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Like It or Not, The Gimmick Worked

Saturday night’s UFC 245 is one of the biggest events the promotion has ever hosted, with three massive championship bouts capping the more-than loaded main card. However, unlike other events the UFC’s hosted with three championship bouts slated to take claim of the marquee, this one is unique in that it does not feature one of Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, or Georges St-Pierre in the (co) headlining attraction. This one instead features Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington battling for the welterweight championship in the main event, and settling a rivalry that’s been brewing ever since the two equated on season 21 of The Ultimate Fighter, where Usman competed for the now-defunct Blackzillians team, and Covington, who had already gotten his UFC call by that point, serving as an assistant coach for his stable American Top Team. Even with the history and tensions between the two for a multitude of reasons, it’s still seems like an odd pairing to headline a card of this magnitude, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe to someone not paying close enough attention. While these are undoubtedly the two most talented welterweights in the world at present, it’s worth noting that this will be the first pay-per-view headliner for both men. And while we could jump down the conspiracy rabbit hole as to why this got the headlining nod over Holloway-Volkanovski or Nunes-de Randamie, why don’t I just save you the trouble. It’s the gimmick. Colby’s gimmick. That’s why this is headlining this massive event. And honestly, I have no problem with that.

A post shared by ufc (@ufc) on Dec 12, 2019 at 2:19pm PST

Let me just start by fangirling out a bit and saying that this is one of my favorite fights the UFC has made in recent memory. Nothing gets my rocks off in this sport more than a matchup between the two best fighters at any given weight class with high stakes like this. Fights like these excite me more than all-violence affairs like Alvarez-Gaethje, or yes, Masvidal-Diaz. But, despite my feelings, fights like these- fights that don’t seem aesthetically pleasing to the casual fan- don’t always get the attention or name value they deserve. This can be for a multitude of reasons, ranging from a relatively unknown name in the mainstream circle (someone like Zhang Weili, or Tyron Woodley when he was champion, come to mind) to perhaps just a simple lack of promotional capability between the fighters. And that, my friends, is where I must do something that hasn’t been done by anyone with a skull that isn’t 10 inches thick. I must thank Colby Covington. Yep, that’s right. Thanks to the ultimate heel king, Colby Covington, for taking the promotional aspect of this fight to the next level, something that Usman is either incapable of doing, or just simply chose not to do.

A post shared by colbycovington (@colbycovmma) on Apr 17, 2019 at 12:01pm PDT

Before you make any assumptions about what I like and don’t like regarding a fighter, let me squash one myth likely gathered from what I wrote above: I am a fan of trash talkers.

Could not be farther from the truth.

I was a much bigger fan of Conor McGregor prior to the Jose Aldo pre-fight buildup, then it got ugly with Aldo, and don’t even get me started on the buildup to the Nurmagomedov fight, that took the lines of trash talking and exacerbated it to a frightening level. And I don’t think I’d necessarily call myself a Colby Covington fan, although I will he’s as talented a title challenger the UFC’s had in a while. I will also admit that he does add an infusion of character in a division that had none at the top for a while, and that’s why this fight with Usman is particularly special on many levels aside from just the fact that it’s an amazing fight.

Again, you won’t hear me give too much credit to Conor McGregor for his out-of-the-cage antics, but I’d be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t give him credit in one regard; he gave the featherweight division a semblance of life that it desperately lacked. Jose Aldo was a great champion who dominated challenger after challenger, but he never became that big name in the mainstream until he had a rival, an enemy, a bad guy to fight and attach himself to until he squared up with Conor.

A post shared by colbycovington (@colbycovmma) on Aug 10, 2019 at 1:42pm PDT

Which now brings us to the present, and specifically, Covington. Colby Covington is so obviously playing a part, to the point that most of us MMA fans see it as being farcical, but as the old saying goes, be damned if it doesn’t work. Colby has successfully made himself the equivalent to a professional wrestling heel in such a way that we’ve never seen attempted, let alone work, in MMA until now. Casual fans hate him for either his aesthetically unpleasing style or his character’s perceived support of an extremely unpopular American president, and many hardcore fans hate him because his persona is so painfully dull and contrived in a way that makes us honestly reflect and loathe how similar this sport actually is to professional wrestling. Chael Sonnen was a heel, but could “turn it off,” and did so frequently. The way Colby operates his character has made it to where he can’t “turn it off”. It’s who he’s become as a fighter. Whether or not Covington beats Usman at UFC 245, he’s at a point now where this character has become synonymous and completely desegregated with his career, a point to where it literally can’t be “turned off” for the cameras because it’s what’s put him in the position he’s in now.

What Colby Covington has done, albeit through controversy and sometimes questionable promotional means, is successfully generate interest in a weight class that had been deemed “boring”. Now keep in mind this is no cut on Johny Hendricks, Robbie Lawler, Tyron Woodley, and now Kamaru Usman. All four have given us, literally, fight of the decade contenders at some point in time. But even in the “glory years” of Georges St-Pierre running the show, the division lacked that “intrigue” factor that a class such as lightweight has had ever since Anthony Pettis’ reign. The only intrigue that came from a St-Pierre title fight was whether or not this next opponent would be the one to beat him, and then when that challenger would get sent back the same way as all the others, the process resumed again. It’s a process that we currently see at light heavyweight with Jon Jones- intrigue because it’s the GOAT, and he might lose, but nothing else beyond that, no entertainment value beyond the fight itself. This is also the issue that flyweight had with Demetrious Johnson until Henry Cejudo delivered an upset of the year contender in 2018 that may very well have saved a division that was seemingly on its deathbed.

A post shared by ufc (@ufc) on Oct 25, 2019 at 6:03pm PDT

Usman-Covington is one of the best UFC title fights, on paper, the promotion has booked this year. Aside from all of the even aspects between both fighters, there is also this edge that now adds to the excitement this fight generates. This was going to be a great fight regardless of storyline, but the storyline now adds to our intrigue, it gives us a “hero vs. villain” edge, or perhaps, to really get political with it, an “immigrant vs. conservative” edge as Usman has suggested in the past. Simply put, this amazing fight is now getting the attention it rightfully deserves. Thank Usman for being a fantastic fighter and earning his way to becoming champion, and thank Covington for making us all exponentially more intrigued.■

Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro

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