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It’s impossible to talk about the UFC’s big Saturday night main event without discussing the politics of it all.
You can’t “stick to sports” on this one.
Not when Colby Covington has made supporting U.S. President Donald Trump a central part of his public persona. And certainly not when you have Tyron Woodley, a Black man, who has been both publicly and privately passionate about issues of racial injustice for years.
Whether or not it’s right, Saturday’s Fight Night main event has come to feel as if the American culture war will be fought out inside the octagon.
Your mileage may vary on whether that’s a good thing or whether it’s fair for Woodley to have to carry the responsibility of fighting with the hopes and expectations of Black Americans on his shoulder, but he seems to be embracing it.
Woodley has been wearing shirts adorned with “Black Lives Matter” since arriving in Las Vegas this week and at a short press conference on Thursday responded to every media inquiry with some variation of the phrase.
Woodley isn’t playing like some pro wrestling character meant to provide a sharp contrast to his opponent, the Make America Great Again-loving Covington. Woodley lived in Ferguson, Miss. and has spoken about issues of systemic racism and police brutality for a long time. This is no act.
With Covington, it can be a little harder to tell. It is hard to believe that behind closed doors he is as obnoxious or vulgar as the character he plays when the cameras are on. He’s a genuine Trump supporter, though, and attended a rally for the president in Nevada last week with a couple of other UFC fighters and the organization’s president, Dana White.
On Thursday, Covington referenced Woodley being a “domestic terrorist sympathizer” on Instagram, significantly raising the level of putrid vitriol heading into Saturday’s matchup.
There’s a reason so many fight fans who don’t share Covington’s views took so much pleasure in watching him get finished by welterweight champion Kamaru Usman last year. It’s not that Covington supports Trump – there are many who do – it’s that he is so willing to play to the lowest common denominator to get attention.
To his credit, his strategy has worked. It made him stand out from the rest of the welterweight crowd. For MMA purists, though, he remains arguably the most despised fighter on the current UFC roster.
That’s a shame, because Covington is a terrific fighter whose skill set almost certainly would have gotten him a title shot on it own.
There’s a world in which Saturday night’s fight doesn’t carry these political and racial implications, and a matchup with Woodley and Covington would still be a big deal.
Woodley is the former champion coming off two straight losses. A win keeps him in the mix at the top of the 170-lb. division; a loss will likely permanently relegate the 38-year-old to the tier just below the top contenders.
The stakes are high for Covington, too. In the end, he got properly smashed up by Usman in their title fight last December, but it was incredibly close until the fifth round. A win over a former champion like Woodley might be enough to set up a rematch with Usman for the belt.
The competitive stakes should be enough on their own to get fans interested. It’s 2020, though, and issues of systemic racism and politics in general can’t be ignored.
The big news from the UFC this week was that the promotion had signed Michael Chandler, who was Bellator’s lightweight champion until making the move.
The UFC clearly thinks highly of Chandler, too. He was immediately slotted in as the backup should either lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov or challenger Justin Gaethje need to be removed from their title fight, which is scheduled for Oct. 24.
Chandler was the biggest name to hit the MMA free-agency market in some time, and he adds depth to a lightweight division that is already extremely heavy on contenders.
With the UFC not willing to pay Dustin Poirier what he was asking for to take on Tony Ferguson, either guy might be a decent first fight for Chandler. But one way or another he’s not going to get a tuneup fight in his debut.
AROUND THE OCTAGON
UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya signed a global sponsorship deal with Puma. Most of the details about the deal aren’t known, but it’s rare for an MMA fighter to get this sort of opportunity. It’s proof, too, that Adesanya has begun to break out of the MMA bubble and now has mainstream name recognition … Donald Cerrone insists he’s not ready to retire. It’s possible that he won’t be the one who makes that call, though, if he loses to Kazmat Chimaev on Saturday night … Apparently the UFC is working on some “fun stuff” for Conor McGregor next year. That’s all.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020