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After all that, it turns out that Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White wasn’t kidding back at UFC 231 in December, when he said during a pre-fight media scrum that the company would “move on” from the promotion’s plan to book welterweight champion Tyron Woodley opposite Colby Covington.
Back then, White’s statement was interpreted primarily as a threat to “T-Wood,” who has long been the executive’s favorite punching bag in the media and was later the subject of baseless accusations about his willingness to defend his belt in the same interview. However, it was announced this week that Woodley would attempt to notch the fifth defense of his title at UFC 235 in March, opposite Kamaru Usman, the welterweight division’s resident boogeyman, who is currently riding a nine-fight winning streak under the UFC banner.
The odd man out turned out to be Covington, the man who talked himself into an interim title fight in June -- a fight he won on the scorecards, only to be hastily stripped a few months later when he couldn’t make an immediate turnaround to fight Woodley at UFC 228 in September. Despite repeatedly assuring fans and media that Covington was next in line for a “unification” bout of sorts after Darren Till tried and failed to usurp Woodley on short notice, the UFC did an about face at the eleventh hour, tapping Usman as the next challenger and ultimately prompting “Chaos” to request a release from his UFC contract in the most inflammatory terms possible.
The shafting of Covington is a fascinating case study in the UFC’s current approach to fight promotion and the underhanded and erratic politics increasingly prevalent in championship matchmaking.
In the first place, Covington’s shtick in the last few years, which is premised on courting as much controversy and notoriety as possible in interviews and through social media, has been interpreted by many -- including myself -- as a reaction to the UFC’s increasingly short-sighted and entertainment-centric approach to doing business. By labelling Brazilian fans “filthy animals,” tweeting out Star Wars spoilers and explicitly aligning himself with the politics of the current Commander and Chief, “Chaos” talked himself much closer to the center of relevancy than his wrestling-heavy fighting style ever did, eventually being rewarded with an interim title fight opposite Rafael dos Anjos and, following that, a trip to the White House to meet President Trump.
Covington and the UFC’s lowest-common-denominator approach to selling fights got him on the path to the undisputed title, but his inability to accommodate the UFC’s increasingly unsustainable event schedule saw his belt hastily stripped to make way for “The Gorilla” in September. His insistence that his employer keep its word after the fact and match him opposite Woodley when the champion was good and ready now seems to have irked the promotion into bypassing Covington a second time -- doubling as a message to other top-ranked fighters about their interchangeability.
None of this is meant to discredit Usman or to suggest that the “Nigerian Nightmare” isn’t a worthy title challenger. However, by every conceivable logic -- including the fact that the Usman’s last two Octagon conquests came against men that Covington had already beaten convincingly -- “Chaos” should get his shot first. He’s the No. 1-ranked contender, has already been the beneficiary of the UFC’s promotional machine, is the fan’s first choice as an opponent and is a guy who has legitimately gotten under Woodley’s skin. From a meritocratic and promotional standpoint, Covington was the obvious choice, and he has 13-ounces of gold that underscores that point.
The UFC’s willingness to depart from its plan A -- a course of action that serves neither the fans, fighter goodwill, its bottom line or the coherence of its product -- isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. However, Covington’s suggestion that the organization’s indebtedness to Usman’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, was a factor in the UFC’s decision-making is an explanation worth exploring, if only to give the promotion the benefit of the doubt regarding its willingness to sabotage itself for the sake of White’s ego.
Abdelaziz, who testified on the UFC’s behalf in a lawsuit last year to keep former heavyweight Mark Hunt’s contracts under seal, has a closer relationship to the organization’s brass than most managers in the industry and has secured some eyebrow-raising title shots for his clientele in the past. The notion that the UFC’s conduct may be in part motivated to keep him on its side -- especially as it attempts to get Khabib Nurmagomedov, the organization’s lightweight champion who calls Abdelaziz his brother and his agent, before the Nevada Athletic Commission and back into the Octagon -- isn’t totally outside the bounds of plausibility.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely that Covington will become a sympathetic figure as a result of the UFC’s mistreatment. His every move seems, after all, calculated to make as many people dislike him as possible, and a constant throughout this whole affair has been the hostility perpetuated by him, Woodley and Usman against one another. The UFC may have acted illogically and to the detriment of its brand, but history tells us that no one, least of all the fighters affected, can or will meaningfully work together to stop it.
What we’re left with is another exemplar in everything that’s wrong with MMA’s torchbearer: Disregard of the rankings and long-game promotional strategies, punitive decision making intended to oppress fighters and reinforce the power asymmetry between labor and capital, plausible allegations of a conflict of interest that will likely never be addressed and an event calendar that’s as untenable as it is unnecessary.
We’re barely a week into 2019, the year that’s supposedly meant to take the UFC to new heights on ESPN, and the promotion has already reminded us how little regard it has for its athletes, fans and its own promises. What an inauspicious start.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.