Generally speaking, after a fight, the tone between two mixed martial artists changes considerably. No matter how much vitriol was exchanged in the lead-up to the fight, a note of respect is usually struck at the post-fight press conference, when relief hangs so lightly in the air after the two have literally duked it out in front of thousands.
Not so with welterweight contender Colby Covington and former UFC champion Tyron Woodley, who finally fought on Saturday night after years of back-and-forth trash talk and near encounters. After Covington dominated the fight for four rounds, the referee stopped the onslaught early in the fifth and final round after Woodley cried out in pain from a broken rib. Covington, as he insisted he would, made the fight look easy.
And afterward Covington—sans his usual bright red Make America Great Again hat—said he was humbled by the call he’d received from President Donald Trump just moments before taking the podium. That humility was very short lived, though.
“I broke him,” he said of Woodley. “That third round, he quit. After I cut him open and I put vicious ground and pound (on him), he was done. He told his coaches he was done. He was just looking for a way out. He knew I trapped his arm and I was getting ready to put vicious ground and pound on him and finish him right there, but he just would rather take the easy way out. He would rather be a spineless coward like he is. He’s a woke little bitch, and he got exposed tonight.”
On Saturday night, Covington’s pressure-forward wrestling and relentless ground-and-pound rendered Woodley helpless. Covington’s oppressive style won yet again, raising his UFC record to 11-2. And now mixed martial arts’ great antagonist is once again within striking distance of a title shot against current champion Kamaru Usman, who beat him back in December.
But in a larger sense, the optics for Saturday night’s main event were emblematic of so much going on in America. It was the Florida-based white guy Covington, who attended a Trump rally a weekend before his fight, versus the Black former champion Woodley, who hails from none other than Ferguson, Missouri. The fight was brimming with subtext and larger meanings, and played out as if representative of everything going on outside.
Politics—that invasive species that so many fans want to keep out of sports—is right back in the heart of the UFC. So long as Covington is relevant, the welterweight division will be adorned with MAGA slogans, megaphones, and red, white, and blue bunting.
For the record, Trump did in fact call Covington shortly after the fight to congratulate him, right in the middle of an interview with ESPN’s Megan Olivi. Covington smiled from ear to ear as he answered the call and put the president on speakerphone to broadcast the effusive praise.
“You are a great fighter, man, I’ll tell you—you make it so easy,” Trump told Covington. “I don’t know how the hell you do that. Congratulations. I wanted to watch that fight tonight. I wanted to watch it. You were great.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. President, you gave me the drive and energy when you shook my hand on Sunday at your rally,” Covington said. “It doesn’t matter if King Kong was in front of me, I wasn’t going to lose after shaking your hand.”
“He’s a strong-looking guy, too, he’s a strong guy—he’s a great fighter who’s a champ, and that was relatively easy work for you. I’m proud of you, man,” Trump said. “I just made a big speech. I had 35,000 people. I said I got to get home now to watch Colby. [Laughs.] That was class work. He’s a good fighter, right? Did he give you much of a problem? What did you see, strong guy, right?”
The mutual appreciation between Covington and Trump is unlike anything MMA has known, even with UFC president Dana White’s endorsement of his longtime pal Trump at this year’s Republican National Convention.
And really, Covington’s a chip off the old block. When relaying the publicly aired conversation between him and the president at the press conference, Covington said that Trump left a rally of 36,000 people to watch him fight, a thousand more than Trump actually stated. Why exaggerate the number by a thousand? Because the truth is a Stretch Armstrong doll for any heel wrestler, who in this case just happens to actually love stirring the political pot as a way of distinguishing himself from the field. Covington finds the line of decency and he crosses it at will. He’s, very proudly, a paragon of poor taste.
He’s the same guy who called the whole of Brazil a bunch of “filthy animals” after fighting Demian Maia in São Paulo. The same one who made fun of UFC analyst and former middleweight champion Michael Bisping for not being able to see out of his one good eye, and who poured salt on Robbie Lawler’s wounds by dragging Lawler’s longtime friend Matt Hughes—who was hit by a train and sustained life-threatening injuries—into the trash talk.
“Let’s talk about the lesson we learned tonight,” Covington said after dominating Lawler. “It’s a strong lesson Robbie should have learned from his buddy Matt Hughes. You stay off the tracks when the train is coming through, junior. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Trump train or the Colby train, get out of the way!”
Covington’s shtick isn’t just to ruffle feathers or rile up the “snowflakes.” It’s just a little too persistent, a little too arrogant, and a little too on brand to even be considered a “shtick.” Early on there was a hint of Andy Kaufman in his act, mixed with his childhood hero of Ric Flair, but these days he fully embodies the spirit of the “ugly American,” whether that means making xenophobic remarks or taping himself shirtless (and in a MAGA hat) with four strippers, shouting out all the nerds and virgins. He’s forever willing to take things too far. He did so again on Saturday when speaking of the difference between him and Woodley.
“We’re always going to be divided,” he said. “He stands for everything I hate. He stands for evil. He stands for Black Lives Matter. I stand for America. I stand for dedicating this victory to all the law enforcement out there, all the military, all the people that put their lives on the line every day to protect our freedoms and to keep our community safe. He doesn’t stand up for that stuff. He hates that.”
Tone-deaf? He heard the president’s ringtone just fine. When Covington wins, it’s political. Same thing when he loses. When the Nigerian-born Usman beat him in their title fight at the end of 2019, it also felt poetic in its own way. Usman didn’t just punish his aggression and outwork Covington, he broke his jaw. That forever-flapping noisemaker was temporarily put out of service, which—for fans who’d grown tired of Covington’s political bent—carried an ounce of justice. Not anymore.
He rebounded by taking out Woodley, and that jaw is flapping again. This time he is calling out “Marty Fake Newsman,” as he calls Usman, pointing out the “fake nutshot” and “fake eye poke” that skewed the last meeting. He is calling out the “Street Judas,” Jorge Masvidal, whom he used to train with and now despises. He is calling out, indirectly, the “soy boy” Nate Diaz, who he says has CTE and is really just a tragic story hanging around the UFC for so long. Big-money fights with big-ranging platforms. He’s even calling out NBA stars.
“[Woodley’s] a spineless coward, just like LeBron James,” Covington said on Saturday night. On Sunday, after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, James seemed to have Covington in mind when he let up a volley of his own, referencing Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.
“You put that pressure on yourself and you don’t really care about what other people think,” he said. “What other people think doesn’t really matter, because they don’t understand. Anybody can talk from outside, but if they got into the ring or got into the arena, probably 10 times out of 10, they’d shit their pants.”
The UFC loves fighters that can draw attention to themselves in ways that help promote fights. If the president of the United States calls a fighter right after a win, that can’t hurt. Covington’s next fight will be a big one because—in a tension-filled election year during a tension-filled pandemic with such a gaping division between political parties—some people will want to see him win, and even more people will want to see him get his ass kicked. As a prizefighter, he’s banking on it. “Chaos,” after all, is Colby Covington’s nickname.
Nobody embraces hate quite like the UFC’s most polarizing contender.
Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias.