COCONUT CREEK, Fla. -- Colby Covington sits in front of the television camera, interim title belt on his shoulder. The self-proclaimed supervillain of the UFC, who often wears a MAGA hat and sunglasses shielding his eyes, holds a sign reading "World Champion Colby Covington, Make Welterweight Great Again."
The lights and attention are squarely on him, and that is exactly what Covington has wanted all along.
The past two years have been filled with divisive comments, aimed at fighters and fans alike. Covington says he's "a big supporter of conservatives and the Republican Party," and invited the Trump family to his fight this weekend in Newark, New Jersey, against Robbie Lawler. Donald Trump Jr. has said he'll be cageside.
Still, Covington says, "I know when to separate politics, and I know when to separate sport."
He also hangs out with soldiers -- as he did in May during Fleet Week in New York, spending a week with troops and a night aboard the USS New York. It's a trip he says was the second best of his life, visiting people he deems "the real heroes of America."
So who is Covington? The feud-starting fighter whom fans love to hate? The polite, focused-on-winning fighter who greeted Dustin Poirier before his interim title fight in March with a handshake, saying he's going to get his own belt soon? And how did he go from a mostly anonymous fighter into the biggest heel in the sport?
He opened his mouth.
AS A KID, Covington devoured anything that had to do with fighting. He watched pro wrestling and idolized Ric Flair. He play-fought with his sister, Candace. At age 5, he set a goal to become the best fighter in the world.
It started with wrestling. By high school, Covington was winning titles: state, a junior college national championship, Pac-10 honors. After graduating from Oregon State, American Top Team (ATT) owner Dan Lambert brought Covington to Florida to train. Less than a year later, Covington turned pro and ended up in the UFC after five fights. He won six of his first seven fights in the UFC, leading into a matchup in Singapore against Dong Hyun Kim in June 2017.
Covington won by unanimous decision, but the fight lacked pizzazz, in part due to his ground-heavy style. After the fight, he complimented the fans in Asia and Kim, saying he had "nothing but respect" and discussed a title shot.
But after that win, Dan Lambert, ATT's owner, said UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby told him the promotion would not be re-signing Covington. Win or lose, and despite being 12-1 and on a four-fight win streak, Covington was out after his next fight against Demian Maia.
Lambert broke the news to Covington.
"I was destroying everybody, and they told me they weren't going to re-sign me, they had no use for me," Covington says. "That was the time where I was just like, 'You know what, f--- it."
What if he could do something so crazy that he became indispensable to a company looking for fighters to stand out?
"There's two parts to fights -- there's personality and the way you fight inside the cage," Lambert says. "The way you fight inside the cage can certainly improve, and Colby was certainly a younger fighter back then. But it's only going to change that much.
"Something else had to change, obviously, to impress them. So he took that route."
Covington began to game plan. He watched one of MMA's best talkers in Chael Sonnen, who used his words to antagonize future opponents and promote fights. He watched how Sonnen's words angered others and how they elicited a stronger reaction from the crowd than most fighters were getting.
"That's when it started to click in my mind and the wheels started turning," Covington says. "Like, dude, [Chael's] getting all these people so worked up over some words. But he's saying fight words to promote a fight, and they are going to fight at the end of the day."
Covington wondered whether there was an opportunity to create a deeper character, one that included portions of his own personality. He wanted it to become difficult to tell where the person stopped and the persona began.
He started watching videos of Flair, noticing how his personality popped in interviews. He saw how Flair's ability to engage a crowd got them more invested -- cheers or boos.
"A lot of these fighters, they care what people think of them," he says. "I don't care what people think of me. Either you like me or you hate me, but you're going to tune in to watch me."
Covington told Lambert he might say something to stir up the crowd if he beat Maia in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Lambert didn't know exactly what was coming. No one did.
Then he won.
"I should have knocked him out," Covington screamed into the microphone during his in-Octagon postfight interview. "Brazil, you're a dump. All you filthy animals suck."
The boos were overwhelming. Covington now says he got caught up in the moment, that the comments were about how he was treated in Brazil all week -- though he called Sao Paulo "a dump" in a prefight interview as well. He claims people yelled "You will die" at him during open workouts along with insults about his family.
He says he had planned to make his postfight comments about "America, about the troops and the Trumps" and at the last minute changed his mind.
"That was on the spot, what I thought of in my head," Covington says. "You know, I just reacted to how they reacted to me, the stuff they were saying to me, all the mean things. I just said how I felt and it's not like I said anything that wasn't true."
He mentions UFC employees being robbed in Brazil in May 2018 and Jessica Andrade and her wife being robbed at gunpoint in May this year.
Calling Brazilians "filthy animals"? He's quick to say the comments weren't racist. "I didn't say anything racially charged," Covington says. "I called them filthy animals, but Brazil is not a race, you know. There's nothing racist about that."
Multiple people tried to reach his hotel room that night. He wasn't allowed to leave his room. Lambert, who wasn't at the fight, said he learned later that fans were trying to get backstage afterward to confront Covington.
Covington received death threats -- something his family and coach confirmed -- and he needed security to get to the airport. That night, Covington trended on social media. Amanda Nunes, Will Brooks and other ATT teammates called out Covington on Twitter, describing Covington's actions as disrespectful, embarrassing and classless.
In a now-deleted Instagram post, Antonio Silva wrote, "Colby you are an anti professional and dirty person, I'll show you how to respect my country and my people."
Ricardo Liborio, who is Brazilian, was a head coach at ATT when Covington fought. "I absolutely do not condone any behavior that instigates hate, prejudice, or bullying of any kind," Liborio said at the time. "It upsets me to see the sport taking this direction of blatant disrespect."
Shortly after the fight, Lambert called a meeting in an attempt to clear the air and keep things from getting more out of control at one of the biggest gyms in the sport.
"[I wanted to] just sit everybody down, because we have Brazilian coaches, Brazilian fighters at the gym," Lambert says. "We had to straighten things out."
Covington says there are still Brazilians in the gym who won't work with him because of it. Some fighters at ATT say they are cordial with Covington while others say they haven't had a conversation with him at all.
Colby Covington previews his fight vs. Robbie Lawler and offers a reason why Lawler left American Top Team.
"The biggest part of it is an acting thing," says Junior dos Santos, the Brazilian former heavyweight champion who trains at ATT. "They say, 'Ahh, he's acting or he's just pretending or just doing that for the media.'
"OK, I agree with that. But the truth is, you have to have a little bit of that. ... No, you have to be the way you're trying to be because if you're not that way, you cannot do that very well. If you doing that well, [it's] because you are that way. You are, [in your] personal life, are that cocky guy. That's what I think about Colby."
Covington's new approach gave UFC president Dana White a fighter who could generate headlines and drive ticket sales. Financially, the decision appears to have worked. Covington made six figures for the interim title fight he won against Rafael dos Anjos, the fight the UFC never expected to happen. It's also a fight White said the UFC initially considered for Brazil before moving it to Chicago over security concerns for Covington. But White has no issues with Covington's words or divisiveness.
"Whoever you are or whatever your thing is ... it doesn't matter to me. I sell fights for a living," White says. "So if you're different or whatever your deal is, I'll work with it. The thing with Colby is I don't know what's real and what's not. He really did go meet the president, and he really was excited about it."
Lambert, a pro wrestling fan, understood what Covington was trying to do -- that this was his foray into his new life as a heel. Not everyone else did though.
"Right after the Maia fight, I probably wanted to wash his mouth out with soap. I'm not joking," says Covington's mom, Noelle. "We had a very verbal discussion on the phone after the fight. I can't remember, he didn't quite hang up on me, but he probably wanted to."
For a little while, Noelle said, she and her son didn't talk much. Now, Noelle says she understands why he has chosen this route and trusts his decision-making. That's something that came earlier in 2019, more than a year after the Maia fight. She says she believes her son is "a lot more complex in the way he thinks and his strategy" than people give him credit for. She says the reaction he received in Brazil gave him career security, and potentially a path to more money.
Other family members understood his shift sooner.
"He gets such a rise out of people. The fighters, they take it so personally," says Covington's sister, Candace. "I don't think it's the direction he ever saw it going, but it works for him. And he's really good at it."
He was 13-1, but now Covington had something even more valuable -- a reason for fight fans, love him or hate him, to watch.
"It's a lot of WWE," Covington says. "It's getting into people, the psychology, that's what WWE is ... to be able to get into somebody's mind and create emotion for them."
COVINGTON ENTERS ATT's gym on a March afternoon without any fanfare or bluster. He gets dressed and heads to work. Media is in attendance to talk to the entire stable of ATT fighters. Covington takes center stage, as it was believed at that time that he was next in line to fight fight Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title.
Covington is polite, greeting everyone with handshakes. Then he sits down for an interview with the Miami Herald and, as if someone pulled a lever in his back, he turns it on.
Polite becomes brash. Quiet turns outspoken. His shirt comes off. His interim welterweight title belt is thrown over his right shoulder. He unleashes on the reporter about his greatness in the Octagon and proclaims he'd beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. in five minutes (though it's not quite clear in what). The interview ends. The lever gets pulled again. Covington thanks the interviewer for his time.
It goes this way the entire day. When the persona needs to come out, it's there, full-on brash, "Did-he-really-just-say-that?" Covington. When it's not, he's almost unassuming.
He goes through his workout, pulling sleds by himself with workmanlike efficiency. He's bouncing back and forth. He's shaking his head from side to side. Between his cardio and lifting session, he takes his interim UFC title belt out of a carrying case and puts it within view of where he's working. Tim McGraw's "Where the Green Grass Grows" plays over his speakers. Other than an occasional "Woooo," Covington doesn't say much at all.
This is the business of preparing, not promoting. He knows that to keep up what he's doing outside the cage, he has to win inside of it.
Then, toward the end of his workout, a camera comes into his view. The other Colby returns.
TO COVINGTON, THIS is business, a way to sell fights and put fans into seats. He says he long ago stopped worrying about being liked -- something he says he believes other fighters care too much about. He knows others might judge him. But to this, he shrugs.
"I don't care about my perception," he says. "If people hate me, they hate me."
But there have been consequences. The decisions he has made over the past two years to save and accelerate his career have cost him. There are family members who want nothing to do with him. Friends he had for years who don't hang out with him anymore. If it means making his financial future secure, he's OK with that. That's what he told his mom after she questioned his tactics in Brazil.
"Everybody's too sensitive," Covington says. "Everybody just wants you to do things how they want it done or they want you to be this certain way or be this good person or be this role model. We're not role models, man. We're getting locked in a cage in our underwear and we're going out there to take someone else's brain cells.
"So I'm not going to be your role model. I'm going to be a fighter, what I was supposed to be, and I'm going to speak how I feel. I don't lie. Everything I say, there's truth behind it. People just refuse to acknowledge the truth."
After he won the interim title last year, his fame and his personality led him to what he calls the proudest moment of his life -- a trip to Washington. It's here where the duality of Colby Covington might be best explained.
"That's the highest honor for any athletic kid, to win a championship and go to the White House and hang out with the president," Covington says. "No matter which political side you're on. If Obama was in office, I would have went and hung out with Obama.
"What's a greater accomplishment than going to the White House?"