UFC: The (Fight) Business

Last Saturday evening saw Colby Covington handily dispatch Robbie Lawler over 5 rather decisive rounds in the UFC Welterweight Division. Covington, as expected, came out of the gates fast with his suffocating pressure and succeeded in breaking down Lawler with his wrestling. After a steady first 2 rounds of wearing down the former undisputed Welterweight king, the Californian abandoned his grappling to indulge in a kickboxing match, in which he also looked convincing. Ultimately the pressure was just too much for Robbie Lawler, who looked puzzled and hesitant the entire night. Congratulations must be given to Covington, who according to UFC President, Dana White, will now receive the next title shot at reigning champ, Kamaru Usman.

Colby Covington beat Robbie Lawler from pillar to post last Saturday evening to set up a title match with Champion, Kamaru Usman. [Photo Credits: Vincent Carchietta @ USA TODAY Sports]

Immediately following the fight, Covington wasted no time in calling out the champion, in what was a clearly rehearsed speech which unfortunately he stumbled through due to presumably a mixture of adrenaline, as well as a general lack of finesse. During the tirade, Covington went as far as to mock Lawler’s long-time friend and mentor, Matt Hughes.

“Let’s talk about the lesson we learned tonight. It’s a strong lesson Robbie should have learned a lesson 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 the way!”

Matt Hughes, who is a respected member of the UFC’s Hall of Fame was involved in a serious accident a few years ago when his car was struck by an oncoming train. The experience was almost fatal and Hughes is still recovering from the catastrophic accident. Many clearly felt that Covington was crossing the line with this comment. Even Covington’s long time training partner and #3 ranked Welterweight contender, Jorge Masvidal, who is no stranger to controversy, called the comments “Super distasteful,” and “not even remotely funny.” However, now that the dust has settled from what was an interesting, but not especially memorable evening of fights, Covington’s name remains in the headlines. This is not the first such outburst from the top contender. When fighting Brazilian legend, Demian Maia in Rio in 2017, Covington took to the microphone after his decision victory to quickly declare Brazil a “dump” and call its citizens “filthy animals,” comments which the UFC translator very wisely chose not to interpret to the crowd, who had seemingly more or less understood the barbs and were reaching fever pitch. Were such disrespectful and tactless comments repeated in Portuguese, we may have seen a full-scale riot in Rio.

Another of Covington’s must polarising antics has been a strange relationship with US President, Donald Trump. Colby can often be seen parading through press conferences sporting the infamous “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap, and frequently states his intentions to “Make the Welterweight Division Great Again.” Naturally, this increases notoriety around the contender, which is also precisely why he does it. As expected, reporters frequently try to engage Covington on politics during interviews, to which he tends to reply with vague comments or simply let’s “Make America Great Again.” Thus, Covington does not seem like an exceptionally politically minded character. In fact, it recently was uncovered that not only did Covington not vote for Trump in 2016, he was not even registered to vote at all. He does not seem particularly interested in politics and it appears like he only takes advantage of Trump to garner hype and publicity for his own brand, to intentionally antagonise people, to have his name in the headlines and ultimately to bolster his fighting career. And it works!

Covington managed to meet Donald Trump in the Oval Office, but whether he is as firm a fan of the President as he claims remains a mystery. [Photo Credits @ USA TODAY Sports]

Despite being heavy-handed, obnoxious, a little cringe, and clearly not a natural behind the microphone, what is sad is that Covington is actually doing everything he needs to be doing to get ahead in a stacked, highly competitive division. His fighting style, which relies on his unbelievable cardio and offensive wrestling is very impressive, but it is not the most entertaining to casual fans in the sports bar. When Jorge Masvidal knocked out Ben Askren with a flying knee in 5 seconds last month, the clip was shared millions of times online. It was even the number 1 post on Reddit. On the contrary, very few people are sharing the 25 minutes of pressure Covington put on Lawler last Saturday evening. What they are sharing, however, is the post-fight interview.

Jorge Masvidal’s 5 second KO of Ben Askren in July was seen around the world. [Credits @ Giphy.com]

In the modern UFC, to have success you need to be either an extremely flashy fighter, or someone who is magic on the microphone. Ideally both. This is how Conor McGregor shot to such meteoric fame, but with his performances waning recently, the trash talk to support it becomes more and more trite and tired. Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping were also both accomplished Middleweights who managed to talk themselves into great opportunities. When Jorge Masvidal viciously knocked out Darren Till to silence the home-crowd in London this past March, he gained a great deal of publicity. However, what garnered even more hype was his backstage brawl with #4 Welterweight contender, Leon Edwards after the event. Fortunately for Till, Masvidal’s post-fight escapades ended up stealing some of the spectacle from his horrific knockout loss. This further proves the point that the UFC, despite being the clear-cut number one in Mixed Martial Arts, is above all a business, and anything that gets clicks and shares will be rewarded handsomely.

Leon Edwards, despite being on an 8 fight winning streak, including big wins over top contenders such as Rafael Dos Anjos and Donald Cerrone, is a man of few words. Interestingly, his performances are rather similar to those of Covington’s. Both men look to take the centre of the Octagon and smother their opponents and both do it quite brilliantly. The lone (very significant) difference is that Covington’s persona means he will get the next chance to compete for the belt, and Edwards will continually be fed to the wolves. This is not the first time brash behaviour has been rewarded by UFC boss, Dana White. Prior to UFC 223 last April, Irish superstar, Conor McGregor managed to slip backstage during a press conference to throw a dolly through the UFC tour bus window, in an attempt to rile up the Champion and fierce rival, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Whilst McGregor was arrested and his actions were condemmed by White, who pronounced it “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company,” when the UFC eventually set up the bout between McGregor and Nurmagomedov, footage of the infamous bus incident was used extensively throughout the marketing and publicity for said fight. This also caused controversy as many argued that long time top contender, Tony Ferguson was next in line for the title shot, and that the UFC matchmakers opted for McGregor simply because of his star power rather than merit. Therefore, despite apparently not condoning the thuggery of McGregor, the UFC took full advantage and clearly profited greatly from it as the Pay Per View became the highest grossing in company history.

Conor McGregor’s antics saw him behind bars, but also served to sell more PPVs than any other UFC event. [Photo Credits: Julio Cortez @ AP]

The UFC, therefore, is seemingly following more and more in the footsteps of Professional Wrestling, a sport in which the WWE has reigned supreme for decades. This was exceptionally evident on Saturday evening, with Covington walking out to the iconic entrance music of former WWE Champion, Kurt Angle, to a chorus of jeers and boos. The concept of a “face” and “heel” performer were truly perfected within the WWE. To prove this point, take a look the biggest Professional Wrestling star of all time, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson showed up on the Pro Wrestling circuit a very talented young wrestler with great technique and a family history in the sport. However, nobody really cared. It was not until “Rocky” decided to “break bad” and embrace his new persona “The Rock” that he became the company’s biggest star. He insulted each and every athlete on the roster, proclaimed himself the best to ever do it, and would have no problem walking into any city to immediately declare himself too good for it (in the 3rd person of course). The result? Dwayne Johnson is not only one of the most successful and popular Pro Wrestlers of all time, he is also now one of the biggest movie-astars on the planet. More or less every “heel” turn that you see these days in WWE or indeed now in the UFC is based off the clear path to success paved by “The Rock.” However, whilst many have tried to copy his signature style, many have equally learned that it is easier said than done.

The Rock was a pioneer for trash-talking, however, his style has proven very hard to emulate. [Photo Credits @ WWE.com]

In boxing, Muhammed Ali was also known as a fighter not afraid to discuss his political opinions. His status as a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War saw him exiled from the sport in which he was the biggest star and even resulted in his prosecution by the United States government. Equally, in a more lighthearted aspect of his character, Muhammed Ali was also notorious for his trash-talk as well as his ability to hype himself, and his performances in press conferences were almost as legendary as his performances within the ring. This shows that there is a time and a place for controversy within combat sports, but also highlights that not every athlete is able to harness these abilties correctly. To be fair to current competitors, how are they supposed to compete with the turns of phrases Ali dreamed up?

“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”  

Ali in the build up to the infamous Rumble in the Jungle bout with George Foreman.

With the numbers for the WWE slowing in the past 10 years, the UFC took full advantage and tried to capture the waning interest of disillusioned WWE fans. Professional wrestling is scripted entertainment which essentially is a long-running soap opera where all the “characters” just happen to be wrestlers. The myth that professional wrestling is “fake” is not true, as any performer who has been thrown through a wooden table could attest to, however, it is pre-determined. Storylines come and go, and Chairman, Vince McMahon, will wisely capitalise on the surging success of any star by putting them in the biggest events. On the other hand, Mixed Martial Arts is not scripted. As much as President, Dana White would love for his flashiest and loudest stars to win every bout, and may even at times attempt to feed rising stars favourable matchups, when the cage doors of the Octagon lock shut, White can only watch his golden geese in horror and in hope.

Unlike in the WWE, The UFC President is unable to ensure the outcome of bouts. [Image Credits @ Getty]

“That’s not what sells.”

In a video doing the rounds last week, Covington can be seen giving what appears to be sincere advice to a young fan. His trademark MAGA hat is nowhere to be seen, he speaks quite softly and honestly, and it is difficult to believe that this is the same character we had seen slandering an entire nation in Brazil, or ridiculing “nerds” online. When the fan candidly, and somewhat bravely, informs Covington that this humble side of him is much more likeable, the top contender solemnly replies, “that’s not what sells.” He seems almost sad to admit this truth, yet by Covington clearly is aware of how the system works, and is choosing to take the express route to the top. Historically, the goal of the UFC was to find the absolute best martial artist on the planet, but as the business grows that is no longer enough. Whilst there have been soft-spoken mega-stars in the past, such as Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, both men had a unanimous, die-hard following from Canada and Brazil respectively, meaning their numbers (and subsequently their inherent worth to the company) would be there regardless. For an elite American grappler such as Covington, the UFC demands more.

Ultimately, despite coming across as something of a crass, obnoxious, and at times deplorable character, it can be argued that Covington is merely playing a part – albeit often rather poorly executed – to further his career and to survive in the ever-changing landscape of MMA. Covington is not the first fighter to integrate politics into fighting, although his bizarre, quasi-friendship with the Trump family can hardly be compared to Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Dana White, infamous for being a cut-throat businessman, who will do anything to protect the company which he essentially built, therefore Covington’s tactics, whilst often heavy-handed and mismanaged, are in fact protecting him. By taking every opportunity to jump on the microphone or taking to Twitter to insult or berate other competitors, Colby has essentially taken out an insurance policy on himself. Should he lose his next fight to Kamaru Usman, he has artificially created several interesting “storylines” which White and the UFC will look to take advantage of. It is important that all fighters maximise profits as in such a violent sport, careers do not last forever, yet the injuries and battle scars certainly do. Fans are tuning in either to watch Covington win, or to see him be viciously knocked out. Either way, the UFC is happy. Ultimately, for a business founded on the tagline “As Real As It Gets,” the UFC is becoming increasingly artificial.

Featured Image courtesy of Esther Lin @ MMA Fighting

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