UFC 272: Poker, sushi and betrayal - How Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal went from roommates to rivals

How did Masvidal's relationship with Covington change? (2:09)

Jorge Masvidal looks back on how his relationship with Colby Covington has changed since they first met. (2:09)

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. - Jorge Masvidal walked into the American Top Team (ATT) gym one day in September 2019 and spotted Colby Covington. The two men, formerly best friends and roommates, now barely got along. The tension between them was high.

Masvidal approached Covington and said they should talk after practice. Covington asked what he wanted to talk about, and Masvidal responded that Covington was "being a b----" and he didn't appreciate some of the things Covington had said about him in interviews. Covington agreed they should chat.

"It's pretty amicable," Masvidal told ESPN of that moment. "It's not that bad."

But as Masvidal turned around to walk away, he said, Covington began to raise his voice.

"I'll f---ing kill you, bro," Masvidal said Covington shouted. "Don't ever talk to me like that."

The outburst got the entire gym's attention. Coaches and other fighters stepped between the two athletes and separated them.

Covington recalls that confrontation in the gym but disagrees with Masvidal's recollection, saying Masvidal was the one who began yelling.

"If he wanted to do something," Covington said, "he would have [gotten] in my face."

Masvidal took a young Covington under his wing more than 10 years ago. They bonded over training and poker, shared an apartment and were so close that American Top Team owner Dan Lambert joked that he thought they were "in a relationship." Covington's escalating, crude rhetoric -- including targeting teammates -- as well as a financial disagreement between Covington and one of Masvidal's coaches caused an acrimonious split. They've spent the past few years publicly trading insults and accusations, and recently told ESPN what really created the rift between them.

Their shared history over nearly a decade has created one of the most personal rivalries the sport has ever seen. On Saturday, nobody will stand between Covington and Masvidal. Locked in the Octagon for the main event of UFC 272 in Las Vegas, the fighters will engage in one of the biggest grudge matches in UFC history -- former roommates turned into the most hated of rivals. Both fighters failed to defeat Kamaru Usman twice to win the title, but this fight has nothing to do with a championship, and it's bigger than the numbers next to their names.

"They're gonna be coming to kill each other," ATT fighter and PFL champion Kayla Harrison said. "This is as real as it gets."

After the near brawl in September 2019, Masvidal said he asked Covington to meet him following practice at Nana-Sushi Thai, a restaurant the two used to frequent together just three minutes from the gym. Dinner would be on him. Covington, Masvidal said, never showed.

For Masvidal, at that point, the time for talking was over.

"[I was] probably gonna break a bottle on his face," Masvidal said.

  • April 20, 2013: Jorge Masvidal makes his UFC debut.

  • Aug. 23, 2014: Colby Covington makes his UFC debut.

COVINGTON ARRIVED IN Florida in 2011, just months after being honored as a NCAA Division I All-American wrestler at Oregon State University. The California native joined the gym as part of a new ATT program designed to get more standout amateur wrestlers in the door. Pretty quickly, Masvidal took a liking to Covington and the two began training together. Masvidal, a top-notch striker, wanted help with his wrestling, and he returned the favor by showing Covington new boxing and kickboxing skills.

"It's like the saying goes: Opposites attract," Covington said. "I just feel like we were just drawn to each other naturally."

The friendship blossomed outside the gym. After training together during the day, Masvidal and Covington would run into each other at local casinos. Both were avid poker players and soon they started making plans to play together after training at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek or Isle Casino Pompano Park.

"I mean, they were just always together, always talking about each other, but propping each other up," Lambert said to ESPN. "It was always, 'Oh, this guy's gonna do this and this guy's gonna do this. We're gonna take over the world together.'"

Covington was pretty quiet when he first arrived at the gym, those at ATT recalled to ESPN. Masvidal was one of the people who got him to open up a bit.

"I'm not gonna say [Covington was] anti-social, but certainly not a sociable guy," ATT general manager Richie Guerriero said. "Not super well-liked among the team. But then again, I don't think he ingratiated himself to be friends with a ton of people on the team."

And yet some, like Masvidal, held Covington in high esteem. Harrison, who started training at ATT in 2018, said she considered Covington a friend at one point. Both shared a head coach in Mike Brown and a strength and conditioning coach in Jeremy Fedoruk.

"He was always really kind to me," Harrison said. "He was funny, would joke around, laugh with me. ... We would go up there and train together, work hard, push each other. I have nothing but nice things to say about him."

Masvidal asked Covington to be his roommate in 2016 when he saw his teammate was down on his luck. Covington had broken up with his girlfriend and was rehabbing a broken hand. So, Masvidal let him stay at his two-bedroom apartment in Coconut Creek, near the gym. The duo were roommates for about nine months.

The two got along well, even training together in the apartment. Masvidal said the deal would be that Covington paid him $300 per month in rent, but Masvidal says he never received the money.

"I'm feeding him. I'm the hand that provides everything," Masvidal said. "He was a much different person. Wouldn't dare say a bad thing to me or about me, ever. But once the money got involved? Piece of s---."

Covington does not deny that he lived with Masvidal. But he wants to clarify that it was not Masvidal's place -- the apartment was paid for by Masvidal's wife, Maritza, per Covington.

"She did so much for us coming up," Covington said. "This wasn't his couch. He was a broke fighter - he was a loser. He didn't have no sponsors. He didn't have big-money fights at this time. ... She gave us this roof over our head, she put food on our table, she cleaned the house for us all the time."

Covington and Masvidal had a friendly ritual before fights to test one another. When Masvidal was nearing competition, Covington would buy junk food he knew Masvidal liked and he'd keep it in their common area.

"Just to f--- with me," Masvidal said in a 2016 interview on "The MMA Hour." "Just so I had to pass by it every day and see if I break. Then, I'd do the same thing to him."

  • Jan. 28, 2017: Masvidal wins his third straight match with a TKO of Donald Cerrone, setting up a title eliminator fight with Demian Maia.

  • May 13, 2017: Masvidal loses a tight split decision to Maia.

  • Oct. 28, 2017: Maia takes a fight against Covington at home in Brazil, with Covington winning to put himself on the precipice of a title shot.

  • June 9, 2018: With Masvidal in his corner, Covington wins the UFC interim welterweight championship by defeating Rafael dos Anjos.

IN 2018, AS the friendship between Covington and Masvidal grew a bit colder, their respective careers began to heat up.

Masvidal was selected to be on the popular Latin American reality show "Exatlón Estados Unidos," where contestants compete in a series of physical and mental tests. Participating in the series helped grow his profile and allowed him to refocus after a 15-year journey as a pro fighter.

"It sounds as corny as it may be, but being out away from everybody, just by myself, I got to find me," Masvidal told ESPN in 2019. "I got to just listen to my voice, not a million different opinions or some stupid song on the radio or anything."

Masvidal did not fight at all in 2018. Covington, meanwhile, earned his first title shot, a bout for the interim belt against Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 225 in June of that year. He became the No.1 contender eight months earlier by beating Demian Maia via a dominant unanimous decision in Maia's home country of Brazil. In his postfight speech, Covington blasted Brazilians, calling them "filthy animals."

The seeds for that scene in Brazil were planted after Covington's victory over Dong Hyun Kim in June 2017. The win made Covington 7-1 in the UFC, but Lambert said matchmaker Sean Shelby told him Covington's contract likely would not be renewed because his wrestling-heavy style was not great for business. So Lambert went to Covington, and the two came up with a pro wrestling-esque persona for Covington that featured a thick layer of trash talk.

"The leadup to the dos Anjos fight with Colby was all about Brazil," Lambert said. "And that was the angle Colby took. That is what got him to that promised land of getting a title shot, [what] saved his job."

Covington beat dos Anjos with Masvidal in his corner, and the two celebrated the victory heartily afterward. That fight week ended up being at the center of the combustible issues between the two, but at the time, things were good for both of them.

As Covington was waiting for the undisputed title shot owed to him as interim champ, Masvidal returned to the Octagon in March 2019 with a huge second-round knockout of Darren Till. After that bout, welterweight contender Leon Edwards exchanged words with Masvidal while Masvidal was being interviewed backstage. Still on camera, Masvidal confronted Edwards and landed a few punches.

Masvidal would say minutes later to ESPN that he hit Edwards with a "three-piece with the soda," which quickly became a viral clip and oft-repeated catchphrase. Masvidal's moment in the spotlight continued in July 2019 with a running knee that knocked out Ben Askren in just five seconds. It was the fastest knockout in UFC history.

In four months, Masvidal went from seasoned veteran with a hardcore fan following to one of the biggest stars in the UFC.

Covington couldn't come to terms with the UFC for a title shot and was stripped of the interim title in July 2018. He didn't fight again until August 2019, when he scored a dominant unanimous decision win over former teammate and former champ Robbie Lawler. That victory made Covington's case for a title opportunity airtight.

Masvidal and Covington, now two of the best and most talked about fighters on the UFC roster, ended up headlining the final two events of 2019. Masvidal beat Nate Diaz to win the mythical Baddest Motherf---er title at UFC 244 in November at Madison Square Garden. In December, Covington fell via fifth-round TKO to champion Kamaru Usman in an epic, back-and-forth welterweight title fight at UFC 245.

  • July 6, 2019: Masvidal KOs Ben Askren out in 5 seconds, the fastest fight in UFC history.

  • Aug. 3, 2019: Covington wins his seventh straight fight with a decision victory over Robbie Lawler.

  • Aug. 17, 2019: Covington and Masvidal exchange words while seated in the crowd at UFC 241.

  • Nov. 2, 2019: Masvidal defeats Nate Diaz at UFC 244, winning the "BMF" title at Madison Square Garden.

  • Dec. 14, 2019: Covington gets his title shot against Kamaru Usman, and is knocked out by the champion in Round 5. Covington earns Fight of the Night honors for the first time in his career.

  • March 2020: Covington and Masvidal are kicked out of the American Top Team gym. Masvidal eventually returns, but Covington leaves for good.

MASVIDAL'S HEAD COACH at ATT is Brown, but Paulino Hernandez, his boxing coach, is the one he credits for taking a chance on him when he was still a kid fighting in the streets in the Westchester neighborhood of Miami.

"Paulino is like my father," Masvidal said. "He's not just a coach to me. He's a dude that took me out from a very bad, hostile environment and really guided my whole career. He said, 'You have the talent, just your life outside of here is a f---ing mess. But if you can cut all that out and just come stick with us and do this, I'm with you on this whole journey.'"

Masvidal said he and Hernandez had a handshake deal from then on that Masvidal would give Hernandez a small percentage, up to 5%, of his fight earnings. At that early stage of Masvidal's career, that added up to only about $50 per fight. When Masvidal started training with Covington in 2011, he set Covington up with Hernandez. The two shook on the same deal, Masvidal said.

Covington's first big payday came in the dos Anjos fight. Based on Masvidal's understanding of the original deal with Hernandez, Covington owed the coach $12,500. Masvidal said Covington didn't pay Hernandez at all. He said he asked Covington on several occasions why Hernandez didn't get his money, and Covington either avoided the conversation or didn't give a straight answer. Masvidal ended up paying Hernandez the $12,500 out of his pocket, feeling obligated because he was the one who introduced Covington and Hernandez.

"That's when our relationship went sour," Masvidal said of Covington. "That's when I wanted to get the bat and take it to his neck."

Covington said Hernandez and Masvidal thought he made $380,000 for the dos Anjos fight because websites erroneously reported it. The actual total he earned for that bout, Covington said, was $200,000. Hernandez, according to Covington, wanted a share of the fake amount.

"It was never over money," Covington said. "Jorge is grasping at straws. He has nothing else to say."

From Covington's perspective, the tension has been due to Masvidal being jealous of his former roommate outperforming him in the octagon.

When Covington returned from the Maia fight in Brazil, he said, he felt a coldness coming from Masvidal. Covington speculates that it's because Masvidal had come up short in his fight with Maia five months earlier. At one point, Covington said Masvidal told him if they had to fight each other, it was OK. For Covington, the thought of fighting his friend had never entered his mind.

"It hurt," Covington said, addressing the genuineness of their relationship. "I gave a lot to him. I put my career on the back burner at first. I was just his training partner. It wasn't about my career. I didn't even think about fights. All I thought about was preparing Jorge for his next fight."

By the time of the dos Anjos fight Covington had already rubbed people at ATT the wrong way -- especially his Brazilian teammates. Lambert called a meeting with coaches and fighters to try and keep things civil.

"Colby might say Brazil is a dump, and you guys might think Colby's an a--hole - and you might both be right," Lambert said he told everyone in the gym. "But the fact of the matter is when you're in the gym, you're in the gym and we're here to do a job."

Brazilians were the target of Covington's trash talk to promote the dos Anjos fight. Covington, the ardent card player, went all-in with no opponent set, and his relationships at the gym were rocky at best. From UFC president Dana White to his own ATT teammates to eventually Masvidal, Covington verbally tore down "literally everybody in the business," Lambert said.

"I just see him as like a wounded little boy, like the kid on the playground who no one would play with," Harrison said. "So now, he's turned into a f---ing monster."

  • July 12, 2020: Masvidal takes a last-minute title fight against Usman in Abu Dhabi. It's his first UFC title shot, and Masvidal loses by unanimous decision.

  • Sept. 19, 2020: Covington returns to the Octagon and records a victory over longtime rival and former champ Tyron Woodley.

  • April 24, 2021: In his rematch against Usman, Masvidal loses by second-round KO.

  • Nov. 6, 2021, Covington gets his title rematch against Usman, losing via unanimous decision.

COVINGTON STILL REFERRED to Masvidal as his "best friend" in interviews up to the summer of 2019, before Covington's fight against Lawler. The tone of his words had changed though, with both men now contenders for the welterweight title following Masvidal's historic knockout of Askren.

In an interview with MMA Junkie in July 2019, Covington said he and Masvidal were like Batman and Robin. Specifically, Covington said he was Batman and Masvidal was his sidekick. It was the first time Covington publicly said something that Masvidal could perceive as negative toward his former friend.

The two were both in the crowd at UFC 241 in Anaheim, California, in August 2019. Masvidal was seated behind Covington and tapped Covington on the shoulder.

"What's all that s--- talking, bro?" Masvidal said he asked Covington. "We're both men. You've got my phone number. Why don't we go outside and just talk like men?"

Covington told him he was "unprofessional" for trying to fight him at a UFC event. White got involved, and security changed Masvidal's seat. Masvidal said three security guards flanked him for the rest of the card.

"Act like a professional," Covington later said. "We're at a UFC event, man. When have I ever laid hands on someone? I can beat up anybody in the crowd, any of the fighters. None of them can touch me, I'm the best fighter in the world. But I handle my business in the cage. That's where I do my business: in the UFC Octagon."

A few weeks later, they saw each other at the gym, which spurred the confrontation that ultimately ended with Masvidal saying he invited Covington to the sushi dinner. Covington said that story is "the biggest lie" he's ever heard but recalls that Masvidal said they could settle things in the parking lot of a nearby Publix, a Florida supermarket chain.

Masvidal was not the only ATT fighter to clash with Covington during that period.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the former UFC strawweight champion, said she went into the women's locker room at the gym one day in the fall of 2019 and found women in bikinis preparing to be in a video shoot for Covington's social media page. Jedrzejczyk was upset that non-fighters were at the gym -- ATT is not open to the public -- taking up space in places she felt they shouldn't be. She was already annoyed that Covington was showing up to the gym in a rented limousine and having people hold doors for him, all for Instagram videos. This was the final straw.

"We train here," Jedrzejczyk said she told him. "You can't act like you're the superhero millionaire -- you are a zero. You are a great athlete, so keep it humble and work hard. That's it."

Covington also had a run-in with then-teammate Dustin Poirier, the former UFC interim lightweight champion, who took issue with callous things Covington was saying about him in interviews. Poirier approached Covington while he was training with the intent to fight him, but teammates separated the two. Covington said these incidents both happened only after Jedrzejczyk and Poirier started talking negatively about him in the media, not the other way around.

"If I'm fighting Colby, we're both going to jail," Poirier said last month at UFC 271. "I'm going to jail. I'm not going to fight him in an Octagon. He's not making money off of my career and what I've done."

To avoid a confrontation with other fighters -- especially Masvidal -- coaches changed Covington's training times and where he worked out in the gym.

"If they were in the same building, Jorge was gonna go after him," Brown said. "We'd have to stop everything, put all hands on deck, separate these guys. This is a major problem. If people aren't there, they're fighting 100%."

Things finally came to a head in March 2020 when Lambert instituted a rule that no ATT members can trash talk each other. Masvidal broke the rule within days, tweeting that Covington was "the most fragile" and "most sensitive guy" in UFC history. Masvidal was upset that Lambert made the rule only after Covington had spent nearly a year blasting teammates in the press.

When he saw the tweet, Lambert immediately took out his phone and messaged Masvidal and Covington in a group text. He threw them both off the team.

"I liked you guys a hell of a lot better when you were broke and cared about the team instead of just yourselves," Lambert said he wrote. "Neither one of you can come back to the gym. I hope you end up fighting each other and beating the living s--- out of each other."

Lambert said Covington responded immediately via text, writing he understood Lambert's decision and thanked him for everything he had done for him. Lambert had also been acting as Covington's agent for years. Masvidal called Lambert a few minutes later, saying he could not throw him out of the gym after more than a decade there. He said he'd be there tomorrow, as usual. Lambert put his foot down, saying, "there's nothing we can do about it."

For about three months, Masvidal stayed away, training in Miami with Hernandez and Brown, who would make the hour-plus trek from the Coconut Creek area to work with Masvidal. Ultimately, Lambert agreed to bring Masvidal back to ATT at the behest of Brown -- and Lambert's children, who had stopped talking to their father because of how close his kids are with Masvidal.

"One of his favorite daughters, Amanda, and his son Alex?" Masvidal said. "Not talking to him? He's like, 'Are you f---ing kidding me?'"

Covington never returned, instead opting to do his training camps at MMA Masters in Miami.

"There was only one guy that went back begging, crying," Covington said, referring to Masvidal.

Covington's departure came as a relief to many on the team.

"Just like somebody, like a Hollywood actor, all of a sudden gets all this fortune and fame, and they start believing all the pats on their backs and everything people [are] telling them -- it's easy to [fall] into that trap," Guerriero said of Covington. "And then that's who you are, you know? And I think his character became who he is."

  • Jan. 7, 2022: Masvidal, using colorful language, calls out Covington for a fight.

  • Jan. 11, 2022: Masvidal-Covington is set for UFC 272 on March 5

COVINGTON ESTIMATES THAT he and Masvidal have sparred about 1,000 rounds together. And Covington says Masvidal "has never won one second of one of those rounds."

"He knows deep down inside," Covington said. "He can keep acting like this macho man from Miami."

Covington, 34, is a heavy -310 favorite at UFC 272. That can be owed to how close he fought Usman, ESPN's top pound-for-pound fighter, and his excellent wrestling, which has been a driving force behind him winning eight of his last ten fights.

To counter that, Masvidal has been training at ATT with Bo Nickal, a three-time NCAA national champion wrestler out of Penn State University.

"It's about me being efficient and you wasting more energy than I'm wasting while you're trying to hold me down," Masvidal said. "So, when I get to my feet, I'm still fresh and I can throw those rocks at your face."

Brown said Covington's depiction of how sparring went with Masvidal isn't necessarily accurate. The coach said when the two men would wrestle, Covington "would get the better" of Masvidal. But when sparring in all areas of MMA -- striking, wrestling and grappling -- guys like Masvidal and Lawler would go "super-easy" on Covington.

"They were light years ahead of him striking," Brown said. "Obviously, it's bad etiquette to KO your friend and teammate."

Covington said one of the reasons he's happy he's no longer at ATT is that he could find coaches Daniel Valverde and Cesar Carneiro at MMA Masters. Covington said his striking "went to another level" after leaving.

It won't matter who came out on top in those gym sessions years ago on Saturday. Both Covington and Masvidal are two of the top welterweights in the world now, with an intense desire to win this fight. Not just for rankings or future title shots. But for pride. For South Florida bragging rights. For the right to say, "I'm the better man."

"I'm gonna rise to superstardom," Covington said. "I'm gonna get my title. And his career is gonna be over. This is his last paycheck. This is his last big fight. ... He's not gonna be the same person after I'm done with him on Saturday night."

Masvidal, though, can't help but think back on his invitation to Covington for sushi more than two years ago. What would have happened if Covington showed up? And why didn't he?

"I've always known deep down inside he's a coward, man," Masvidal said. "And I just can't wait for March 5 to expose it."