Last night (Sat. Dec. 14, 2019), Kamaru Usman successfully defended his Welterweight title for the first time, turning away Colby Covington in one of the year’s best fights.
There was plenty to talk about in the lead up to this contest, but few predicted a “Fight of the Year” candidate. The two are highly decorated wrestlers, so they’re going to spend some time wrestling ... right? Of course, this thought ignores the fact that both Usman and Covington have rocked and dropped opponents on their respective paths to the top.
In addition, there is a long established trend of elite wrestling/grappling tending to cancel out in mixed martial arts (MMA). In an all-time great example from just a couple months ago, jiu-jitsu legend Demian Maia and Olympic wrestler Ben Askren spent most of their bout flailing around at each on the feet.
Yet, that doesn’t quite feel like what happened last night. For wrestling to cancel out, someone actually has to try to wrestle. In the first couple minutes, Usman made use of a single level change feint, a tactic he never revisited. Covington didn’t even shoot when knocked down the first time, waiting until he was well and truly frazzled to resort to his usual go-to method of combat.
My usual gig is that of technical analysis, but I don’t think the answer lies there this time. Both men could have benefited strategically from some takedown attempts or at least fakes, there was no tactical reason to completely abandon their greatest strength. Rather, it’s my belief that the shared decision between these two men to throw down was one made for mental reasons: ego and hatred and disdain — but also respect.
Usman’s perspective is fairly easy to understand. Covington insulted him at every opportunity and generally said some pretty shitty things in his attempts to generate heat. Is there really a need for me to explain why Usman really wanted to pummel “Chaos?” Just listen to any of his interviews or read his Tweets.
All the while, however, Usman has never really said a bad word about Covington’s fighting ability.
As for Covington himself, his reasons are a bit more difficult to discern, given Covington’s self-admittance that he puts on an act to get people all riled up. One of the more frequent things you’ll hear among combat sports athletes is that the cage is a place of great honesty, one where an athlete’s nature reveals itself. For all of Covington’s exaggerated on-the-mic bluster, there is a real root to it, one that shines through when he fights. Covington loves to antagonize in the ring, sticking his tongue out frequently and yelling at the referee over calls. He’s an irritating man to be trapped in the Octagon opposite, worse than any of his press conferences, and loves the effect that takes on opponents
In short, Covington regularly builds himself up on negative energy inside the Octagon and thrives that way. There’s also the added layer that there’s some truth to Covington’s claim that Usman stole his shin (and title shot!) by defeating the same men after Covington.
Genuine grudge matches are truly an anomaly. UFC 245’s main event, however, was the real deal, first fueled by the insane competitiveness of both athletes and later exacerbated by hype and promotional nonsense. It made for a truly fascinating situation, one emotionally charged enough to convince the division's two best wrestlers that the only way to settle things was to stand in front of each other and throw punches until one man hit the floor.
Usman and Covington had to have come to this conclusion separately, yet the pair both fought — and likely trained — as if they had signed on for a Muay Thai fight. It’s another strange similarity between the two best Welterweights in the world, two men who seem destined to fight again at some point in the future.
Will the gentleman’s agreement hold for round two?
For complete UFC 245: “Usman vs. Covington” results and play-by-play, click HERE!