Pitting an outspoken Black Lives Matter advocate from Ferguson, Missouri, against a “MAGA”cap-wearing, President Trump supporter in a cagefight would be almost too stereotypical for even the most cheesy professional wrestling organization.
Yet it will happen in the main event of the UFC Fight Night 178 card at the Apex facility in Las Vegas on Saturday.
The bout was booked for competitive reasons. Tyron Woodley is a former champion looking to hang on to his contender status after back-to-back losses. Colby Covington is a top contender coming off a thrilling loss to welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in a December title bout at T-Mobile Arena in one of the best fights of 2019.
They also have a personal history. Woodley and Covington trained at the same south Florida gym for many years and helped prepare each other for bouts. But whatever relationship they had outside the gym soured several years ago as their animosity went public.
Covington insists they were never friendly and blames Woodley, who was a more prominent fighter at the time, for being dismissive and unwelcoming of the up-and-coming Covington.
Woodley declined an interview on the matter. He only has one message for this week.
His response to every single question posed to him at Thursday’s news conference was simply to state that Black Lives Matter, a message emblazoned on a T-shirt while donning a red hat that said, “Make Racists Catch the Fade Again.”
Covington, who appeared in a red “Keep America Great” hat just days after receiving an in-person shout-out from President Trump at a rally in Henderson, didn’t care for the message.
“It’s just putting more pressure on him,” Covington said. “It actually hypes me up. This is a fight of good versus evil and my side is good. I stand up for the blue. I support first responders. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. … I’m excited to stand up for what’s right and fight for my people.”
Covington said he even got some advice from Trump, whom he has visited at the White House with UFC President Dana White.
“The president said go fight hard for everything you stand for,” Covington said. “Fight for America, fight for the troops, fight for all the men and women of law enforcement who put their lives on the line and go fight for the two deputies in Los Angeles who were shot by a coward animal the other day. And go fight for David Dorn, the officer who lost his life in St. Louis.”
Sports and politics have always been intertwined. Still, many sports leagues have struggled in deciding how much to allow politics to enter the field of play.
That couldn’t be further from the truth for UFC’s White, who also attended Trump’s rally and has spoken on his behalf at both of his nominating conventions.
“The difference between us and the NFL is we don’t tell people what not to say and what not to do,” White said. “In the fight business, who you are is what we sell. If you’re African-American, that’s what we’re selling. If you’re gay or lesbian, that’s what we’re selling. If you’re Irish, that’s what we sell. Whoever you are is what we’re selling.”
It doesn’t hurt business that this highly charged grudge match with overtly political undertones is also an anticipated clash of legitimate contenders who dislike each other.
“It’s a big fight that has it all,” said Covington, who insists his shtick is just a dialed-up version of himself and not a gimmick. “You’ve got red vs. blue, Republican vs. Democrat. Me capitalism versus him communism. … And it’s a long-running beef. We’ve wanted to fight each other for many, many years.”
The bout headlines a six-fight main card streaming on ESPN-Plus at 5 p.m., with the preliminary card beginning at 2.