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
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UFC 227 fight week came and went with plenty to talk about. The dethroning of the most successful champion in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the settling of the deeply personal and ongoing Team Alpha Male and T.J. Dillashaw feud and the fight announcements that signaled the return of long-gone stars Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz were among the highlights. Lost in the shuffle was another historic first.
For the first time ever, a reigning champion was welcomed into the White House to meet a sitting president. Colby Covington accomplished something that he was very vocal about doing once he earned the interim welterweight strap against Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 225. The American Top Team provocateur placed his UFC gold on the desk at the Oval Office as an official guest of President Donald Trump. With all the controversy and media coverage involving various teams in mainstream sports turning down or being denied invitations to celebrate their championships, this was a perfect opportunity for the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion to stake its claim in the minds of the average sports fan. With the current political divide in the country, this is a promotional slam dunk.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about the potential cultural flashpoint of Covington’s ascension to interim title holder while Tyron Woodley remains at the top of the welterweight mountain. The red “Make America Great Again” hat and an American flag draped over his shoulders as he makes his walk to the Octagon with the entire arena loving or hating him for it. The photos and video being added to the prefight promo package. The “Chosen One” then making that same walk with a flag over his shoulders and a hard hitting hip hop track playing over the same chorus of cheers and boos. The story had written itself.
This was done under the completely logical assumption that the belts would be unified and the grudge match would actually come to fruition under those circumstances. However, logic has clearly left the building. Not only did the UFC opt to pass up on having a fight for the real championship with Woodley opposite of either Covington or Dos Anjos following his recovery from shoulder surgery, they then invalidated the meaningless interim belt further by stripping Covington in a matter of weeks and booking a fight between Woodley and Darren Till for the undisputed crown.
So, what was the point of it all? Without a fight to promote, why even bother with the photo op? The Oregon State University wrestling standout with his new jewelry placed over President Trump’s shoulder made the top of CNN’s webpage. But without an attached article or caption directing the viewer -- who has very little exposure to MMA on that website -- to an impending bout, it’s very likely that it’ll be easily forgotten with no noticeable return for the fighter or promotion.
After 25 years in operation and digging its way out of the heavy political backlash of the early “human cockfighting” days, the UFC finally made it to the White House. But in less than a month when Woodley and Till throw the opening punches at one another in their scheduled fight at UFC 228, Covington will no longer be a champion of any sort.
As fellow Sherdog contributor Jacob Debets outlined in a recent article, the ties between Donald Trump and the UFC are longstanding. Trump supported White and the UFC long before it became popular to do so and MMA became the hot new investment or camera opportunity for A-list celebrities. As a simple matter of honoring that well-established backing, wouldn’t it have made more sense to make this photo op under less dubious circumstances?
Out of the list of great American champions to fight under the banner, the UFC choose to put the most illegitimate of belt holders in this spotlight. Even the now-former flyweight boss Demetrious Johnson expressed a willingness to meet with President Trump if the opportunity were to arise, when asked at UFC 227’s media day. If the concern was not promoting an upcoming pay-per-view showcase but simply to put a sitting champion next to a sitting president for a few pictures to show that mixed martial arts is a reputable sport, then putting a true champion in that picture makes the most sense. How about a celebration of Daniel Cormier’s historic dual division takeover? Or showing off wholesome full-time first responder Stipe Miocic when he faced foreign-born opponents in his pre-DC defenses?
If the goal was to have pictures of a popular UFC fighter in the White House, there were plenty of other options that would have made more sense. For example, why not have Donald Cerrone, a fan favorite who has publically supported Trump? Maybe former middleweight titlist Chris Weidman, who was vocal in endorsement of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign? What about pioneering women’s bantamweight fighter Miesha Tate, who had done the same? Perhaps even a group of fighters following the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall, as an act of solidarity and a show of support for the promotion’s home?
The point is there were plenty of other options. A White House visit has been a validating moment for high-level athletes as far back as 1924, when the Washington Senators met with President Calvin Coolidge after winning the World Series. This has been a long time coming for the sport of MMA. Unfortunately, that moment that could have been meaningful, even if you fall on the other side of the political spectrum. That moment could have come sooner. Imagine if Woodley had been allowed to meet then-President Barack Obama after winning the belt at UFC 201. A Ferguson, Missouri, native being welcomed into the Oval Office with the backdrop of the national headlines behind his hometown’s police force while the company made good on the marketability of an African-American champion. Perhaps it would have been appropriate for Anthony Pettis to put his presidential picture next to his Wheaties box.
The UFC squandered an amazing opportunity in several ways. They have jeopardized one of the easiest rivalries to promote as a main event in recent history. They took what could have been a marquee moment for the sport and wasted it for discernable reason. They have promoted a belt that will fall victim to a Thanos finger snap in a matter of days. And in the everlasting effort to gain the eyeballs of the casual fan, they failed to take advantage of that brief moment that MMA left its isolated bubble.