We have a tendency to focus on the negative. In fact, this is not a mere tendency, it’s almost an obsession. Ever wonder why the news is so depressing these days despite improvements in the modern world? It’s because negativity which breeds outrage, captures eyeballs. The UFC chronicled this in their short feature film released on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s an entertaining and informative piece.
The professional wrestling industry has known this for years. This is why feuding is an integral part of the kayfabe employed by professional wrestlers. No one in the world of MMA has adopted and integrated the heel persona the way Colby Covington has. His moment of truth, his “pipebomb” , was perhaps his trip to Brazil where upon defeating Maia he proceeded to taunt the crowd by calling them “filthy animals”. This resulted in a raucous reaction, featuring the throwing of water bottles and other objects at Colby.
Ever since then Colby has been a subject of heated discussion among fans. The addition of a polarising red hat and continuous appearances with pretty, often skimpily clad women helped solidify the heel persona that Colby Covington crafted.
Before proceeding with the implications of what this kayfabe character and strategy mean, one question seems to repeat itself among MMA fans. Is his character truly kayfabe, a mere gimmick used for commercial reasons, or is this truly a reflection of a loud mouthed foul character who believes everything he says?
Like most speculation, it is impossible to say with a hundred percent certainty what the truth is. But there are strong indicators on why Colby is playing a character. Firstly, he had a great mentor in this process. I refer to none other than Chael Sonnen, the original bad guy of the MMA world.
Secondly, while Colby has had his fair share of altercations with other fighters, there has as of this writing never been an incident where Colby has run astray of the law or had any troublesome incidents with any fans. In a world where celebrities are often stalked and occasionally villainised, Colby seems to have had a smooth, mostly uneventful run. When you consider that he is a red hat wearing vocal individual in today’s politically charged, this seems even more unusual. It’s hard to reconcile this if you imagine him walking around with a megaphone in his hands at all times.
Thirdly, there have been videos taken by fans, where Colby appears as a soft spoken, kind hearted individual who is enjoying interacting with the fans.
These factors perhaps contributed to the murmurs among the MMA fanbase about the Colby Covington facade, the kayfabe gimmick. As if to confirm the conspiracy theory, Colby recently appeared on a show hosted by Candace Owens and completely broke the fourth wall. He told his story bluntly, of how he risked life and limb for paltry amounts when starting out as a fighter, of how he was at a point in his career where despite facing elite competition in Demian Maia, it looked like he would be given the axe. He spoke about how he quickly learned the entertainment side of the business. In his own words he “amps up everything 110%” when he’s on camera. The video has achieved significant circulation since it’s release.
When viewed in these lens, anecdotal stories about Colby take on a different meaning. Usman, who is perhaps Colby’s most formidable opponent (and in my judgment a wonderful human being with unfortunately lacking PR skills), has narrated a story about Colby. Colby, according to Usman, has an entirely different persona when they meet backstage away from the prying eyes of the camera. If all you see is the brash thrash talker, then Colby will come across as a hypocrite who can’t “keep that same energy”. But if you have the perspective that Colby maybe playing a character, then this behaviour is just another data point which supports the kayfabe hypothesis.
To re-iterate, all of this is circumstantial evidence, which is not the same as conclusive proof. But the evidence does all seem to add up and consistently point towards this being a kayfabe gimmick.
Should everyone try this approach?
The answer is almost definitely no. While negativity sells, there is only so much negativity which can be sustained by a system before it collapses. More pertinently, there’s a lot of inherent risk in adopting such a strategy. It may have made sense for Colby to take this risk because of the inherently back to wall position he found himself in. This does not mean that it’s the ideal strategy for everyone else.
It’s also not everyone’s cup of tea for reasons relating to mental strength and capacity to endure public animosity. Remember when Colby went to Brazil? The fight fans in Brazil who have evolved through years of exposure to Vale Tudo, habituated to chanting “Tu Vai Morrer” (translated as you will die), took to attacking Colby aggressively even by their standards. Colby’s difficulties did not end in Brazil. He’s faced animosity from fighters and fans alike. He’s had a boomerang thrown at him. He’s greeted with boos if the camera focuses on him during any live UFC event. He’s lost sponsors who couldn’t see past the act. When you adopt a kayfabe gimmick like Colby has, you don’t have the option of turning it off. This would take a toll on most people. Say what you will, but it does take a lot of mental strength to be able to live life in the public eye in this way. I wouldn’t be too surprised if these are the same traits that enable Colby to train harder and develop superhuman cardio.
A second risk is that it’s hard to know when and where to draw the line. Even professional politicians who are known ‘rabble rousers’ routinely make mistakes. Often these mistakes can be career ending. Colby is no exception to this. When you’re largely immune from criticism, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that everyone else is also equally thick skinned. He is perilously close to the line that must not be crossed. Perhaps some of his recent comments may have already crossed that line, although the fans hope (for his sake) that this is in fact not the case.
There’s one final point to be made. In the eyes of the public, perception is often reality. The current perception of Colby as a heel character, is the reality in the eyes of many fans. In the eyes of others, Colby is an overzealous trash talker. Given that the reality of the situation is hard to ascertain, perhaps it is simply the perception of the situation that matters. Perhaps Colby realises this and therefore decided to break character. Or perhaps it was his personal fondness of Candace Owens and her political agenda. Or perhaps it was a moment of pure vulnerability in which we saw the real Colby, the Colby that is spoken of in kind words by the likes of Joe Rogan, the Colby that travels to visit soldiers posted in far away lands away from their families on his own dime. Perhaps we’ll never know, but we can hope that this is in fact the case.
In a highly anticipated welterweight championship grudge match, Kamaru Usman defends against No. 2 ranked contender Covington this Saturday at UFC 245. The event takes place at the T-Mobile Arena and will stream live nationally on Pay-Per-View, exclusively through ESPN+ in the U.S. at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.