Florida is a long way from home for Oregon native and current undefeated Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight Colby Covington. American Top Team (ATT), where Covington calls home in South Florida, is also the training ground for dozens of other top-notch fighters including champions Robbie Lawler and Will Brooks.
Covington is a winner and has been all his life up until this point. He won the Pac-10 title in collegiate wrestling for his 174-pound weight class at Oregon State and is now poised to enter the logjam of talent that is the UFC welterweight division.
"Chaos" recently captured his eighth-straight win over game veteran Mike Pyle in a short-notice fight, which taught the 27-year-old a great deal.
"The opportunity arrived and I was able to get the fight, so I think to have a short camp and to get in there and fight a guy like Mike Pyle – who’s a great fighter – and beat him in a convincing way like I did, it shows me I can beat anybody in the world," said Covington. "With a full camp, I feel like I’m ready for big fights."
It was his first decision win in four fights and if it was up to him, he'd get right back in the Octagon. Unfortunately enough, on an accidental headbutt when the two were on the ground, Covington needed to get stitches, which has him sidelined for the next few weeks.
At the moment, he is back in his homestate, a place he goes after every fight to unwind. Covington made the move from California to Oregon when he was eight years old, with parents Noelle and Brad, and sisters Candace and Callie.
"During fight camp, there’s a lot of stresses and stuff that’s going on in your head," Covington said. "I usually go to Oregon because that’s my home and just relax, visit people in the town and go talk to the same people at the mat club I came from. I know all the families and they follow me.
This isn’t just about my journey, it’s more about my communities journey and where I came from. There’s not a lot of people from my city that have went professional."
Covington picked up wrestling around the same time his family made the move. He was a brash youngster, who liked to talk up the some of bigger kids in his age bracket. He might have bit off more than he could chew at times and studied wrestling partly because of his school-related antics, but Covington also saw the impact it was having on the world of combat sports around him.
"I was a feisty little kid, who had a big mouth," said Covington. "Everybody was seeing at the time that wrestling was becoming the strong suit in fighting and my dad was like, ‘Hey man, you want to stop getting picked on and bullied in high school? You’ve got to wrestle.’ I was like, 'alright, I’m going to wrestle.'"
His wrestling career began at The Mckenzie River Mat Club in Springfield. Dave Krull was Covington's head coach and the man who molded him.
"He was a huge influence. I was like 80 pounds my freshman year of high school; I always got picked on and beat up. He always kept me in line and never let me get down from it," Covington said.
The setting was Thurston High School. When push came to shove, Covington was usually shoving back. He had a unruly run as an adolescent, one which he admits was immature. On the mat is where he shined, winning the state championship at 171 pounds.
After not having the right test scores to gain acceptance into Arizona State, former stomping ground of UFC Light heavyweight Ryan Bader, Covington enrolled at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. It was there where he would bolster his resume with a perfect 34-0 record and win the national junior college championship in his freshman campaign.
His roommate and best buddy at the time? Former UFC pound-for-pound great Jon Jones.
"At the time we were in college, I was dating a girl and he was dating her best friend. Then, he got her pregnant," said Covington. "We were really close even when he left to go to Rochester. We had a good relationship. We were winning a lot of wrestling matches together, wrestling and competing on the same weekends together."
Following his biggest win to date over Mike Pyle at UFC 187, he had hoped for a reunion with his former friend and disgraced champion, but instead he was left disappointed.
"As soon as he got to the UFC, we didn’t bother to keep in touch with each other. I think he lost touch with all the people who were his true friends and really there for him," Covington said. "My family would try to do what they could to help him."
There are lessons to be learned here, especially for an undefeated, once immature competitor, who trains at one of the most prestigious fighter factories in the country, like Covington does. In fact, it was a drunk driving charge that turned his life upside down, when he transferred to the Division-I Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling program, following the unparalleled mat skills he presented at Iowa Central.
"He was a great guy, I’ve got nothing but respect for him. I lived together with him for two years at junior college. I don’t want to call him out, but I think the fame got to him a little bit," said Covington. "You don’t win a bunch of money and fights, then get into that party lifestyle. That’s not what a martial artist does. I definitely think that set me up to help me out later on when I’m at a similar road."
Wrestling for a top program like Iowa was what Covington had always dreamed of, but after suffering the ramifications of the charge -- he was suspended from the team and lost his driving privileges for a year -- he decided that a change in scenery was needed.
Covington came back home and transferred to Oregon State at the advice of his mother Noelle. Jim Zalesky, former NCAA Championship-winning coach at Iowa, was now the head honcho at Oregon State.
"I just learned a lot about pressure and discipline [from Zalesky] – all these key aspects that have shaped and molded me into the fighter that I am," Covington said.
Strapped with multiple accolades and All-American honors, he was set to embark on an MMA run, after seeing what his fellow Iowa Central alums Jones and current UFC bantamweight Joe Soto were achieving in the sport.
"He [Jones] kind of led the way. Joe Soto was following down that path, Cain Velasquez also from Iowa Central. I figured that as soon as I got out of college, that was the same path that I wanted to follow," said Covington.
Right out of Oregon State, he was offered a chance to train at ATT by owner Dan Lambert. They provided Covington with a home, food, and a chance to chase after his dreams of holding a UFC belt.
"He’s done so much for everybody at ATT and doesn’t expect anything in return. As a person, I see somebody like that and it’s somebody who I want to mimic," Covington said.
He spends 10 months out of the year training in South Florida, only coming back to Oregon after fights. One of his best friends and training partners is former Strikeforce lightweight title challenger Jorge Masvidal. Covington even makes an appearance in one of the former's online videos.
The two are inseparable.
"He’s a unique individual [laughs]. He’s one of my best friends," said Covington.
Confidence was gushing from the persona of Covington. In practice, he felt like he was getting the best of the best guys in the world. "Chaos" was just waiting for his chance to wreak havoc on the welterweight elite of UFC, but first he needed to score some wins on the professional circuit.
"In Florida they have a law, where you need to have five amateur fights if you want to fight professionally. I didn’t want to do that and waste a year," Covington said. "I went to Oregon and got my first fight and then came back to Florida, where I fought my next four professional fights there."
Covington fought three times in 2012, obtaining finishes in two of those outings. What was most impressive of his early victories, was how good his striking looked and how much it complimented his technique on the ground.
He notched one victory apiece in 2013 and 2014, the latter one coming via a remarkable arm-triangle choke. In 2013, Covington, looking to expand his MMA arsenal, won the FILA No-Gi Grappling World Championship and was the only American to win the first place medal.
Covington signed with UFC last summer and made his debut thousands of miles away in Macau, China, against Wang Anying. He passed that test with flying colors, flattening Anying and laying him out with ground-and-pound. A little over two months later, Covington flew out to Brazil to take on the green Wagner Silva in Brazil. Silva proved a much stiffer test than Anying, but he still met the same fate as the six men before him.
Covington utilized well-timed takedowns and solid jiu-jitsu to thwart all offense from Silva, before putting him to sleep with a rear-naked choke in round three. He broke his foot in the November bout, but still answered the UFC's call when Pyle's original opponent, Sean Spencer, bowed out of the bout with an injury.
"You don’t really know when your name is going to get called until it gets called and you’ve got to be ready," said Covington.
The Pyle victory set Covington up for a more difficult challenge in his next Octagon venture. With three-straight wins under the UFC banner, and a defining win over Pyle in tow, he took time after the tilt to call for an opponent in the Top 15 of the 170-pound division.
"There’s a couple of guys I’d love to get. I think top on the list is Dong Hyun Kim. That’d be the best name I could get right now. I don’t know if they’d [UFC] give him to me," Covington admitted. "Someone like him, or someone right on the Top 15 like Patrick Cote. Those names would be great. A guy like Neil Magny; I’d love [to fight] a guy like that."
Since he has already beaten his past three Octagon opponents in their backyard, Covington says he has no problem heading to Japan in September, when the UFC returns to Saitama, to crush another foe before his hometown crowd.
His ascent into the UFC welterweight rankings has been swift, just like his successful wrestling career. In the fight business, those rankings often include teammates. Some take an oath not to fight one another, while some are willing to put friendships aside for the sake of the greater good.
Training at ATT are the likes of 170-pound champion Lawler, as well as UFC stars Tyron Woodley, Hector Lombard, Thiago Alves, and Ben Saunders. For Covington, those names don't matter.
It's championship or bust.
"We train together every day, they know in their minds who I am and how good of a fighter I am. This is my time, it’s my time to make my run and I’m not going to sit around and wait," exclaimed Covington. "I’ve been sitting around for a couple of years letting these guys be known as the top fighters in the world like, ‘Hey man, where’s my shot? I know I can beat you guys. I can beat the guys you’re beating.’
I’m not going to let anybody get in my way. It doesn’t matter if we’re teammates. I’m going to accomplish what I want to accomplish for the people who believe in me."