Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal did not touch gloves at the start of their UFC 272 main event Saturday night, the customary show of sportsmanship and respect between athletes as their prizefights are getting underway.
But for these two fighters, former teammates and roommates whose relationship soured in the most personal of ways, there was just no way it was going to happen.
That probably did not bother a single person at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas or anyone watching the pay-per-view, for that matter. Everyone just slid a little closer to the edge of their seats, if sitting was even an option for fans who had been waiting with rapt anticipation for this grudge match.
The fight itself? It didn't live up to the fiery buildup. Oh, sure, there were mean stares exchanged at the end of each round. And for a brief moment in Round 4, when Masvidal stung Covington with a punch and sent him stumbling toward the ground, the fight felt like it might turn into a striking match. But for the most part, what happened in the lead-up to their fiery chatter between rounds was little else but full control by Covington, who used six takedowns and positional mastery to secure a lopsided dominant decision win (50-44, 50-45, 49-46).
When the horn sounded to end Round 5, Covington was on top, dropping big punches. The fighters climbed to their feet, Masvidal a bit haltingly, and they did not hug. As athletic commission officials raced into the Octagon to ensure that fisticuffs were done for the night, the fighters yapped at each other from a distance. Masvidal kept shouting. Covington stuck out his tongue and grabbed his athletic supporter.
The ending was anticlimactic for a fight in which both men promised unabated violence. Masvidal strategically wanted to keep the fight on the feet, where he was most comfortable and where he could potentially inflict damage on Covington. Covington threw some big punches, but in the end, he reverted to a strategy he knew would win him the fight.
At least the aftermath affirmed that this grudge was -- to borrow a catchphrase from the early days of the UFC -- as real as it gets. Anyone who suspected that maybe, just maybe, the two old roommates had ginned up a friendship-gone-bad angle just to sell pay-per-views was mistaken.
And why would one question the sincerity of the bad blood? Well, Covington's biggest successes have been built on bluster and fake animosity. Remember the aftermath of his second fight with Kamaru Usman? After mercilessly ridiculing the UFC welterweight champ in the buildup, Covington hugged Usman and said, "You know I'm just trying to sell it for you. ... It's all love."
But while the Covington-Masvidal grudge was not the invention of a promotional campaign, it was the fight's biggest selling point. There was no championship on the line, making this a rare pay-per-view without a single title fight. And the bout was not even an eliminator to establish the winner as a title challenger. Covington was coming off two losses in his last three bouts, both defeats coming in challenges of Usman. Masvidal entered Saturday's main event on a two-fight losing streak -- also courtesy of a pair of losses to the champ.
Covington's win keeps him near the top of the 170-pound division, but he won't be seeing the champ anytime soon -- unless that belt is being worn by Leon Edwards, who has been promised the next UFC welterweight title challenge. If Usman remains at the top of Mount Welterweight, it's going to be a long road back up that mountain for Covington.
While there is limited upward mobility coming off this victory, the stakes were enormous. For a fighter, settling a real grudge means everything. The buildup to Covington vs. Masvidal, despite being rooted in a more organic grudge, was boring by comparison -- in part because of the nature of their grudge, and how deep it runs. While Thursday's news conference was filled with incessant noise with the two men talking over each other for what seemed like an eternity, when each fighter sat individually for an interview during the week, we actually got to hear what they had to say.
But maybe we were better off not hearing. The vile insults went over the line of decency. The worst of it was Covington, who is known for dragging the sport through the mud with him, brought Masvidal's ex-wife and children into his crass trash talk.
By contrast, Masvidal occasionally tried to position himself as the voice of reason. "You don't have to be that guy," he said of Covington during a sit-down with broadcaster Michael Bisping, an ex-fighter and ex-trash-talker in his own right. "Especially in our beautiful sport that we have, you don't need that. It's already two men or two women are going to get locked in a cage and beat the crap out of each other."
Good point. But then, less than two minutes later during the same interview, Masvidal launched into the very same brand of dirt, dragging in family discord and claiming Covington had inappropriate interactions with a coach's family members.
At the end of UFC 272, Covington tried to continue the ugly narrative. "I just took care of Miami street trash," he said during his interview inside the Octagon. "Now it's time to take care of Louisiana swamp trash. Where you at, Dustin Poirier?"
Poirier, like Masvidal, trains at American Top Team, the South Florida gym that Covington called home before being kicked out in 2020. Covington would like to make Poirier, a natural lightweight, his next ATT conquest.
The callout may seem a bit surprising, but what else is there for Covington to do? He's boxed out of title contention at welterweight, and while a move to middleweight might seem interesting, UFC president Dana White has already doused any notion that Covington could move up to 185 pounds and get an immediate shot at the champ, Israel Adesanya. So Covington calls out a lightweight for another grudge match in which circumstances would be extremely personal, and Covington would conveniently be a favorite heading into the fight.
Do we really need to go there again?
This is not to say there's no place for competitive fire to ignite between athletes vying for a championship, a higher spot in the rankings or even a higher bank deposit amount. All across sports, not just in the fight game, rivalries turn bitter. For many, sports is an escape from the serious matters that create distrust and ill will in a divided world.
Nowhere is the combativeness as feisty as it is in the fight business. And that's fine. All does not need to be gentlemanly or gentlewomanly. But personal grudges that push the trash talk beyond the line of decency and safety do not reflect well on MMA.
But the truth is that Covington might not be able to sell a fight any other way, until another shot at the title becomes undeniable. Going back to his tried and true playbook might be the only direction to go, but with that said, fights of this type often end up with an unsatisfactory feeling at the end. A mere athletic contest might not satisfy the enmity of Masvidal. But this gritty game is elevated to something nobler when two combatants who've been beating the crap out of each other for half an hour hear the final horn, end the violence and hug out of respect. And what we saw at the end of the night between Covington and Masvidal was anything but that.