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On offense and offensiveness: Colby Covington is turning trash talk into something worse

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Jordan Breen examines the culture of trash talk in the UFC, and the ways in which Colby Covington is using it to turn selling fights into something uglier.

I never thought that I would hear someone make fun of Matt Hughes and feel awful about it. At the same time, I never thought I would see Colby Covington box Robbie Lawler up for 25 minutes. But, both things happened on Saturday—and it’s a lot to process. The sport of mixed martial arts gives us a lot to chew on with regularity, but the UFC on ESPN 5 card in Newark, N.J., was truly something else over its final 45 minutes or so.

On any other far-flung UFC card made just to build brand deals (and let Endeavor make relationships with arena owners and business groups) the biggest story of the night would be Herb Dean’s ridiculous and perilous refereeing. However, this card was helmed by Colby Covington—so maybe it should’ve gone without saying that we’d see something different.

I think, if you asked most long-time MMA fans or journalists who the three best welterweights in history have been, they would say Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes, and Robbie Lawler—probably in that order. Covington managed to dominate one of them, and then offensively make fun of another to cap off Saturday’s card. I’m sure if there was the right stage or purchase, he would’ve done an awkward Quebecois accent and offended French Canadians as well. UFC on ESPN 5 was ultimately the Colby Covington Show, where he fully realized his own gimmick and just tried to be as hurtful in the cage and offensive out of it as possible. He was like Morton Downey Jr. But, instead of filling a calabash bowl full of cigarette butts while making fun of prostitutes and Klansmen, he just had 510 attempted ‘significant strikes’—and mocked all of us.

In 20 years of watching MMA, it’s hard for me to think of a fight where – by and large – the populace wanted a particular fighter to lose more unanimously than Covington. This sport has always had its villains, but typically, they either have a constituency of faithful fans – like say, Tito Ortiz – or rather there is some ironic enjoyment of their exploits—like perhaps Bob Sapp. Covington is different, and it seems to be by design; he is universally hated and that’s just what he wants.

Covington dominated Lawler by every measure. He established his wrestling game from the opening round with four takedowns, but also showed a maturation of his striking game—out-striking a former teammate on the feet for 25 minutes. Eventually out-landing Lawler 201 to 82 in total strikes. And, we’re not talking about just any old 37-year-old, washed-up fighter here. Yes, Lawler is 37-years-old – and is now 1-4 over his last five fights – but he is still one of the most predatory strikers we’ve ever seen, with a particular penchant for violence. Covington displayed an elevated offensive striking game while toying with his ex-teammate at American Top Team, seemingly to make a point. And, we can all differently interpret what that point might be, but I think for most people, the overriding impression is that he is just an odious, hateful, arrogant person.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this. Without some deep psychoanalysis, we don’t know what early traumas or adverse situations made Colby Covington the way he is—and I suppose he would be the last person on the planet to disclose them. He’s always been a wild child. He lettered one year at Iowa Central Community College’s* wrestling program before being booted for disciplinary issues. He got hit with a fourth-degree assault charge, with a blood alcohol level of 0.255, over three times the legal limit. Like Alfred E. Neuman – “What, me worry?” – he just transferred closer to home, enrolled at Oregon State University, and won a Pac-10 wrestling title.

What is important about this is to realize two things: One, Colby Covington is not someone you would want to invite to a dinner party. But two, this is the reality of self-promotion that the modern era of the UFC has graced us with.

Colby Covington is someone that, if he was a middle manager at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, would bring his exact same loud, MAGA personality with him. However, he is a truly sensational athlete. It’s easy to try and dumb down his performance against Lawler as a fresher fighter beating up a washed up man. However, even though he put his wrestling on display early, he did most of his damage with remarkably improved stand-up—and out-struck him in every single round. He peppered Lawler with the jab, confused him with his takedown attempts, landed brutal uppercuts that would’ve dropped a lesser man, and immediately put the fight on his own terms. Covington may be incredibly hate-able, but there’s no way to deny that he’s an elite fighter.

Still, there’s also no way to ignore the flex. In MMA, we often malign the fact that fighters are too unwilling to take the pulpit and really say something. Covington has no such lack of conviction. In fact, he may have delivered the most despicable post-fight interview in UFC history, all while grinning his ass off.

Look, I will be the last person on this planet to defend Matt Hughes. Like I said previously, he is easily one of the three best welterweights ever and truly one of the greatest fighters ever. However, I’ve spent years begging people to read his autobiography Made in America, largely because I find it truly insane. I mean, you expect an accomplished athlete to just brag and celebrate their heights.

Matt Hughes, despite having a ghostwriter in Michael Malice – no pun intended, but very poetic indeed – had his innermost feeling come out when describing things like beating the hell out of his stepfather with his twin brother. He had an opportunity to paint himself as a great athlete, but was more consumed by painting himself as an absolutely violent, misogynistic sociopath. It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to publish this about themselves, but it’s even harder to believe that someone could find a way to top it. Colby Covington did it.

In 2019, you’d think it would be remarkably controversial enough to just shout out the Trump family for attending your fight, but that’s not good enough for Covington. His pro-wrestling style promo immediately afterward was infinitely more insane, and it’s incredible that Lawler – who has trained with Hughes for almost two decades – didn’t just rush him and bash his brains in.

“Robbie should have learned a lesson from his buddy Matt Hughes. You stay off the tracks when the train is coming through. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Trump train or the Colby train, stay out the way,” were Covington’s words.

Just over a year ago, Hughes was involved in a collision where his pickup truck was struck by a train, and suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result. Typically, this is not the kind of thing anyone would joke about. But, Colby Covington is not a typical person. Whether it’s by nature or by design, he portrays himself as purely malignant. He isn’t politically radical like Muhammad Ali, he’s not playfully annoying like Ben Askren. He acts like a man driven on hate, and I suppose it’s better that we have him in a cage than outside committing crimes.

Questioned about his statements after the bout, what, you think he’d back down? No, Covington is a double down kind of man.

“Did I say something that was offensive? The guy’s done some pretty crappy stuff. He’s got lawsuits against his family, against his brother. I just said the truth. I’m honest,” said the former UFC interim champ. “I’m a little bit brutally honest sometimes and people can’t handle it. If people are worried about words, but we go into the octagon to kill each other, don’t be so sensitive, snowflake”

It is intriguing that Covington invokes the ‘I’m just honest’ clause. It’s not disingenuous in any way. But as rational people, we learn pretty early on that total honesty is not a hospitable trait. Certainly, it’s condemnable to be a liar, but decent folks generally learn tactful ways to convey their thoughts and emotions while not attacking the character or circumstances of others. As I said, I don’t think Matt Hughes is necessarily someone who needs to be handled with kid gloves. I mean, the first time I interviewed him in person, he grinned at me and asked me where I was from. I said “Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.” He smirked and asked “And they let men wear shirts like that there?” Implication being that I was gay. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone should be mocked for traumatic brain injury.

Obviously, the next logical test is putting Covington against UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and seeing where the chips fall. But wherever his fighting future goes, the most important thing to remember is that this isn’t a game. Even in the world of the UFC stressing fighters to blow up on social media and develop sale-able gimmicks, sometimes they are who they appear. Colby Covington isn’t a gimmick. He truly, really, actually believes all of this, and has no compunction about saying anything that floats through his brain—or whatever soul he may have.

Combat sports breeds all kinds of strange bedfellows, some of whom we might not to want to share any space with. But Colby Covington has taken things to another level. That level is hate. And all of us snowflakes just gotta try to not melt over it.

*This article previously, incorrectly stated that Covington attended the University of Iowa.