In the world of martial arts, the boundary that separates reality and entertainment can often be blurred.
How often have you asked yourself, “Do these two fighters really hate each other? Or are they performing to sell extra pay-per-view purchases?”
But on Sunday (Australian time), the potential for skepticism will be non-existent when arch-enemies Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington again lock the horns of the welterweight belt at UFC 268 in the sacred Madison Square Garden in New York.
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Make no mistake, these two men have a lot of history and their hatred for each other runs deep.
To begin with, Covington is a rude supporter of former President Donald Trump and was even invited to the White House when Trump was in office.
Given that the reigning champion Usman is of African descent and what the Trump presidency represented to many black Americans, Usman would always disagree with Covington on politics, going so far as to accuse him of trying to divide the country with inflammatory remarks.
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Covington is undoubtedly a fiery soul with the gift from the gap that has adopted the “heel” persona seamlessly, largely by being politically incorrect.
Among his many outrageous comments, Covington accused Usman of using Erythropoietin (EPO) – a banned substance that stimulates red blood cell production and helps with endurance – for “a few years” up to their first fight in December 2019.
Action or not, most sensible people would think Covington was crossing the line when he again in the run-up to UFC 245 said that Usman gave his late coach Glenn Robinson a heart attack and that Robinson would watch their main event showdown “from hell”.
However, Covington did not stop there. The former interim champion claimed that Usman was not actually born in Nigeria, but was actually born in America, in Dallas – a kind of reversal of the birth movement conspiracy theory, to which his hero Trump subscribed, who claimed that former President Barack Obama was not born in America, but was born in Kenya.
It also plays nicely into Covington’s use of the nickname he has for Usman: ‘Marty Fake News-man’, a reference that also draws on Usman’s nickname ‘Marty’, which he got in high school because his coach had problems with to pronounce his full first name, Kamarudeen.
Throughout it, despite apparently having deep contempt for Covington, Usman remained relatively calm and collected in the face of the verbal barrage of fire. But while ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ put much of Covington’s theatricality to seek attention, he believed the 33-year-old’s behavior also showed what kind of person he was.
“I do not think there has ever been a guy who universally hated so badly,” Usman told MMA Fighting back in 2019.
In response to Covington’s unfounded claims about his nationality, Usman said he was proud of his immigrant history and went so far as to say he thought he was even more American than Covington, given that America is a land of immigrants, and he, as an immigrant, has become a spectacular sporting success story.
Things really boiled over between the pair in August 2019 as they were involved in a live bust-up following Covington’s win over Robbie Lawler.
And then came the match itself, where Usman got the chance to shut Covington in the best possible way, by breaking his jaw.
Usman, widely regarded as one of the best welterweight fights in UFC history, put his belt on the line in what was his first title defense, after plundering Woodley as king of the division earlier in 2019 at UFC 235.
In what was a back-and-forth competition full of huge hits from both fighters, there was only one judge who had Usman in the lead in the final round.
Usman needed to produce something big in the fifth round, he needed a finish – and that was exactly what he got. Twice he shook Covington and sent the American to the screen before finishing the competition with quick hammer fists in his head with only 50 seconds left – the latest finish in the UFC’s welterweight history.
But you did not think that Usman would successfully defend his title in such dramatic circumstances would keep Covington quiet, did you? On the contrary. Inspired by his hero Trump, Covington called the result “false” and referee Marc Goddard “false” for ending the fight when he did.
He also accused Usman of not only “fake” being hit in the cup, but also of being stabbed in the eye to buy himself some time and get a rest during the fight.
It all blew over again live in the air last September when they had another verbal stoush after Covington’s win over Woodley.
Whatever side you may be on in this gigantic war of words, one thing is for sure – these men are the two best fighters in the welterweight division.
In one corner you have Usman (19-1), who has won his last 18 fights, including each of his 14 fights in the UFC, in an unbeaten streak that goes back eight years. He has also defended his title four times since winning it.
In the second corner you have Covington (16-2), who won 15 of his first 16 matches before being stopped by Usman.
One way or another, with these two men so equally matched, it’s not hard to imagine another fight for the times at UFC 268.