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There are few fighters in the sport who seem to have more personal animus than Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington. These two have been jawing at each other for years, much of it coming when a fight didn’t appear to be in the horizon. There are personal differences, political disagreements and negative past interactions. When that type of discord develops, there’s a lot of personal pride on the line when the fight takes place, which is a big part of the appeal grudge fights have always had. You know the fighters are going to do all they can to win because losing would be such an unbearable indignity.
That pride also means defeat can be a particularly devastating blow to the loser. It’s no coincidence then that these types of personal fights usually come together when both fighters feel relatively evenly matched and at similar stages of their careers. Nobody wants to be a steppingstone for a person he despises. Woodley-Covington at UFC Fight Night 178 on Saturday in Las Vegas is unusual in that, after years of gestation, it’s going to take place when Covington appears to be the best he has ever been and Woodley has looked badly faded in recent fights.
Covington may have lost last time out against Kamaru Usman, but it was arguably the most impressive performance of his career. Covington was in there with a monster who hasn’t lost since 2013, and he gave Usman all he could handle for nearly 25 minutes. Covington’s striking, once his biggest liability, was potent. He lost via TKO but in significant measure appeared to continue the momentum of seven straight wins rather than seeing that momentum squashed. Crucially, he’s 32 and has many prime years left.
Woodley, by contrast, is now 38. That’s less than a year younger than Georges St. Pierre, who has been retired for seven years, with the exception of his fight against Michael Bisping. It’s a year older than Matt Hughes was when he retired. Woodley is older than contemporaries like Johny Hendricks and Carlos Condit who long ago faded. The welterweight division has never been accommodating to fighters in their late 30s at the championship level.
Even more problematically, Woodley has looked his age in his most recent fights. His setbacks against Gilbert Burns and Kamaru Usman were arguably the two weakest performances of his career. Burns and Usman together landed more significant strikes against Woodley than Woodley’s previous nine opponents combined. Woodley seemed slow and listless, rarely showing the flashes of the championship fighter he had been. Woodley in his prime against Covington in his prime would likely be a pick’em fight, but Covington is a 4-to-1 favorite at some sportsbooks.
In that sense, it’s a credit to Woodley that he’s taking this fight. There are plenty of high-level fighters he could have faced where he would have the opportunity to work his way back into the title picture with an impressive win. Instead, he’s taking on someone who will likely make his life miserable should he lose, and he’s doing so at a time when Covington’s on the ascent and he’s on the decline. Woodley, who cares about his legacy, has to know a defeat would stick out on his resume compared to Covington and that fans tend to forget the timing of wins and losses. Still, he takes this fight.
One explanation for that decision is guts, a willingness to confront potential humiliation mixed with athletic defeat. It takes courage to risk damage to one’s pride, but of course, to risk being knocked unconscious does, too. Another explanation is hubris, a continuing belief in his superiority and denial of the lessons that could be learned from recent fights. Woodley certainly wouldn’t be the first fighter to continue competing past his prime, nor the first to suffer disheartening defeat in the process. It can a take distressingly long time for athletes to recognize for themselves what appears readily apparent to the layman observer without a vested interest.
There is a third possible explanation: that Woodley’s right and a whole lot of other people are wrong. The bettors are wrong to discount him. The critics are reading too much into his two most recent fights. Fighters have setbacks, of course, particularly when they take on the consistently high level of competition has Woodley has met. His age isn’t the liability many perceive it to be, and he benefits from the wisdom that comes with experience. That is almost certainly what Woodley is thinking.
Perhaps Woodley will get the last laugh in short order. If he does, it will be all the more satisfying against such a disliked opponent. The problem is what Woodley confronts if that doesn’t come to fruition. This could be a whole lot worse than losing to Burns. If Woodley thought Covington was insufferable before this fight, it could get a whole lot worse.