Colby Covington: Why it's time to talk about a union

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

The angst and its causes are familiar, although with fight-world specific twists. That is to say, whether you’ve followed the exploitative business of professional fighting for any period of time, or simply have experience with the larger world with all its inequitable power dynamics and broken promises from above as we all do, you can likely understand and relate to what UFC star Colby Covington is talking about.

He’s angry. Who wouldn’t be?

They tell you that if you work hard your whole life at something, you’ll get good at it. With a little talent, maybe even great.

With a little luck, that holds up. From wrestling, to school, to a new career in mixed martial arts, the wins follow the work. Along the way, one or two of the right people believe in you and your work, and offer you financial support to help you pursue your dream of becoming a pro fighter.

When that happens, the money isn’t really that good, but it’s something. So, you’re told, perhaps, that all your skill borne from all your work and all your talent need to be bolstered with hype, maybe some trash talk.

Maybe, a lot of trash talk. The loud, constant, and attention-grabbing variety that sadly gets you more attention than all your skill and accomplishments did.

You have to sell the fights to be given the big fights, conventional wisdom holds. You have to go after the big names in the sport, not just athletically, but verbally, taking what’s theirs is the only way you can get yours.

Opponents are opportunities, sometimes they’re enemies. So, you sell the fights, you keep winning them, in increasingly impressive fashion, because you never stopped working hard and never stopped being humble in the gym.

Now, you’re a star, getting noticed by everyone in and out of the game. You’re even told by your bosses that you’ve finally done enough to earn the big fight.

Until they decide, no. Not anymore.

Then, accomplishments achieved, favors done, injuries fought through, rivalries sold, and millions made for your bosses aside, you’re left without what you were promised, what you earned, and now maybe you realize your enemy was different than who you thought he was, all along.

Maybe a fighter’s toughest, most vicious opponents aren’t one another. I don’t know if Colby Covington can relate to any of that, but the notions sure come to my mind as I listen to him speak with seeming earnestness Monday evening about why he believes he was passed over for a world championship fight against his rival and reigning welterweight king Tyron Woodley.

Woodley and Covington both called for the fight against one another after years of sniping at each other, after Covington won an interim belt in Woodley’s absence, after training together some time ago at their American Top Team gym, and after fight fans everywhere seemed to demand the real grudge match. Instead, another deserving but far less popular contender in Kamaru Usman, was slotted in against Woodley for March 2nd.

Covington says the UFC booked Usman against Woodley to punish him for refusing to fight while injured against “The Chosen One” last fall, when even the promotion’s own doctors told him he should not compete in his physical state.

“I found out when the fight got signed, pretty much. My manager kept me informed on how things were going,” he tells the author in an exclusive interview. “It seems self-explanatory to me that they’re doing this to punish me for not fighting injured. They told me I’d fight Woodley for the title, next.”

Before uninitiated fans brush off Covington’s allegations against the UFC, they should revisit the promotion’s history of going back on its word and promises to fighters on matters like title fights, understand just how little obligation the promotion has to its fighters who it deems independent contractors while claiming all sorts of exclusive rights with regards to competition, names, and likenesses, and understand just how common this type of allegation of the UFC finding ways to punish fighters for turning down proposed bouts or dates is even for reasons of health, or for speaking out about athlete treatment, or for attempting to organize other fighters into associations.

One needn’t look further for a pertinent example than Tyron Woodley himself, who has for years been vocal in his criticism of the way UFC president and promoter Dana White trashes him in public, despite the champion’s sterling in and out-of-the-cage reputation, accomplishment, and record.

“They’re punishing me for not fighting him in September when I was injured,” Covington reiterates his belief and allegation. “The UFC’s own doctors would not clear me to fight in September. Their own doctors said I shouldn’t fight, then, and they still got mad at me for not fighting while injured, then.”

Covington’s story does not strike me as hard to believe, because of how familiar it is. We’ve all observed circumstances like this play out in public many times, and as a reporter, I’ve heard similar allegations many times from fighters over the years, off the record, who were angered but also felt helpless and worried about reprisal from the promotion should they speak out publicly.

In the past, Covington had criticized Woodley for his own complaining about UFC treatment, saying that his rival displayed a sense of inappropriate entitlement. I have to ask the 30-year-old warrior if he now feels connected to Woodley, perhaps understands where he was coming from a bit more when Woodley criticized UFC treatment of him and other fighters.

“Absolutely,” Covington says, without bluster. “We might not ever agree on anything else in our lives, but I absolutely agree with [Woodley] on that. He was treated unfairly. They want Woodley to fight every other month but other champions can go over a year without defending their belts and they’re not stripped, interim titles aren’t created.”

Covington’s own predicament now has seemed to push to the rear the whole pro-wrasslin’ gimmicky interview style he often used, and reveals his perhaps more real, thoughtful, and sincere self. He did all that, sold fights with insults and rancor, and yet here he is, unsure of his future, and without an immediate way to make a living despite doing everything he was told would do the trick.

Covington’s situation has also appeared to help him understand how he and all his other fellow MMA athletes, even his in-ring opponents, share a lot more in common than many of them may think.

“I’ll tell you what, I hope other fighters are paying attention to all this,” he continues. “I hope fighters with less big names are paying attention. Woodley won the belt, defends it, does his job, and they treat him like that. I’ve won six-straight fights, won a UFC belt, promoted the UFC, promoted the division, got fans interested in it again, sold me and Woodley as a huge fight that everyone now wants to see – they were saying he was boring and I got people interested in seeing him fight, again, even if it was so they could see him try to beat me up - I’m the number two ranked guy in the division, I became the first MMA fighter in history to be invited to the White House and pose with a UFC belt and the President of the United States. I did all that, and the UFC can still cast me off like this, break their word to me, take away my title, take away my title shot. Imagine what they’ll do to you.”

As Covington considers his own circumstances, he also connects it to the fate of every other fighter.

“It’s time for fighters to start talking about putting together a union,” he says.

Covington is confident that, at this point, he could secure good opportunities in a free market, and can continue growing his star outside of the UFC if need be.

“The UFC can give me the title shot they promised me and that I earned or they can release me, either way. I’m going to be a thorn in their side,” he goes on.

The problem is, Covington doesn’t believe that the UFC would release him and leave him free to sign with a competing MMA promotion, even if he and his management were to ever formally request a release.

“Dana White is scared to release me,” he says, plainly. “He doesn’t have the guts to release me. Dana White is a coward, and Dana White is a liar.”

Stuck, for the time being, with neither the fight he wants, is seemingly desired by fans, which should be required by any sensible ranking system, but also without the freedom to go fight elsewhere, Covington says that, above all else, his livelihood is threatened. After all, UFC fighters don’t receive salaries, they are not afforded employee rights, they have no pensions, no year-round health insurance, yet they tie fighters to them exclusively.

“How can I make a living, then, if they don’t give me fights they promised, and won’t release me?” he asks. “That’s why this may end up having to go to court. If they won’t give me the fight or won’t release me, they’re affecting my ability to have a livelihood.”

About the author:

Elias Cepeda writes a regular column for The UG Feed; you can find Elias on Twitter @EliasCepeda.

elias cepeda