The Great Divide: Whose problem is it when Colby Covington crosses the line?
The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
There’s no questioning that Colby Covington made a major statement on Saturday. The former interim UFC welterweight champion out-struck, out-wrestled, and outworked former undisputed champion Tyron Woodley before forcing Woodley to bow out with a rib injury in the fifth round. It was a conclusive end to one of MMA’s hottest feuds.
However, Covington’s post-fight comments created just as much of a stir as his performance. He called Woodley a Marxist, attacked the Black Lives Matter movement, and then threw some racially charged insults at rival Kamaru Usman.
Is Covington at risk of alienating fans by pushing a political agenda as he continues to dominate in the cage? MMA Fighting’s Steven Marrocco and Alexander K. Lee are in agreement that Covington is drifting into dangerous waters with his rhetoric, and in this edition of The Great Divide, we discuss who should intervene before it gets worse.
IT’S TIME FOR THE BOSSES TO STEP IN
Marrocco: The conventional logic is that if UFC cares about its long-term interests, they should very much draw the line for Colby. Free speech isn’t entirely free in the workplace, even if you’re a cage fighter, and there’s only so long you can hang your hat on “fighters say mean things” before you wind up with a self-inflicted wound.
Covington’s increasingly extreme rhetoric also has me wondering if the promotion hasn’t already made some grim business calculation and decided it’s OK with alienating a certain portion of its audience, or that any public flogging it might receive over its silence comes in second to business as usual. I certainly hope that’s not the case, though in the age of guaranteed revenue from ESPN, and a significant uptick in business courtesy of the pandemic, I could see why some of the traditional incentives might be pushed to the backburner.
The question is this: Does the UFC really want to be a sport that appeals to everyone? Bigger than soccer? Does it want the biggest potential audience, and the biggest blue-chip advertisers? If so, it has to step in at some point. Fighters do say mean things, but the promotion can’t be seen to implicitly encourage said things by doing nothing in response. Eventually, someone somewhere in a C-suite might decide not to do business with you, and then you could have a real problem.
As with so many decisions involving the UFC and public perception, actions the promotion takes or doesn’t take are based on expediency and relationships over ethics. So if it values it’s business partnership with ESPN, a publicly traded media conglomerate and home to Mickey, it should not leave the network to be the adult in the room when an athlete uses its platform for racist language.
Racism, xenophobia, and homophobia have lurked in the UFC—and the fight game at large—long before Covington ditched his singlet and stepped into the octagon. That’s why, in the FOX era, the promotion followed other big leagues and implemented a Code of Conduct. After several high-profile gaffes, the UFC set standards for athletes’ behavior. If the promotion never stopped fighters “from expressing how they feel about certain things inside or outside the octagon,” why did it go to the trouble of doing all that?
Sure, a lot of the policy was overreaching and kind of silly, and over time, fans figured out the UFC wasn’t serious about applying it fairly. They suspended Nate Diaz for using a homophobic slur, Matt Mitrione for a transphobic rant, and Jon Jones for a positive cocaine test. But Conor McGregor attacked a bus and called Floyd Mayweather “boy” and tweeted an anti-Muslim slur to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wife, and he faced no penalties. Did buy rates go down?
Maybe that’s why we’ve reached this point. In a sport where insults are currency, we have Covington, an avatar for the MAGA movement, using all the dog whistles and buzzwords and inching closer and closer to a slur there will be no defensible explanation for. And while the numbers are reportedly going up, ESPN appears to be taking notice.
I think we saw a small indication that words do matter and Covington crossed the line this past Saturday. If he hadn’t, I doubt ESPN would have yanked the clip of his interview where, after receiving a phone call from President Donald Trump, he taunted Nigerian-born champ Kamaru Usman, saying, “Did you get a call from freaking your little tribe? Did they give you some smoke signals for you?”
I don’t have any firsthand evidence of this, but I’m guessing the adults in the room at ESPN thought it unbefitting to re-broadcast racist language on a major sports network. I’m pretty sure they also intervened five months ago when the UFC wanted to promote UFC 249 at a casino on tribal land at the height of a global pandemic. It’s probably naive to attribute the decisions entirely to a sense of corporate responsibility or some frilly mission statement, but the bottom line was the optics were horrible for both alternatives. Until the past few years, the UFC seemed to have a much keener eye for that. Will it take a scandal the promotion can’t dig itself out from to start taking responsibility for the messages it communicates to the public, whether overt or covert? Or is it willing to bet potential fans are OK with the explanation that fighters say mean things?
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
Lee: The only person who can stop Colby Covington from going beyond the pale—and the one who should be most invested in making sure this doesn’t happen—is Covington himself.
I get it. Covington’s behavior over the last few years has garnered him the kind of attention he wouldn’t have otherwise gained through organic means. It’s naive to say that Covington putting together a lengthy win streak against quality competition would have guaranteed him the same level of notoriety and the same opportunities he’s getting now.
Nice Guy Colby doesn’t get multiple headlines every week from the MMA media. He’s not receiving post-fight calls from President Donald Trump. These are situations generated by the persona that Covington has put front-and-center as he’s climbed the welterweight ranks. And if Covington’s account of things is to be believed, he wouldn’t even be employed with the UFC if he hadn’t made the decision to add a jingoistic bent to his promos and interviews (a questionable claim given that he was on a four-fight win streak heading into a co-main spot against Demian Maia when his UFC career was supposedly in jeopardy).
There are limits to these things. Covington supporters may love to whoop it up with a fighter that they see as no more harmful than a rambunctious freshman frat boy or your everyday internet troll, but like any “act,” once you reach a certain level, you’ll find that you have people to answer to and that matters. But Covington shouldn’t wait for his bosses to give him a slap on the wrist. He’s an adult and it’s up to him to realize that even if his rhetoric hasn’t gone too far, which is arguable, then if he doesn’t stop himself he’s going to slip up and say something that can’t be written off as envelope-pushing trash talk or fall in with a crowd that he’s allegedly only pretending to be a part of.
In 1987, Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas once caught hell for suggesting during a playoff series against the Boston Celtics that three-time NBA MVP Larry Bird was more highly regarded than he deserved to be because he was white. What most people don’t remember is that it was actually teammate Dennis Rodman who started the discussion by calling Bird “very overrated” and Rodman who used the words “because he was white” specifically. What Thomas did was make the grave mistake of agreeing with him and adding on to those remarks.
The point here is that Covington already finds himself with allies for his controversial views. Not just the legion of fans who have swarmed to his surface-level approach to politics (which is to say that his comments don’t go beyond buzzwords and intentionally provocative stances), but well-known public figures such as Candace Owens and, oh yeah, the freakin’ president. What happens when someone like Owens starts to use Covington prop up some of her more unsavory opinions, or vise-a-versa?
Both Thomas and Rodman apologized for what they said, and while it’s a mere blemish on their careers, it’s an anecdote that stands to this day. Covington has yet to apologize for anything he’s said-some would argue he doesn’t have to-and his critics shouldn’t hold their breath expecting him to walk back the racist remarks he made on Saturday night during a live ESPN+ segment with Kamaru Usman.
He shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to do so. Covington is a legitimate talent, a world class fighter who went almost five hard rounds with the current champion before getting stopped in the final minute of their fight. He’s beaten three former UFC titleholders in Tyron Woodley, Robbie Lawler, and Rafael dos Anjos. He may one day finish his career with a record that stands on par with the best ever at 170 pounds. That should be his legacy.
As it stands, his mouth will always generate more headlines than his skills, more negativity than praise, and while that may be to the benefit of the click-thirsty MMA media, it has not proven to be a formula for longterm success. People can say what they want about some of the more regrettable statements from megastars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, but what they delivered on fight night always overshadowed even their most eye-catching quotes.
Even for those who enjoy and wholeheartedly support what Covington represents and don’t think he’s crossed any lines, ask yourself these questions: Is it better or worse if it’s “just an act?” How far does he have to go before it’s considered too far? And if it gets to that point, will you still stand by him? If there is no limit, then Covington has nothing to worry about.
If there is, then Covington is the only one who knows where to stop. He noted ahead of his fight with Woodley that he’s currently training at MMA Masters in Florida, with several Brazilians who have apparently embraced him despite his infamous “filthy animals” speech. He is also now apparently self-managed. So if his team won’t hold him accountable for his words, UFC’s official broadcasting partner ESPN and other media outlets (including MMA Fighting) are regularly running his quotes unchecked, and he literally has no manager to keep him in check, then the responsibility falls on him and him alone to right the ship.
Maybe he and his followers are right and this is all part of the game that athletes have to play to get ahead. Maybe he never slips. Any ideological views Covington spouts that happen to resonate with a certain segment of the MMA fanbase, hey, that’s just a bonus. As far as he’s concerned, it’s been nothing but positive returns since that fateful night in Brazil back in October 2017. But the trajectory of celebrity rarely trends upwards forever and should the time come that Covington has to face the consequences of his words—or worse, he discovers that his words have hurt others not directly in his path—then it’s Covington who will bear the brunt of the blame.