Colby Covington: When a Bad Guy is No Longer Believable

Colby Covington

I’ll keep this short since there’s not much analysis to be had here. It’s just a short note on the current predicament of Colby Covington, the one-time interim UFC Welterweight Champion and now three-time title challenger. He lost all three title shots, and he’ll not likely get a fourth at the age of 35. How he carried himself and insulted his opponent Leon Edwards before the fight, handled his decision loss to the champion, and how fans reacted to his apparent lack of self-awareness is a case study for anyone looking to use antagonism for their own public image.

I was motivated to write this blog post because I thought it was interesting how Colby Covington’s public image has been imploding in the last few days. A lot of people seem to not understand how being a heel works. It’s actually the more delicate of the two roles since being a face is simpler yet also more difficult in its own way due to its limitation. With greater freedom, there’s also greater responsibility for the heel to be a foil for the face without becoming so reprehensible that no one would ever want to watch you.

Even if not everyone wants a piece of the spoiling Conor McGregor pie, there are those who saw his example and realized that the pro wrestling formula is the most applicable in mixed martial arts due to its structure with different promotions mirroring the territories of pre-Vince K. McMahon WWF/WWE. Now that the UFC and WWE are under the same umbrella, it does look like the former is learning from the other, albeit the formula is bastardized. They’re just emulating what they see without truly understanding the essence.

Pardon me while I put on my pro wrestling analyst hat for a moment.

Who is Colby Covington?

Pre-Chaos Colby Covington was a former collegiate wrestler looking to make it in mixed martial arts. He was recruited to American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida by Dan Lambert, who is notably a pro wrestling fan himself and pretty good on the mic as shown in his past appearances in All Elite Wrestling.

He made it to the UFC in 2014. He went on a 7-1 run, but wasn’t considered an exciting prospect. Even if he won his fights, there was always the threat of being cut by the notoriously fickle Dana White. After all, your true value as a prize fighter is being able to put butts in seats, not just being good at fighting. Colby realized this and made a left turn when he had to face Damian Maia in Brazil for UFC Fight Night 119 on 28 October 2017.

Donald Trump was president, MAGA was at its height, and Colby Covington was about to make the biggest move of his career — beating the jiu jitsu stalwart via decision, and then calling Brazil a “dump” and the Brazilian fans “filthy animals” in the post-fight interview. That was the first step to cultivating the Chaos persona.

He began wearing MAGA hats, professing his support for Donald Trump, and being a general asshole. If he was ever at risk of being cut from the UFC, that was no longer the case once he had buzz around his name. He kept winning with his wrestling and improving striking, and kept rubbing the right people the wrong way with his antics.

His first proper title fight against Kamaru Usman, he won Fight of the Night and came through with the promise of his nickname — Chaos. He then beat the damaged former champion Tyron Woodley and had his second title fight against Usman and lost via unanimous decision. Those two fights against Kamaru Usman were commendable. He also had a Fight of the Night performance against former friend and ATT training partner Jorge Masvidal.

Colby Covington vs. Leon Edwards

After a year and nine months, what we have now is a man who seemingly forgot himself. The credit goes to the current champion Leon Edwards, who had a pretty good game plan of nullifying the chaos with long-range tools like his front snap kick to the body. The Brit even took down the former All-American and two-time Pac-10 champion.

If there’s anything he could’ve done to put shame on the American flag, it’s a former All-American getting outwrestled by a fighter from Britain — a nation infamous for its conspicuous lack of wrestling talent.

But the most significant thing that happened in the matchup actually happened the day before. In the pre-fight press conference, he called his opponent’s late father “a sex trafficker and drug lord who killed people” — an act that crosses way too many lines. He tapped into what heels are discouraged from using, which is cheap heat. However, even among things that can be considered ‘cheap heat’, that was way too cheap.

Never speak ill of the dead. After all, they can neither give permission nor forgive.

It didn’t help that he kept up the act even after he lost. Whatever is wrong with Colby, he continued to deny it by stating that he believed he won. That would further sour the crowd against him. Donald Trump got up and exited the building, the fans who were on his side turned away, and the post-fight press conference did not help matters.

The next time we see Colby, he may be fighting in the prelims. He’s back where he was in 2017.

How Could the Chaos Have Not Gone Too Far?

Despite now being a part of the pro wrestling business, I’m no expert in this stuff. When they say you have to be a student of the game, it means pro wrestling is something you have to keep learning about throughout your tenure in it. Pro wrestling is a heady mix of theater and marketing in the guise of combat sports.

I think there’s a precaution that most heels should take as insurance in case things don’t go their way. This is especially true for combat sports, where results are never guaranteed. This is less obvious in pro wrestling, where results are already penciled in 99% of the time. People who are using pro wrestling merely for reference without paying close attention for years may miss out on this crucial detail.

People have to believe that you’re a bad guy, but they shouldn’t think you’re a bad guy.

It means that while you play the heel — the bad guy — there still has to be a line on the sand that you shouldn’t cross. Even as a heel, you shouldn’t be seen as morally reprehensible. But if you can’t help but be morally reprehensible, you have to be really good. You have to be at the level of Jon Jones, a woman-beating, drug-addicted fiend who also happens to be seen as the greatest UFC fighter of all time.

If you lose, you’re no longer a believable antagonist. That’s when you should turn face.

That’s when you show grace in defeat. You accept your circumstances, apologize for whatever you may have said or done, and promise that you’ll do better. You then do better, either through your performance or your demeanor, and you’ll eventually win the fans back. If you don’t give a fuck about the fans, perhaps it’s time to retire. Maybe they’ll think better of you once you’re out of the sport and you can move onto the next thing in life.

As Ray Longo says in that podcast, “There’s promoting the fight, then there’s being a complete misfit in life.” There’s life outside of the sport, and that has to remain separate. Whatever you do in the sport has to be compartmentalized. Colby crossed those borders incessantly, and he has painted himself into a corner. That’s unlike Chael Sonnen, who was perhaps one of the first guys who went full pro wrestling in MMA and did it well, yet also didn’t cross those borders and is even able to hang out with his former rival after retirement.

Chael Sonnen likes to say “Don’t expose the business” — a common saying in pro wrestling — but it doesn’t ring true as much in combat sports. Everyone knows what’s going on, but fewer understand the mechanics. When dweebs complain about MMA becoming more like WWE, they don’t truly understand how the business works. Therefore, they’re likely the marks who will keep consuming the product. After all, they still care enough to talk about their gripes about it.

If they really get turned off by how the sport is becoming like pro wrestling, they’ll just stop watching anyway.

Or perhaps Colby should just have a hiatus. Israel Adesanya did the right thing in taking a break after all the controversies with him mocking Alex Pereira’s kids, his dog, him losing the championship, being Chinese, or whatever. Fans were finding him cringe because he’s a child of immigrants who also happen to be a weeaboo.

(On a tangent, as a child of immigrants, I know how hard it is to grow up without any concrete cultural identity due to the confusion between the difference between the family and the environment. I somehow understand Izzy’s plight and why he ended up being cringe. I’m pretty cringe myself.)

However, since Colby is now 35 years old, he’s on borrowed time. Unless he’s able to tweak his style to stay relevant into his late 30s and perhaps even his early 40s, it’s going to be really tough for him to remain relevant in the cutthroat world of the UFC.


The most effective heel in combat sports history is Floyd Mayweather simply because of how much money he made throughout his career through ticket and PPV sales. His morals are questionable, but not completely abhorrent. He also happens to be one of the best defensive boxers in history. He was the best heel in boxing because everyone wanted to see him get knocked out, and no one could.

Colby Covington is far from being the best fighter in the UFC welterweight division, never mind in all of the sport. That’s fine since he’s still a damn good fighter with a past winning streak. He wasn’t anywhere near being chopped liver, but he may be on a downward skid thanks to this performance against Leon Edwards.

Funny enough, the man who did better with his own public persona was Jorge Masvidal. He also wasn’t the best fighter in the division, but he got one viral moment against current champion Leon Edwards and another against Ben Askren, both of which launched his personal brand to the stratosphere. Before that, the most viral he ever got was being on the receiving end of an inverted triangle choke by Toby Imada in 2009.

Let’s see how he handles this. If he could do something with his moment in 2017 after beating the best jiu jitsu practitioner in the UFC, he may be able to find a way to capture another lightning in a bottle.

Meanwhile, the UFC welterweight division is now bracing for the rise of Shavkat Rakhmanov, the Nomad from Kazakhstan. With 18 fights, 18 wins, and 18 finishes, Shavkat is the new hotness.

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