Finally, after Colby Covington crumpled to the ground in the Octagon, eating hard punches to the side of the head while returning no strikes of his own, he had nothing more to say. For a moment, he did try to protest the fight’s stoppage to someone, anyone — but the only thing flowing from his mouth was a stubborn dribble of blood. His jaw, after all, was literally broken.
The 31-year-old welterweight had run his mouth again and again in the lead-up to Saturday night’s UFC fight against Kamaru Usman, the division champion. More brash than ever, Covington said all sorts of nonsense — that Usman was a fake person, that he doped, that he was overrated, that he was “retarded,” with the “IQ of a midget.” But more than anything else, his most volatile trash talk touched on Usman’s heritage. Covington said the “Nigerian Nightmare” wasn’t actually Nigerian, because Usman “was born in Dallas” — a false bit of reverse-Birtherism, weirdly. When Usman retorted that he was “more American” than Covington, the latter dipped into more obvious racist stereotypes: “What has his family ever done for America besides serve in the federal penitentiary?”
Covington was going to “break that bitch”; he loved to call Usman “boy” in his interviews. Later, in August, Covington crowed about getting a call from the White House after his victory over Robbie Lawler: “What has [Usman] ever gotten a call from? The chief tribe of Nigeria with smoke signals?”
This trash talk isn’t the basis of Covington’s brand — it’s his whole image, complete with bright red suits, Make America Great Again hats and grinning support from Donald Trump and his glassy-eyed sons. The young fighter out of the tiny Central California town of Clovis, who had won legitimate success as a college wrestler, wasn’t always like this. But word that the UFC was planning to cut him, even after a string of victories in 2016 and 2017, made him reassess his career and demeanor. So, after beating Demian Maia in his native Brazil, Covington turned heel. He grabbed the mic in the post-fight interview and screamed, in Trumpian fashion, “Brazil, you’re a dump. All you filthy animals suck!”
There’s a million directions Covington could have taken his persona. What he chose, amid Trump’s rise and an overflow of political divisiveness across the country, is another telling chapter in the American story of whiteness. It’s a legend of privilege, and what consequences some can avoid while profiting off people’s most base, tribal instincts. And it’s another lesson on how we give pass after pass to these entertainers, as if a persona leaves no lasting scars in the culture it occupied.
“It works. It’s an act that makes him a lot of money and got him a lot of attention,” Rogan added sagely.
Nevermind that his own Brazilian teammates and coaches called him out for that 2017 remark, or that he’s upset a lot of his own family (his mother once remarked that she “wanted to wash his mouth out with soap”). I never knew that cracking jokes about a UFC Hall of Famer’s devastating car accident or mocking a dead fighter could be defined as champion behavior, but here we are! It’s extra-fitting that Covington allegedly admired and studied the trash-talk of Chael Sonnen, another white fighter who dove headfirst into racist antics in order to buoy a largely mediocre career. (Sonnen now has a comfortable gig as an MMA analyst for ESPN, if you’re curious how being a prejudiced asshole toward fighters of color can pan out.)
Like Rogan, there are fans who will claim Covington’s just putting on an act, and the fighter himself admitted as much publicly. But plenty of others do lap up his MAGA image like it’s a growth hormone, and there’s little irony in hobnobbing with the Trumps and people like, I dunno, fellow fraud Candace Owens. MMA is a hotbed of white nationalist energy, so you have to wonder how careless Covington is being when he says, “Everything I say, there’s truth behind it. People just refuse to acknowledge the truth.”To be fair, there is a long history of the asshole fighter who goads his opponents for the sake of the mental game, and for good reason: Research suggests that trash talk really can hinder an opponent’s focus and plan. The great Jack Johnson thrived off being hated, and Muhammad Ali turned clever, infuriating trash talk into an art form. Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s counter-punching style shined against a pissed-off opponent trying too hard to brawl. Hell, even the samurai Musashi was a master of headgames, famously leaving his opponents waiting for him at duels, enraging them into a mistake when he finally arrived.
Arguably, no one has been better at it in the last decade than Conor McGregor, the loud Irish lad who became a two-division UFC champion, got rich after mouthing his way into an ill-fated boxing match against Mayweather Jr., and then promptly lost his championship belts (due to him avoiding fights in one division and getting battered by Khabib Nurmagomedov in another). Despite all of that, though, he’s still a superstar who can skip the line and face top contenders, even if he’s most recently been in the news for only punching an old guy at a bar.
Yet for all the talk about fans loving drama, tension and insults, there’s solid evidence that we’re growing sick of the bullshit. McGregor’s dangerous temper tantrums and willingness to throw any and all racist barbs against non-white opponents made him the biggest target in the game. It was pure catharsis for many to see Khabib beat his ass after enduring McGregor’s mocking of his Dagestani heritage, Muslim religion, wife and family (some of whom the Irishman accused of being terrorists). No wonder McGregor’s helpless face as Khabib punched him, yelling “talk now” at him with every blow, basically became a punchline.
And when you survey the history of the most beloved, longest-lasting stars in the sport, you don’t see a lot of racist trolling. Georges St-Pierre, up there as the greatest of all time, is about as humble as you can get. Fan favorite Nick Diaz is a hellacious trash-talker but one who stays away from racial prejudice and mostly makes us laugh via pure, absurdist confidence. Recent superstar Jorge Masvidal is a wordsmith in the vein of Ali, deftly mixing metaphors and witty insults.
Covington, meanwhile, is the opposite of clever — he’s inflammatory in the most obvious way in 2019, and it’s the rabid, boring whiteness that’s allowed him to gin up attention and a fanbase. He claims Usman has no charisma, yet today we’re all gloating on behalf of a family man who posts IGs of his daughter, not patting the back of the cocky California kid who thinks a MAGA hat is some kind of brand statement.
“I don’t have to walk around like a punk, and say these certain things that are going to abuse the whole country or abuse the whole world and talk about people and religions — things like that,” Usman said in an interview. “I’m going to walk with integrity because at the end of the day, I want everyone that’s watching me, every eye that’s on me, to look at me and say, ‘You know what, that’s what we want to be.’”
I’m not trying to say Covington is evil, or even among the top 1,000 racists in America today. To his credit, he put on a hell of a fight against Usman, and brawling through injury is commendable. But his rise is a testament to the ease with which whiteness can navigate and thrive despite garnering endless negativity. His stumble provides us a way to reflect on what value that has in the first place. Ironic racism is still racism, after all, and I guess his comeuppance was receiving a very unironic broken jaw.
Not that it stopped him from complaining the next day, chirping again and again that the ref “robbed him” by stopping the match (despite the judges’ scorecards indicating a unanimous win for Usman to that point, and the fact that, well, Covington was crumpled in half taking blows to the head).
Even in defeat, some people just can’t help but talk.