s comments about Brazil. I bring this up not because it’s convenient, but because Covington has yet to answer questions about his status in the division. His fight for the Interim belt was always an odd, flimsy detour for the division; a fact highlighted by how quickly he would be stripped (and please, dear skeptical reader; I’m well aware of Dana White’s logic, just as I’m well aware of how often he ignores it). No matter how much ‘we’ might morally object to Covington’s comments, and his personality, they don’t disqualify him from being a great fighter. Immanuel Kant and David Hume were racist s—theels. Yet their philosophy still offers us great insights (I’d argue Hume more than Kant, IMO). Can Covington offer a great legacy? Or the soundbites of an insincere edgelord?
Phil: Covington, like many others, seems like a confluence of the two great families of American wrestling: the hardheaded world of the college and amateur circuit, and the weird world of pro wrasslin’. Others have been notably more successful in this synthesis, however. For his part, he seems like someone who decided to apply the criteria for success in the first area (namely relentless drive and grinding repetition) to the promotional tenets of the second: Be noisy, be confrontational, be confident. Give yourself a character and occupy it. He has decided that what he lacks for in charm or natural charisma he will make up for in sheer dogged volume and persistence. It doesn’t seem to have actually made him much more promotable, as he’s been passed over for an increasingly impressively long list of challengers. Instead, his incessant blaring has dropped him into a weird dead zone, away from the charm of Sonnens and McGregors, yet without being as unintentionally amusing as Tito or Cejudo.
David: Where Covington is born amidst the sport’s pageantry, Lawler is born amidst the sport’s purpose; motivated by raw volition, and fists, it’s like Lawler turned what could have been a classic aging curve or midlife crisis into a metaphysical rebirth. It’s kind of amazing, and one of the reasons why Lawler has so man fans. Well, aside from the fact that he was always fun to watch to begin with. Not to mention, who can forget the “aftermath” of his UFC 40 win? I think fans forget just how much was going on in that clip. Yes, Tiki’s flamboyant ignorance is one thing, obviously. But it’s also Lawler’s quiet discomfort reading a script, Osbourne’s verbal jab to cue Tiki’s exit, and Nelson Hamilton’s bowling ball roll across the cage. Oh right, the fight...
Phil: This feels a bit like where Robbie Lawler was always going to end up; where he was headed when the UFC first brought him over from Strikeforce. He was going to be a beloved action fighter, floating around the top of the division and picking up the occasional incredible finish but not quite the guy who was going to win a title. His time with the belt felt special in part because it was so anomalous and so unexpected. He was always someone who walked his own path, and so it’s a little harder to feel too sad now that he’s reverted back to his brutal nomad ways. He’s always been a man who seemed to care more for his own violent delights than promotional trinkets and press conferences.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Wait, how many people have jumped the queue ahead of Covington now? There was Till, then Usman, then it almost certainly looks like it’s Masvidal next. If Colby can take out Lawler in a way which really gets people talking, then perhaps he can leapfrog his old room-mate and buddy Jorge. For Lawler’s part, I don’t think he’ll be getting title shots any time soon, but he’s an invaluable fighter for testing out potential contenders.
David: Could be predictably something; could also be unpredictably nothing. Welterweight has improvised too many times to keep something resembling a hierarchy. The welterweight hierarchy now looks like a fourth grader’s failed volcano science experiment.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Lawler’s love for a medium-pace mid-ranged boxing match cannot be overstated, and it’s not a type of fight where literally anyone is likely to beat him. In this context he is one of the most defensively savvy, dangerous fighters in the sport, rolling, slipping and parrying strikes and rarely letting himself out of position. In other types of fight, Lawler is more than competent, but if he gets stuck in them for a while he starts to get antsy. While he can kick, he’s historically had a problem with dynamic kickers going all the way back to that Spratt fight which never quite went away, and while his butterfly hooks, sprawl and chain wrestling have all improved out of sight since he first got together with American Top Team, he tends to get sulky if he’s forced to grapple for too long. Lawler’s strength is in his ability to figure out his opponents, and his weakness is the time and space he tends to need to do that. People who consistently force him into boxes where he’s too mad to happily solve their approach have been tough.
David: Lawler is one of the more fascinating fighters to track in terms of progression. He started out as something of a frontrunner. With big power, and a good sprawl, he was eventually exposed as nothing much else. Even his return to the UFC seemed somewhat incidental. He hadn’t lit up Strikeforce or EliteXC. He was essentially the same fighter. But he managed to incorporate the perfect defensive ticks to suit his power; such as parries, shoulder rolls, etc. The general comfort of being able to easily reset his offense brought about quite the renaissance. He can wing his one-two’s with reckless abandon, but he can also be fairly surgical when he needs to be. There’s not much imagination to Lawler’s striking, but that doesn’t mean his strategy is simple. I think a lot of what’s made him so effective is precisely his ability to better time his offense; calibrating that blood in, blood out switch to punish his opponents.
Phil: Covington is not a beautifully technical fighter, but he is a well-constructed one. While he’s not a big or powerful welterweight, he’s utterly relentless and comes forward behind a barrage of strikes. Whereas many wrestling converts tend to barrel in behind explosive shots and step-ins, Covington tends to keep his posture while walking in, flinging out medium-power right hooks, a left cross and a surprisingly snappy high kick series. His defense is... not really there, and he’s struggled on the feet with kickboxing luminaries like Demian Maia, but his sheer inexorable pace and forward motion means that setting down to punch him often means that his opponents end up in the clinch. There he’s not the most offensively dangerous fighter, as RDA was able to out-damage him in the clinch exchanges with body work and elbows, but he will simply endlessly work for single and double legs while occasionally breaking his grips to throw hands.
David: Covington is just pure momentum. Raw, distasteful momentum. And no, that’s not a shot at his “politics.” Well, maybe it is. But it really works to describe his crude techniques. In a vacuum, his striking should get him killed, but it doesn’t. In a vacuum, his wrestling can be easily defended, but it’s not. All of this happens like a gatling gun. And I think that’s the point. I don’t think anyone at American Top Team is telling him to punch with his arms. But it’s part of his fight-never-flight switch. You wouldn’t move forward so effectively as you could if you were sitting down on your punches, and that’s what Covington understands. He gets that technique must sometimes take a backseat to efficiency. This is not, after all, the sweet science. Within this death’s head approach is still a fighter who has enough technique to cover (and smother with) the basics.
Insight from past fights
Phil: A consistent factor from Lawler’s losses isn’t so much the type of fighter they were as the pace that they were able to keep. Hendricks was in some ways a perfect foil for Lawler, as he had a similar tendency to take long stretches off in fights, which made for a tremendous back-and-forth between the two. Conversely, Lawler has always struggled with opponents who just set a monotonous high pace and stick to it. Covington might not be the most tremendous offensive wrestler in the world, but honestly neither is Jason Miller, or Jake Shields.
David: Lawler’s renaissance is experiencing its twilight. But I think it’s also somewhat overstated in this matchup. For one, Covington hasn’t had to deal much with welterweights who fight big. I don’t expect anything to derail Covington’s gameplan besides a big time KO, but I do think Lawler is athletic enough to keep from losing his wits just because he has to reset. I also think Covington’s defense will be exposed enough that Lawler will be able to make the most of those gaps where Covington has to cut distance with his awkward punches and basic wrestling step-ins. Not to minimize what Covington can do, but Lawler’s defense is just savvy enough that I wouldn’t expect him to be steamrolled for all five rounds.
Phil: Covington has been trying to make Lawler out to be a diva, but honestly, no-one cares. Lawler isn’t going to get mad. There’s no heat. It’s a good fight, but there’s no drama there.
David: One thing I’ll say about Lawler is that even though this is nothing more than a hunch, and you can’t learn much from a three-minute fight — I felt like the layoff helped in some ways. Physically, and athletically, he looked great against Askren, which again, doesn’t mean much but for a fighter with his style...something worth noting, now matter how minor.
Phil: Covington does not have much defense, and Lawler is a tremendous hitter. I think it’s probably not a bad idea for him to replicate the Askren gameplans and just try to tear Covington’s head off as quickly as possible. Other than that it seems like a nightmare matchup for Covington. Unless Lawler is just too big and physical for him to tie up with (which seems unlikely), Covington has never been badly hurt in my memory, and has exactly the kind of ferocious pace and suffocating style which has always been a nightmare for Lawler. Colby Covington by unanimous decision.
David: It’s all in the reflexes. Covington’s gameplan here is obvious. But it’s not simple. Lawler may not be the headiest fighter, but he’s dynamic enough in the ways he can hurt that I think Lawler’s “keys to victory” are not as difficult as you present. Am I just saying this because I think edgelords are the 21st century’s lazy, gravy-brained version of a cynic? Probably. Robbie Lawler by KO, round 1.