With UFC Newark wrapped up, the future of the welterweight title picture is still unclear, but it is at the very least less messy than it was before. All the key players have distinguished themselves from the pack, through their triumphs over their fellow welterweights, through their resume, and through their personas.
The goal for all of them is, of course, reigning champion Kamaru Usman, also ranked seventh in pound-for-pound rankings. Usman presently holds a record of 15-1, and hasn’t lost since 2013 in a bout against Jose Caceres in what was his second ever fight in professional mixed martial arts. Usman at present is yet to defend his belt since he won it from Tyron Woodley earlier this March, nursing a fractured foot and a double hernia in the meantime. It is currently expected that he will return sometime later this year, likely in November at the UFC’s annual pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden. It is in the air as to who Usman will be competing against, bringing us to the center point of this piece; who should get the next shot at gold at 170 pounds?
Top of the Welterweight Heap
The two main contenders who have a claim to the next title shot are Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal, and we will start off discussing the former’s case. Colby Covington, who also boasts a record of 15-1 like the champion, most recently fought at this past Saturday’s event at Newark against Robbie Lawler, where he won a dominant decision against the former champion. Covington was initially supposed to get a title shot in what would have been a title unification bout against then-champion Tyron Woodley after winning the interim title at UFC 225 in Chicago in June of last year, but the interim belt-holder lost his title shot to Darren Till at UFC 228 in September of 2018 because of his unwillingness to compete at that date, wanting to go underneath surgery to clear mucus from his sinuses. He was stripped of the interim belt shortly after, and had a lay-off longer than a year until August 3rd, just a few days ago.
There was no clear underdog or favorite in the main event of UFC on ESPN 5, but even the people who picked Covington (myself included) would have expected him winning to be mainly from a grappling intensive gameplan, as Colby Covington is an NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler. What came as a surprise was that not only was Covington able to control Robbie Lawler on the mat, but also on the feet. Seven of the ten total takedowns that Covington landed came in the first two rounds, and by the final round Covington attempted just one, which ended up being stuffed. Colby Covington was able to execute an excellent fight at distance, controlling virtually all exchanges against a legendary striker in Robbie Lawler, frustrating him with a persistent barrage, and in the process setting a UFC record for most strikes thrown in a UFC bout at 541.
While Covington never had the former champion in danger, his smothering attack kept Lawler moving backwards and unable to produce any meaningful offense whatsoever. All three judges scored every round for Covington, and one judge even gave him one 10-8 round. There aren’t any metrics as to which to measure this by, but with a performance like that it seems like fans are starting to acknowledge Covington’s talent and status, with wins over former UFC champions in Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos, former two-division title challenger and BJJ legend Demian Maia, and over perennial contender Dong Hyun Kim. Covington is currently riding a seven-fight unbeaten streak, and has not lost since December 2015.
Covington is a very polarizing figure among MMA fans and media, and understandably so. Covington, in his trash talk has no sacred cow; nothing is beyond his ire. His callousness towards conventions has created somewhat of a following, but even more so has enraged large swathes of those who watch the sport. Covington relishes in the hatred, labeling his detractors as virgins and nerds, spoiling popular movies on opening night on social media just to make them despise him even more. The cherry on top the trash talk was the addition of political rhetoric, making him even more divisive than he already was by taking advantage of preconceived political beliefs that fans may already possess.
Colby Covington has never headlined a pay-per-view, only fighting on the co-main event of UFC 225, and was for the first time ever given top billing on a fight night against Robbie Lawler. UFC 225 garnered around 250,000 buys, which in the era of a lack of real PPV stars isn’t terrible, but there is no reason to believe that Covington contributed significantly to that number. Even if he did, these PPV numbers are far from the level of other prominent trash talkers such as Conor McGregor and Chael Sonnen. Nevertheless, even if he isn’t the next big star in the sport, as he presents himself as, he has generated some buzz through his inflammatory trash talk and insults, and that, along with his resume of impressive wins, an interim title which he never lost, and undeniable talent may catapult him into a grudge match and title fight against Kamaru Usman.
The Other Option: Jorge Masvidal
The other man with a serious claim to a title shot is Jorge Masvidal. Masvidal has been around for quite a bit longer in the upper echelons of the sport, competing in Bellator when it was a much different organization, and having fought for the Strikeforce lightweight belt in December 2011 against Gilbert Melendez. His run at lightweight however, both in Strikeforce and the UFC produced no real results, winning multiple fights but losing every critical match. He made the decision then to return to welterweight, and even though it had a rocky start, going 1-2 in his first three, the decision to go up to 170 soon paid off.
Masvidal would win three fights in a row, against Ross Pearson, Jake Ellenberger and Donald Cerrone, the last two of those wins came via technical knockout. People may forget, but the win over Cerrone had massive implications. Cerrone, like Masvidal, had moved up to welterweight after frustration with a lack of success, and proceeded to go on a four-fight win streak, all of those wins were all in 2016 and came via stoppage. It seemed like Cerrone had found a home at 170, and was destined to continue his streak of active competition and wins at his new home weight class up to a shot at the belt, but in Masvidal, he found his match. Masvidal was at the time ranked at twelfth, whereas Cerrone was ranked fifth in the world, but Masvidal ended up winning the match via second-round TKO, stealing all of his momentum in the process.
Things would not continue to be as successful for Masvidal, as he would then drop his next two, losing a title eliminator bout to Demian Maia at UFC 211 in Dallas, though the bout was a competitive split decision. His next loss to Stephen Thompson was far more dominant, with the karate specialist easily winning a decision at UFC 217. Masvidal would not compete for the entirety of 2018, slowly dropping in the rankings as his presence dimmed. Other contenders like Covington, Usman, Rafael dos Anjos and Darren Till started to shine at 170, and the addition of Ben Askren to the UFC roster buried Masvidal in the rankings, where he would finally drop to eleventh, almost back where he started before the fight with Donald Cerrone over two years previous.
Finally, Masvidal would make his return in London against Darren Till in March of 2019. Till was ranked third at the time, and was coming off his first career loss in a title bout against Tyron Woodley. The long lay-off, and the size difference, Masvidal being a former lightweight and Till struggling to make the 170 limit meant that Masvidal was an underdog in the eyes of the bookies and the public despite much experience as a veteran of the sport. Masvidal however would put all doubts to rest with a thunderous second round Knockout of the former title challenger, silencing Till’s home crowd, and earning himself an extra $100,000 for both Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night bonuses.
It was expected that with a win that Darren Till would go on to face Ben Askren, as the rivalry between the two took form on social media, but Masvidal ended all of that with his win. Now ranked fourth, Masvidal became the subject of Askren’s ire, facing brutal insults at the hands of the former Bellator and ONE FC champion. Since Covington was at the time out of the public spotlight, this was viewed, especially for Askren as a title eliminator bout, a win likely setting up a bout with Kamaru Usman, but just as Darren Till had been sent crashing to the floor, Masvidal ended up improving on that win.
The official time is listed at five seconds, but in reality the flying knee which gave Askren his first ever official loss within MMA landed and separated Askren from consciousness took about two seconds. The stunning knockout won Jorge Masvidal another consecutive Performance of the Night bonus, along with the record for fastest knockout in organization history. The win also propelled Jorge Masvidal to a level of stardom within the sport that he had never achieved before this fight, and has kept him well within discussions of the next title shot.
Covington and Masvidal are training partners, friends even, with Colby Covington referring to Masvidal as his best friend on multiple occasions. While they have stated that they would both be willing to put their friendship aside to fight, especially if it was for the title, it’s hard to believe that a fight between them wouldn’t seriously complicate things in that relationship, so unless one of them wins the belt, I’ll dismiss that happening. If they are not going to fight each other, then there isn’t really one clear cut contender, as both have strong claims to that title fight.
For Covington, his case is built on his dominating style; how he thoroughly controlled Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos in all facets of mixed martial arts, how he was the interim title holder who never lost his belt, his seven fight winning streak, and his ability to promote the fight even if vicious and sometimes odious in nature. Covington will be able to make people care about a fight with Usman because he is an expert in creating haters despite his continued ability to win, and win in a dominant fashion.
As for Masvidal, his case for a title shot is predicated upon the manner of which he has won his last two fights; by thrilling knockout despite being the underdog. He hasn’t had the long unbeaten run of Colby Covington, but the two men he dismantled were top ranked welterweights with a combined pre-Masvidal record of 36-1-1 in professional mixed martial arts. One of the two men was a multi-organization champion, and the other had only one loss, that being to the then-champion in the UFC. Covington may win fights, but Masvidal finishes elite fighters in spectacular fashion. The notion that Colby Covington is a boring wrestler is one that is going to be hard to shake since he hasn’t finished a fight since 2016, whereas when Masvidal fights, sparks fly.
The Wild Card: Leon Edwards
With that outlined, a quick word on Leon Edwards. Leon Edwards has been sneakily building up a set of wins at welterweight, now holding an eight fight win streak including wins over Vicente Luque, Donald Cerrone, Gunnar Nelson and most recently Rafael dos Anjos. While these wins haven’t been the most enthralling; only two of them have come by way of finish, they have been over solid competition. In addition, the last man that Edwards has lost to is current champion Kamaru Usman back in December of 2015. While it’s very difficult to say that Edwards is more deserving than Masvidal or Covington of a title shot, he is likely one victory away from a rematch with Usman.
I wrote last month in my post-UFC 239 piece that it would be hard to deny Masvidal a title shot, but with the presence of Covington at the top of the division, I have to admit that I am slightly more sympathetic towards Covington than Masvidal in this argument, and it appears that the UFC is as well. The UFC, specifically company president Dana White have a very poor track record when it comes to their promises, so treat that statement with a grain of salt, but for the time being it seems likely that Usman’s first challenger will come in the form of Colby Covington.
While an Usman-Covington wouldn’t be a title unification bout, it may have the vibes of one. The legitimacy of interim belts has been (rightfully) brought into question more and more recently, but ultimately in the perspective of Colby Covington the belt he won at UFC 225 is the real welterweight title, and he is yet to lose it. A fight between those two is bound to have some of the most heinous pre-fight activities in recent history, but the fight would be to determine who is the real number one welterweight in the world.