Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight Colby Covington was in the middle of a news conference following his victory over Tyron Woodley when he was interrupted by a phone call that he could not ignore. It was the US president.
Donald Trump told Covington he had rushed from his Saturday night rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina to watch the fight.
“I’m proud of you man, I’m a big fan and I’m proud of you,” Trump told Covington, who was wearing a “Keep America Great” hat, and had put the supposedly spontaneous call on speakerphone.
“You’re tough, you have the right spirits. So now go win the next one, and just keep it for a long time, right? … I appreciated the shout-out tonight, too. I’m your fan, you’re my fan. Two of a kind, two of a kind.”
Covington, an outspoken and controversial Trump supporter from California, won a fifth-round technical-knockout (TKO) over Woodley in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) September 20, 2020
After the fight, draped in an American flag, he lambasted Trump’s Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the silent majority is ready to make some noise,” Covington said. “If you thought that was a beating, wait until November 3 when Donald Trump gets his hands on Sleepy Joe. That’s going to be a landslide.”
Covington then dedicated his victory over Woodley to “all the first responders, all the military out there”, before criticising LeBron James, the NBA’s biggest athlete who is an advocate for Black Lives Matter and other progressive causes.
“This world would not be safe without you guys,” Covington said. “You keep us safe, not these woke athletes, man. I’m sick of these woke athletes, and these spineless cowards like LeBron James.”
Colby Covington post fight interview. pic.twitter.com/foEUWHWPrY
— Jed I. Goodman (@jedigoodman) September 20, 2020
While Covington is particularly outspoken in his invoking of the US culture war, the UFC has gained a reputation for a large conservative fanbase and fighting roster that has little patience for the social justice protests seen recently in other sports in the United States.
The build-up to Saturday’s fight had been acrimonious as the two former sparring partners have a personal enmity, based on conflicting accounts of past sparring sessions. But the bad blood also spilled out into a clash over politics and the Black Lives Matter movement in the run-up.
Protests against racial injustice and police brutality erupted across the US after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May. Videos of Floyd’s death captured by witnesses spread around the world, leading to a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
Woodley, a former UFC welterweight champion, wore Black Lives Matter shirts to pre-fight press appearances as well as a hat emblazoned with the slogan “Make racists catch the fade again”, and he chose to reply to all questions from media in a news conference leading up to the fight with a variation of “Black Lives Matter”.
“I’m just excited that Black Lives Matter,” Woodley said when asked about the fight.
Covington, ranked number two in the UFC’s welterweight rankings, responded by referring to Woodley as a “racist” and a “domestic terrorist sympathiser” over his support for the racial justice movement.
After his victory over Woodley, Covington doubled down on his criticism.
“Black Lives Matter is a complete sham. It’s a joke. They’re taking people that are complete terrorists. These are bad people,” he said.
"Black Lives Matter is a complete sham. It's a joke. They're taking people that are complete terrorists. These are bad people… [Tyron Woodley] is a communist. He's a Marxist. He hates America." – @ColbyCovMMA
— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) September 20, 2020
Covington has made his support for Trump part of his brand and public persona, frequently donning a “Make America Great Again” cap. He visited Trump at the White House in 2018.
Like @POTUS @realDonaldTrump always says: Promises made. Promises kept. Pleasure to finally meet you Mr. President. Thank you for always putting America first! #maga #GreatAmericanWinningMachine 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/yYZWkdd5wS
— Colby Covington (@ColbyCovMMA) August 2, 2018
Covington is just one of many UFC personalities who have thrown their weight behind Trump’s re-election bid. He joined UFC President Dana White, UFC fighter Justin Gaethje, and retired fighter Henry Cejudo at a recent Trump campaign rally in Nevada.
White voiced his support for Trump in a five-minute prerecorded clip at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August.
“I believe we need President Trump’s leadership now more than ever,” he said.
Trump has a long-standing connection to the UFC dating back to 2001, when he allowed the promotion to put on fights at his casino at a time when it was struggling to obtain licences. He attended a UFC event in 2019, which was the first time a sitting US president had attended a mixed martial arts event.
Sean Wheelock, a mixed martial arts commentator, told Al Jazeera that the aftermath of the fight reflected the volatile, polarised situation in the United States, but also said Covington is particuarly outspoken for a UFC fighter.
“Trump seems to have a great sense for athletes and entertainers who support him, and he absolutely seizes those opportunities,” Wheelock said.
Wheelock pushed back on the idea that the UFC is a bastion of conservatism; he said it is often an opened-minded production with a significant ethnic, cultural, and national mix of fighters, as well as featuring female fighters, and that its fanbase is diverse.
“I don’t know if there’s a typical UFC fan anymore than there’s a typical Premier league fan or NFL fan. I just think everything is politicised in this country right now,” he said. “[Covington] is going to upset a lot of people and embolden a lot of people.”
Several UFC fighters have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A video clip released online in June featured 14 UFC stars including current middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, ex-middleweight champion Michael Bisping, and ex-strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, among others.
“We the athletes of the UFC want it to be known that we stand together in condemning racism and police brutality,” the fighters said.