Pre-Fight Thoughts: Kamaru Usman -vs- Colby Covington
The main event of UFC 245, a contest for the welterweight title, is one that carries a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the actual fight itself. On one side, you have Kamaru Usman, an extremely reserved fighter who has run roughshod through the 170-pound division since handily winning the 21st season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2015. The man himself is utterly uncontroversial, he just happens to be managed by one of the shadiest characters in MMA, Ali Abdelaziz. Considering the multitude of issues surrounding the past and present  of Abdelaziz, it's always difficult to root for anyone in his stable of fighters — regardless of how talented they may be.
On the other hand, we have Colby Covington, who has been desperately trying to market himself as an edgy and controversial personality, in a misguided attempt to distinguish himself from the large pack of interchangeable wrestle-boxers that is the hallmark of the welterweight division. This has been a ... tedious experiment to watch unfold, as Covington has managed to come off as crass and annoying, channeling his inner C-level independent pro wrestler in delivering a litany of stilted, embarrassing promos and has embraced the Trump / MAGA brand fully.
Look, I understand that this is MMA, it's combat — fighters are going to say mean things. What I object to, in the case of Colby, is how graceless and crude he is about the whole thing. We've already seen the construction of an off-ramp in progress, as media have tried to give us both sides of the Covington character. Apparently flirting with racism and all the acrimony associated with the MAGA movement is all well and fine since Colby is actually, allegedly, a good person simply trying to keep his job.
I don't know about you, but what someone is willing to do for money is a good indicator of who they really are. "I just play a racist on TV" doesn't absolve so much as explain, and I find this sort of distinction to be one without a tangible difference. I didn't appreciate Chael Sonnen's xenophobia, but at least he had the small courtesy to deliver his shtick in a B-grade Billy Graham impression, and knew when to bring out the hyperbole (Anderson Silva) and when to keep things strictly business (Brian Stann). Colby is a one-trick pony with no concept of nuance and barely seems like he believes what he is saying.
The only thing worse than an asshole is a try-hard asshole.
All of that aside, the most frustrating aspect of Colby's gimmick is that it almost completely obscures his legitimate talents as a fighter. Loathe as I am to admit it, Covington is very good at what he does, and has shown marked improvement from fight-to-fight. Covington went from losing the striking exchanges with Demian Maia (!!!) to shutting down and completely routing Robbie Lawler, one of the sport's most dangerous wrestle-boxers in his own right. Objectively speaking, Covington is the goods. His personality makes it easy to wish it wasn't the case, but Covington is a deserving contender. If MMA were anything ressembling a meritocracy, he would have fought for the undisputed title — and not had his interim belt removed like a glitch in the Matrix — a year ago.
This fight, however, is a very unique test for Colby. Throughout his rise through the welterweight rankings, Covington has been able to throw a ridiculous volume of strikes because there was no fear of the takedown from his opponents. Colby either possessed better wrestling than his opponents or they weren't the sort to shoot for takedowns anyway, but all of that changes with Kamaru Usman. Both fighters have a lot of similar attributes, although they are far from mirror images of each other. The chief similarity is that both implement stifling, demoralising wrestling attacks; when they start grappling, their opponents wither under a relentless series of takedowns and smothering top control.
Where Usman and Covington differ is that Usman throws a lot less striking volume (by comparison, he's still very active) and uses the clinch to further shut his opponents down. Covington spams boxing, minimal power with maximum speed and volume, and mixes it up with double-legs and submission attempts once he gets people down. While neither has faced much successful opposition to their wrestling, Usman did rout Tyron Woodley when he won the title. Woodley and Covington are as dissimilar as fighters get, but the former's wrestling — along with every other facet of his game — was completely shutdown. It doesn't mean a lot, but it is at least some information.
Covington's high striking output will likely suffer due to Usman's takedown threat. I also think he will cede a strength advantage to "The Nigerian Nightmare," so he's going to need to avoid clinching whenever possible. I am genuinely curious if Covington can apply his usual game to Usman, who has thus far looked unstoppable. There is, of course, a first time for everything, but I just don't know if Covington has the tools to derail Usman. Either way, this should be a close fight; someone might start to wane later in the fight, but I don't see a one-sided victory regardless of the eventual winner — that would issue a statement of epic proportions were it to happen.
I have to go with Kamaru Usman in this fight, but I will say this pick was harder than I thought it would be. As unlikable as Colby Covington's entire shtick has been, none of that matters when the cage door closes. Covington earned his title shot, he did it a long time ago. He has become a very well-rounded fighter, consistently improving and racking up wins that get more and more impressive than the last. Expecting Usman to just run through Covington is misguided, these are both very talented athletes who represent the very highest level of welterweight talent. Likewise, if you think Covington is going to handily dispatch a dominant force like Usman, that's equally absurd.
Usman via decision is my pick.
Published: December 14th, 2019.