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Sometimes a Grudge Match Is Better Than a Title Fight

UFC 272’s blood feud between Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington doesn’t need a belt on the line, so long as there’s hatred in the air

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2019, Jorge Masvidal went from being an unsung veteran of the Octagon to Street Jesus in expensive tracksuits. Even better, he had the perfect antagonist. It wasn’t Darren Till, the welterweight he beat out in London to get things rolling that spring. Nor was it Leon Edwards, the guy he served the “three piece with the soda” to backstage just moments after beating Till. Those situations fed directly into the cult of Masvidal, but it was the man in the stands that turned him into Tony Montana.

That man was Ben Askren.

Askren had traveled to London’s O2 Arena to challenge Till to a fight, yet found himself forced to scramble when Masvidal pulled off the upset. Masvidal left London with his stock soaring, and Askren went into campaign mode. He told anyone who’d listen about how easily he handled Masvidal in the gym years earlier down in Florida. He said that, as a wrestler, he was a nightmare matchup for a striker like Masvidal and insinuated that Jorge would be smart to avoid him. He poked and poked and poked until Masvidal finally agreed to a fight. It turned out to be the smartest, most lucrative decision Masvidal ever made.

That fight, which took place at UFC 239, was so big that for the first time in company history the UFC made a swing bout on a pay-per-view card a featured part of the promo package—even though the two fights at the top, one of which included Jon Jones, were title fights. People knew Masvidal was pissed, just as they knew Askren remained smug and dismissive of Masvidal’s chances. That dynamic was exhilarating, and it was a major subplot for the event. The tension leading in was teeming with bad intentions, and they were almost exclusively coming from Masvidal’s corner. When the officials latched the Octagon doors behind them that night in Vegas, it was as if Askren was being locked in a tiger’s cage. You had the feeling something crazy was going to happen.

Which, of course, did happen.

The moment the fight began, Masvidal sprinted across the cage and anticipated Askren’s level change to catch him lunging in with a flying knee. Masvidal then followed up the fastest knockout in UFC history with a couple of big shots to Askren’s unconscious head that he deemed “super necessary” afterward. Why? Because Askren fucked with the wrong guy, that’s why. It was his way of saying to the world: “You see what happens?” The whole thing lasted five seconds, and Jorge Masvidal shot from being a cult hero to a full-fledged icon.

For the UFC, this was an epiphany. For Masvidal’s next bout, the UFC didn’t need to stick him in a title fight to sell a PPV. Instead, it booked him against Nate Diaz at UFC 244 in Madison Square Garden and invented a belt to crown the “Baddest Motherfucker” on their roster. The event did a $6.6 million gate, and then—after Masvidal battered another UFC cult hero for three rounds to force a doctor’s stoppage—The Rock, of all people, wrapped a symbolic belt around Masvidal’s waist. What was it symbolic of?

Don status. Attitude. The consequences of messing with the wrong guy. All the things the UFC could bottle up and repeatedly serve whenever Masvidal was booked into a fight. If Askren could tap into Masvidal’s most marketable asset—which was, don’t piss Jorge Masvidal off—what would happen if there was a fighter who Jorge hated 10 times more?

It turns out, there is. That man is Colby Covington, the man he’s finally facing this weekend at UFC 272.

There won’t be any kind of title on the line Saturday night, and—as the UFC has discovered over the years with megawatt grudge matches like Conor McGregor versus Nate Diaz—there doesn’t need to be. UFC 272’s main event is an old-fashioned “meet me at the bike rack after school” showdown. The stakes are very publicly personal, a kind of tabloid blood feud between highly ranked fighters who can’t stand each other. Covington and Masvidal used to be best friends and roommates back in the day when they both trained at American Top Team in Florida, where for almost a decade they were nearly inseparable. But that relationship has since deteriorated to the point that the laying of hands appears to be the only way forward.

The reasons for the fallout have been well documented all week through UFC promos and interviews. The story is that Covington stiffed an ATT-affiliated coach, Paulino Hernandez, out of some money after his fight with Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 225, and Masvidal took offense to that.

Words were exchanged on social media. Pretty soon there were rifts at the gym. Things intensified from there. Both were eventually kicked out of ATT, yet Masvidal—a loyalist who trained there long before Covington arrived— was let back in. There was natural skepticism about the sudden rivalry at first. Was there real animosity between them, or was this just two business-savvy two guys manufacturing a fight? After all, Dan Lambert—the founder of ATT and a self-confessed “pro wrestling nerd” who owns a collection of old belts— was the one caught between the sides. And both Masvidal and Covington have pro wrestling elements to them—Covington as an obnoxious, xenophobic heel, and Masvidal as a babyface gangster.

As time went on, it became (mostly) clear it wasn’t a work, though. Egos grew at the pace that the feud escalated. Things got too personal, like they did between Jones and his teammate Rashad Evans back in 2011, when 23-year-old Jones won the light heavyweight title filling in for the injured Evans and then had the audacity to say he’d be open to fighting his mentor. That time words like “betrayal” and “hurtful” were used in the buildup to their eventual fight at UFC 145. For this one, it’s words like “scumbag” and “fake-ass veneers” and “break that motherfucker’s face” that are being thrown around.

As with any juicy fight, there’s plenty of jealousy and resentment to be found in this rivalry. When Covington won the interim title against dos Anjos in 2018, it was something Masvidal wanted, and when Masvidal had one of the most meteoric rises of any fighter in UFC history back in 2019, it was something Covington coveted. Masvidal told stories of his father coming over from Cuba on a raft made of a tire to a national audience, while Covington doubled down on his Ugly American schtick on the media’s fringes. When he wasn’t calling Brazilians a bunch of “filthy animals,” he was spoiling just-released movies, referring to media members as nerds and virgins, and posing in the White House next to Donald Trump with his interim title.

All of it adds up to a lot of anticipation and one hell of a grudge match. These days people don’t just love to hate on Colby Covington; many genuinely despise him. Yet it’s Masvidal’s hatred toward his old training partner that matters most. If the UFC learned anything from the Masvidal-Askren fight, it was to treat Jorge’s vendettas as passcodes to the bank vault. People will pay to see him dish out a little comeuppance, because that’s what BMFs do. The UFC has learned it can put a premium price on Jorge’s Anger Meter and market the hell out of it when it ticks into the red.

If there’s a knock on Saturday’s headlining fight it’s that it’s happening two years too late. After he captured the BMF title and launched a new mezcal brand, Masvidal’s star was at the highest point of his career. And Covington, with Trump still in office, was traipsing around to press conferences in sunglasses and his bright red MAGA hat. Yet it wasn’t Covington who the now former president was fixated on. It was Masvidal. It was Masvidal that Trump referenced in his campaign speeches for reelection. It was Masvidal who was front and center at the rallies. It was Masvidal that Trump was referring to who beat the “young superstar” Ben Askren, even though Askren was just about to turn 35 at the time and in dire need of hip replacement surgery.

Given where they were in their careers in early 2020 and the bizarre “Trump loves me more” custody battle, a Masvidal-Covington fight would’ve been massive. They were both still central in the title picture, too. Since then, a few things have intervened to take away some of the heat. Namely, current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who beat both Covington and Masvidal twice in the last couple of years to take them out of the title mix, possibly for good. If Usman didn’t exist, Saturday’s fight would almost certainly be for a title. Covington hasn’t lost to anyone other than Usman since 2015, and Masvidal hasn’t lost to anybody other than Usman since 2017. This is a fight between high-profile contenders who share an unfortunate dilemma.

They can’t beat the champion.

But the next best thing is still available. One of the biggest current feuds in MMA needs to be settled. Masvidal can take some frustration out on Covington and rekindle a bit of that magic that launched him as a brand in 2019. The star has dimmed a bit, but it will shine brighter than ever if he pulls off anything close to what he did to Askren three years ago. And Covington has a chance to shut down his former bestie once and for all. For as insufferable as he’s been the past few years, you get the feeling that Covington is only getting started in the art of cringe. He has been a thorn in Masvidal’s side for a long time. He has poked and poked at Masvidal, referring to him as everything from “Street Judas” to a “deadbeat dad” to a “criminal.”

The last guy who poked at Masvidal like this got “baptized” in five seconds, to use the fighter’s own phrasing, and Masvidal is pissed off again. That’s good enough to headline a PPV. When Masvidal is out for blood, who needs a title fight?

Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias. He cohosts The Ringer MMA Show on Spotify.