Colby Covington's MAGA shtick is working, but at what cost?

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Colby Covington poses on stage during the UFC 245 press conference at the Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 2019 in New York. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Colby Covington poses on stage during the UFC 245 press conference at the Hulu Theatre at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 1, 2019 in New York. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The fight ended in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 28, 2017, with Demian Maia on all fours, the center of the Octagon covered with a pool of his blood. Blood leaked from every facial orifice as Maia took a deep breath and struggled to get to his feet after absorbing a brutal beating over three rounds.

As Maia attempted to compose himself, Colby Covingtonthe man who’d beaten him into a bloody pulp, strutted around the cage shouting angrily at the fans who were roundly booing him.

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UFC fighter Daniel Cormier was working the Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew that night and climbed into the ring to interview Covington after the unanimous decision victory. Cormier asked why he'd wanted to fight Maia and if the fight had gone as he’d planned.

The response left Cormier, a noted pro wrestling fan, with a grin across his face.

“I should have knocked him out,” Covington shouted as the boos intensified. “Brazil, you’re a dump. All of you filthy animals suck. I got one thing to say: Tyron Woodley, I’m coming for you. If you don’t answer the front door, I’m going to knock it in and take what’s mine.”

And with that, Covington morphed from an elite fighter on the cusp of a championship shot into a bona fide pro wrestling heel. He didn’t walk to his dressing room after that. Surrounded by his team and event security, the entourage sprinted to the safety of the dressing room as the crowd roared, hurling epithets and throwing things as Covington and his crew made their way to safety.

Covington will get his title shot on Saturday in the main event of UFC 245 when he challenges Kamaru Usman inside the much safer confines of T-Mobile Arena, where he’s far less likely to be assaulted or receive death threats from fans like in Brazil. 

But 26 months later, he’s as big of a heel as the Iron Sheik was in the early 1980s, when he played an Iranian bad guy in what was then known as the WWF not long after Iranian terrorists took American diplomats hostage in 1979 and held them for more than a year. The Iron Sheik would grab the microphone from the ring announcer and yell, “Iran No. 1!” Then, he’d say “USA” and spit on the ground. 

The crowd went wild.

Colby Covington celebrates after defeating Demian Maia inside the Ibirapuera Gymnasium on Oct. 28, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Colby Covington celebrates after defeating Demian Maia inside the Ibirapuera Gymnasium on Oct. 28, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

After the Maia fight, Covington had an awakening. He recognized the power of being able to use interviews in front of crowds to raise his profile. Chael Sonnen had famously done it. So, too, had Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey and a number of other fighters.

Covington created a character. He donned a red MAGA hat, proclaimed his allegiance to President Donald Trump, ripped his peers in very personal ways and created an outlandish character.

In response to a fan question during a public appearance Wednesday at the MGM Grand about what he’d do in his last 24 hours if he knew for sure the Earth would end, Covington said he’d work on “my bedroom cardio.” Referring to former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Covington said, “The only thing worse than being on the Clintons’ hit list is being on my hit list.”

The host, Megan Olivi, laughed nervously. The crowd had a mixed response, but a large number laughed.

He’s played the character so well, he got an invitation to the White House and met President Trump in the Oval Office. Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, attended his fight in New Jersey against Robbie Lawler. And the President has tweeted to him and encouraged him to fight hard.

When he appeared at what the UFC called its “Athlete Panel” on Wednesday with Alex Volkanovski and Germaine de Randamie, the other challengers in the three title fights that will headline UFC 245, he wore an orange suit that he said was in homage to the late pro wrestling champion Nick Bockwinkel.

As Olivi asked questions of Volkanovski and de Randamie, Covington pretended he was reading Trump Jr.’s new book, “Triggered.” He also had a “Trump 2020” cap on his knee.

Olivi knew it was an act. So, too, did Volkanovski and de Randamie. As did the media and the fans who turned out.

Covington knew they knew, but he persisted. Earlier this month, he admitted to conservative commentator Candace Owens that his persona is an act he contrived to gain more popularity.

Those who know him say he’s nothing like the character he plays. Yet he persists in demeaning women, accusing fighters like Usman of using performance enhancing drugs and ripping just about everyone he comes into contact with. He referred to UFC president Dana White on Wednesday as “Uncle Fester,” and said he wouldn’t allow White to wrap the UFC title belt around his waist on Saturday. He said he wanted Owens to do the honors if he wins.

Covington called lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov “Kabob” and referred to his one-time friend Jorge Masvidal, who has recently acquired the nickname “Street Jesus,” as “Street Judas.”

(L-R) Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington face off during the UFC 245 Ultimate Media Day at the Red Rock Casino Resort on Dec. 12, 2019 in Las Vegas. (Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
(L-R) Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington face off during the UFC 245 Ultimate Media Day at the Red Rock Casino Resort on Dec. 12, 2019 in Las Vegas. (Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Usman said he once confronted Covington backstage at a UFC event about some of his comments but that Covington refused to look in his direction. Several UFC personnel confirmed that.

He is legitimately correct to worry about his safety. The UFC wouldn’t even think of putting him in a fight in Brazil now. He and Usman nearly got into a brawl at a Las Vegas casino buffet. Several fighters confronted him at UFC 241 in Anaheim, California, for things he’d said about them, and his response was to ask for his seat to be moved.

It’s worked — he wanted attention believing attention would bring him money — but at what cost?

Pro wrestlers are clearly actors, and the public is in on the joke. MMA is not a scripted event, but Covington plays a scripted character. 

He’s lost the respect of many, particularly his peers for the way he’s changed but also for admitting to Owens his MAGA fan supporter is just a shtick.

“If you’re going to put on an act, you’ve got to stay with the act,” UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway said during his time at the UFC’s athlete panel. “When you retire, like WWE guys, they come out, and they do their stuff, and they keep their act no matter where they’re at. Then they retire and go, ‘It was an act.’ So I’m kind of surprised he just kind of came out of nowhere and said that. It got me shook up.”

Covington has repeatedly had arenas chanting, “Colby sucks,” which is the best proof that what he’s done has worked.

Usman, though, said he sees through it.

“If you’re putting on an act, you’ve got to sell it,” Usman said. “That’s your [thing]. You’ve got to sell that. That’s [him showing] weakness already. He’s already finding ... a way out: ‘Once I get beat up on Saturday, don’t hate me because I was just putting on an act because they were going to cut me.’ That’s what this is.”

Other fighters have noticed. He’s going to make more as a result of the notoriety he gained by intentionally attempting to rile people up. Whether any of them will lower themselves to try what he’s done remains to be seen.

For now, Covington resides on an island of one, where he seems pretty content to be.

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