It may be a few weeks earlier than usual—and it is not actually the last card of 2019—but the Ultimate Fighting Championship certainly appears to have continued its tradition of ending the year with a bang. In an era in which the UFC has focused more and more on stacking specific cards, this still might be the most loaded offering of the last 12 months, at least from a hardcore fan’s standpoint. Having three title fights does not automatically make it so, but the fact that the top two—the long-awaited Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington welterweight clash and Alexander Volkanovski’s bid to unseat featherweight champion Max Holloway—represent two of the best fights the UFC can currently stage certainly puts this card over the top. Add in some ridiculously deep prelims in terms of stakes and excitement, and there is not a bad word to say about UFC 245 this Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Now to the UFC 245 “Usman vs. Covington” preview:
UFC Welterweight ChampionshipC | Kamaru Usman (15-1) vs. #2 WW | Colby Covington (15-1)
ODDS: Usman (-175), Covington (+155)
Since it was briefly targeted for a card in St. Louis nearly two years ago, Usman-Covington has been one of the most intriguing matchups the UFC could put together in their welterweight division, and now, the time has finally come. The early part of Covington’s UFC career was quite the slow burn. The California native dominated opponent after opponent with his wrestling attack, save a quick submission loss to Warlley Alves, and the end result was that it took about three years for the promotion to start pushing him in earnest. Then came Covington’s infamous 2017 bout against Demian Maia in Sao Paulo, Brazil, which served as the turning point for his career in quite a few ways. Covington, then relatively colorless as a personality and not particularly exciting inside the cage, apparently got word his contract would not be renewed, win or lose, and desperate times apparently called for the most desperate of measures. The funny part? Beginning with the Maia fight, Covington became a much more exciting fighter against opponents who could offer some resistance to his wrestling. His bouts against Maia and Rafael dos Anjos saw him drown his Brazilian foes in a pressure game that mixed in high-paced volume striking to match his relentless wrestling game. However, that is not what generated the headlines. That honor went to his post-fight comments, during which he proclaimed the Brazilian fans to be “filthy animals” and was escorted to the back by police as trash rained down. At first, Covington’s lowest-common-denominator trash talk was almost too dumb to take seriously, but as time has gone on, he has morphed into something of a right-wing troll who has been as outright offensive as he has been cartoonish. Still, it is difficult to say the gambit has paid off. Covington’s interim title win over dos Anjos and his subsequent media opportunity with President Trump figured to be red meat for the UFC brass, but as soon as he was unable to fill a headlining spot against then-champion Tyron Woodley due to recovery from surgery, “Chaos” found himself in the doghouse and, more importantly, behind Usman and Darren Till in line for title contention. After over a year off, Covington took a no-win fight against Robbie Lawler in August, and to his credit, it was the best performance of his career, as he actually showed some boxing ability beyond charging forward and throwing volume. Now, he has finally earned his opportunity at undisputed gold against Usman. God help us all if he wins.
The parallels between Usman and Covington have been obvious. They are both decorated collegiate wrestlers; they have identical professional records; and their rise to contention has come at the expense of many of the same opponents. Until Usman took home welterweight gold, it looked like Covington was pulling ahead in terms of career progression. Usman’s early career was its own slow burn, despite the fact that the Nigerian immigrant came to the UFC with a ton of hype and did so by essentially winning a season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Part of that was Usman earning a reputation as a boring grinder—even if his wins were completely dominant—which in turn left him as a fighter that top opponents were unwilling to face. Even a 2017 bout against Sergio Moraes in which Usman obviously hunted for a knockout and got one in spectacular fashion did not do much to raise his stock in the short-term. Nearly a year later, Maia eventually stepped up to the plate to face “The Nigerian Nightmare.” That started a brief trend of Usman essentially following the same path to the welterweight elite that Covington took, though with more impressive performances. Usman overcame a middling start to neutralize Maia over five rounds whereas Covington only went three, and Covington’s fun back-and-forth scrap against dos Anjos gave way to Usman completely controlling the former lightweight champ. With Covington on bad terms with the UFC, Usman managed to step into the void earlier this year and get a shot against Woodley, which turned into a shockingly dominant title win. The challenger had no issue taking down and wearing out one of his fellow strongest wrestlers in the division. Since then, Usman’s sights have been firmly set on Covington, and after months of talk, things will finally be settled.
Each man’s style relies on his wrestling, and since someone figures to have that advantage here, it will be interesting to see what backup plan the other develops. However, each fighter’s respective bout against dos Anjos was illustrative of the differences between the two. Covington took much more damage but handily won rounds with pressure and pace, leaving dos Anjos frustrated and unable to react; Usman simply used his freakish strength to control the terms of the fight, slow down the pace and keep himself out of danger. If this fight took place circa mid-2018, Covington would have had an excellent shot of taking this matchup due to the dynamics on the feet. While Covington has traditionally been far from a technical striker, his natural relentlessness figured to make him successful against the much more mechanical Usman. Through his fight with Maia, the Nigerian has often visibly had to think of his next move rather than letting things come naturally on the feet, and it is easy to see a scenario where Covington could have essentially overloaded Usman with volume before he could make a decision. Both men have improved since, and the latest dynamic does not seem to favor Covington. While Covington’s fight against Lawler showed a new level of striking that should serve him well in the long run, things seem to have finally clicked with Usman in his last two appearances. Dos Anjos and Woodley cannot set the same pace as Covington, but Usman looked more natural on the feet than he ever has, wading through the danger his opponents had to offer while setting up his excellent wrestling game. That is the other aspect that favors Usman. He simply seems like the much stronger fighter, so even if Covington is successfully able to put on pace and pressure, it is hard to see where that leads if Usman is the one who can gain the advantage by turning the fight into a grind. If Covington had shown any knockout power to date in his career, he might have a clearer avenue to a win, but at the moment, it looks like Usman can neutralize all of his strengths. A range kickboxing match becomes interesting, but even there, Usman is the longer and more powerful fighter. If Covington wins this, it will probably be due to something he has not shown yet. For example, if the improved striking in the Lawler fight was the first step towards Covington becoming someone who can plant and throw with power effectively, there is the off chance that Covington could score a shocking knockout. However, that is just conjecture, and even if Covington is still a rapidly improving talent, the same holds true for Usman, who for now looks to be one step ahead. The pick is Usman via decision.
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