Colby Covington Loves Being the Enemy (and Wearing That Hat)

Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated

It takes a certain kind of ... courage? audacity? sadism? ... to enter to fight inside a steel contraption and match skill and will with an opponent. It also takes certain type of ... courage? audacity? sadism? …to walk around Manhattan wearing a scarlet “Make American Great Again” hat. On Saturday night, Colby Covington will face Robbie Lawler in Newark, the welterweight fight headlining the UFC on ESPN 5 card. In the days prior, Covington promoted the show by making the rounds in New York, with his no-holds-barred persona on full display.

And that includes his political leanings. For all the contemporary athletes who have expressed their full-throated dismay with the sitting president and his policies, here’s a rare bit of public counterprogramming.  

(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

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Q: Tell me about the hat.

Covington: I got a lot of support for [President Donald] Trump. I went to the White House and hung out with him in the Oval Office.

Q: What was that like?

Covington: Awesome. Dude, Trump is completely different in person. He’s just like you and me, a stand-up regular guy. It’s not about politics. Just personable and telling stories. Like how he did a hair-versus-hair match in pro wrestling with Vince McMahon. And talking about how he loves MMA and supports me. Actually I’m going to have the first family front row this weekend, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump will be at the fight.

Q: We’ve heard of athletes protesting Trump and taking a knee. We haven’t heard a lot of athletes walking around supporting Trump, wearing a MAGA cap. What has this been like?

Covington: Different for sure. [Just now] in the studio, a guy was giving me s---. I was like, “I wouldn’t give you s--- for having an opposite hat.’ You’re free to believe what you want to believe. It doesn’t mean we have to have beef. We can be cool. We’re both Americans and we should be both be proud to be Americans.

Q: You wear that to a weigh-in or backstage, other fighters—

Covington: They hate it. They hate him so they try to talk trash to me. But he’s a winner just like me. Some people are addicted to drugs, some people are addicted to sex. Me and Trump, we are addicted to winning. That’s our drug of choice.

Q: You connected to him when you met—

Covington: Yeah, just a down-to-earth father-type guy when we met. He was so humble. Honestly I’ve never met anyone so humble. Not like he was the president of the free world; just like he was a regular person.

Q: Does he know MMA?

Covington: Yeah, he knows it big. He was talking, ‘Oh when [Daniel] Cormier fought. Great fight.’  He used to host fights, early MMA fights, at his hotels in Atlantic City. And he was a part owner of Affliction. So he’s a big MMA supporter.

Q: Last week there were two boxing deaths. Does that impact you?

Covington: Nah. Boxing is so different from MMA. With the bigger gloves in boxing, and they way they spar in boxing—four, five times a week—they probably already have a little blood draining to the brain. MMA is not like that. And the little gloves are way safer.

Q: And you don’t have repeated, concussive—

Covington: Right and we train smarter. I’ve been in boxing gyms and those guys train hard, five days a week. We realize you’re not going to arrive a fight healthy training like that.

Q: Are the politics of angling for fights fun?

Covington: Definintely. I started at middleweight and I think I can make lightweight, too. I feel I can be a three-division champion. 

Q: You talk to Dana about that?

Covington: Of course. I told him I want fights at lightweight and middleweight. I want to fight Khabib [Nurmagomedov], I want to fight [Robert] Whitaker.

Q. Compare the high of winning to the low of losing.

Covington: Sport of extremes. I had one loss in my career but I went in with a fractured rib and was just doing it because I don’t know how to pull out of a fight. That loss has fueled me. Keeps me up at night and wakes me up at 6:00 a.m. and lights a fire under my ass. When you lose no one wants to talk to you. You won’t get one text message. When you win, you get 500 texts and everyone is your best friend. I had a high school teacher asking for money.

Q: Seriously?

A: ‘Good win. Listen it’s tough out here. Can I borrow like five grand. I gotta pay rent and taxes?’

Q: What did you tell him?

A: I can’t do that. I have to help myself and family first.

Q: How do you prepare for fights?

Covington: Training and getting better at each aspect of MMA. But also living a good healthy lifestyle. That’s what most guys don’t understand. They only train for their fights. When they’re not training they are eating crappy food at McDonald’s and drinking a bunch of beer. That’s why they’re not champions.

Q: You seem to like selling fights.

Covington: I enjoy it. The art of selling fights and promoting fights. This is what fans pay their hard-earned money for. They go to their dead-end broke jobs and come to these fights to be entertained. So I want to entertain them and put on a show for them. 

Q. What’s your level of beef with Robbie Lawler?

Covington: Not as high as it would be with Kamaru Usman or Tyron Woodley. But there’s still beef because he left our gym, American Top Team. He turned his back on us. I helped him when he was beating everybody. And he didn’t want to help.

Q. You need that? You need that friction?

Covington: I think I rise to the occasion under any circumstance. But I think, yeah, when there’s someone you really want to punch in the face, that makes it that much easier. 

Q. Your last three fights were in Singapore, Brazil and Chicago. Do you care where you fight?

Covington: I’m American. I’m America’s champion. I want to fight in America and the most iconic arenas. MSG in November only makes sense, to unifying my title. And I want to fight in Vegas, fight capital of the world. 

Q: If this goes according to plan, how do the next six months go?

Covington: I’m going to fight Marty “Fake” Usman. That’s the guy who has the No.1 contender Power Ranger belt right now. We’re going to fight on Nov. 2 at MSG and I’m going to unify my title with his fake title. His is a paper title.

Q: Why’s it fake?

Covington: He didn’t earn it like I did. He had his manager push him to the head of the line. I beat all the best guys. He beat them after I did. He’s beaten my sloppy seconds, the guys I left for dead, whose souls were already taken. It’s fake. Trust me. 

Q. When other fighters see something like Jorge Masvidal’s knockout of Ben Askren does that inspire you to try new things?

Covington: It definitely gives you energy and pumps guys up. But by the same token when you try that stuff, it puts you at risk. It’s reckless. You have to get your hand raised. There’s a reason why [Masvidal] is only a two-fight streak. 

Q: You mean the fundamentals—

Covington: Yeah, stick to the basics. That showboating stuff? Stick with what you know. Don’t show off to the crowd….It’s like a Hail Mary in a football game. It landed, but nine times out of 10 it’s not gonna. And you’re going to be on your back in a bad position. You don’t want to put yourself in bad positions in fights.

Q: What’s your take on Ben Askren, an outspoken guy who took a bad loss—

Covington: Two bad losses. I think he needs to go back to being his little science school teacher. He doesn’t need to be fighting anymore. He got his brain scrambled and he probably doesn’t need to be fighting any more.

Q: So first 10 seconds from you Saturday night, we’re probably not going to be seeing any flying knees. 

Covington: No, but you’re going to see crazy stuff from second one. High octane. High energy. High pace. It’s going to be a show.

Q: There you go again. Where did you get this ability not just to fight but to sell a fight?

Covington: Probably pro wrestling. They were selling pay-per-views back in the day. Everyone wanted to see, like Ric Flair, jet-flying, limousine-riding, wheelin’ dealin’ son a gun. That’s the power of the promo. That’s what people want. They don’t just want fights. They want to be entertained year-round. They want to open their Instagram. They hate you or love but they’re getting emotion out of you. And that’s what they want. 

Q: You don’t mind being the heel?

Covington: I don’t mind. I love it. ‘I hope you die, Colby!’ You know what? If I’m therapy for you, I’m happy with that. I don’t take it personal. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. You’re my silent fan, whether you want to admit it or not. You’re tuning in because you love me and want to see me win; or you hate me and want to see me get knocked out. But you’re not in the middle. You’re tuning in. And that’s money.

Q: You read the comments and the replies?

Covington: Never.

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