One of the most fascinating aspects of the match-up between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington this Saturday is just how natural they seem as rivals. Every so often in combat sports fans are blessed with a set of rivals who seem perfect for each other stylistically, they check all the right boxes for what they have in common and just the right boxes that make them so opposing. Usman and Covington absolutely fit this mold.
They both come from similar backgrounds athletically, wrestling out of Iowa State before diverging into opposing schools and opposing divisions. Yet, while they both represent the epitome of American wrestling, Usman also represents the Nigerian dream, moving to America and becoming a champion, while Covington makes his stock as the hardened All-American wrestler who created himself from the grassroots up.
After both developing themselves through the collegiate wrestling system, they entered MMA with a similar background and general combat strategy. Outwrestle, out-condition, and hit as hard as they can with the basic striking they’ve built on top. By the time they first met at UFC 245, they even shared the same record at 15-1. This was even more interesting when you consider that the single loss on either of their records had been a victim of the other. Warlley Alves, who strangled Covington into submission in 2015 was beaten by Usman a year later. Jose Caceres, the lone man to hold a win over Usman, was Covington’s fourth win. As we look back it seems as though the two paths tred by each fighter evidently needed to cross.
Statistics do not tell the story of a fight or a fighter. However, with these two individuals, deciphering such similar results, against such similar opposition may actually offer insight into what the small details, the small intricacies in their games are that make them so unique and dangerous for each other.
Both fighters come into their rematch with less than a minute difference in average fight time. Usman with 16:04 and Covington with 15:16. The difference not told in these numbers however is that Usman’s last seven fights had the potential to go five rounds, while only four of Covingtons had. Regardless, many of the faces on their most recent runs will be familiar to either of them and taking a look at these common opponents and how their fights played out is important.
Rafael Dos Anjos
Colby Covington first fought Rafael Dos Anjos in June of 2018 for the UFC welterweight interim belt. After losing to Covington, ‘RDA’ immediately returned against Usman the following November, and so a similar version of Dos Anjos was present in both fights. While both Usman and Covington are known for their wrestling, Dos Anjos seemed much more confident engaging in this area against Covington, shooting six times and landing three, although unable to hold Covington down for long. In comparison, Dos Anjos attempted only one takedown on Usman and elected to restrain from initiating any wrestling after missing it. What this tells me is there is a difference in physical feeling between the two fighters, and while it may be visually obvious, Usman is the larger, more physically strong fighter. For Dos Anjos to feel after one attempt that wrestling is a failing game plan against Usman overall is telling, for him to feel that even if he cannot consistently hold Covington down but at least compete in grappling situations is also telling.
However, what Covington may give up in physicality to Usman he makes up for in pace. Both men tend to outwork and out condition their opponents but how they do so is what’s fascinating…
Against Demian Maia, it is common logic that he has to take you down and you need to avoid the ground at all cost. This is evident in the fact that neither Usman nor Covington, elite wrestlers, attempted a single takedown on him. Instead, Usman stuffed 15 takedowns against Maia and Covington defended 13. It’s important to note however that while this makes it seems as though Maia was more active pursuing Usman, this fight was contested over 25 minutes while Covington only battled Maia for 15. This means that by far, the pace set in the Covington fight was greater, which is obvious even further by the strikes. Covington received 59 strikes and landed 121 of his own. Usman ate 33 and landed 97 with his extra two rounds.
Interpret it as this: both men outwork their opponents. The difference is, while Usman’s game is built on his superior physicality and power, both his ability to bully and hurt with few shots, lower the output of his opponents, allowing him to lessen the pace but stay ahead. Covington entertains a greater pace from his opponents but knows that with an even greater conditioning himself he can go even further.
Tyron Woodley was the champion prior to Usman, and the champion whom Usman won his belt from. By the time he fought Covington a year and a half later it’s mostly agreed he was a different fighter. Woodley, like Dos Anjos, disregarded offensive wrestling against Usman after one failed attempt but landed 1/1 against Covington. Once again, the ability for Covington to get back to his feet was phenomenal, giving up barely 14 seconds of control time.
Covington’s ability to stay constantly moving makes ending up on his back less dangerous than Usman in the same position, because he is constantly working, he is able to make up for taken strikes or landed takedowns by doubling down. Plus, even when they get off better in individual exchanges, Covington’s opponents are still forced to work, which is essentially Covington’s primary goal.
For Usman who has never been taken down in his UFC career, he knows he can clamp onto rest positions and slow things to his pace, especially clinched and on top. If he does find himself on bottom, or even in a defensive position as was the case when Maia once found his back, he loses significant ability to dictate his own pace. It is more crucial for Usman to stop the initial wrestling exchanges and dictate them on his own terms than is the case with Covington who can work back.
Both men are so similar, it comes down to details when figuring out this match-up. Covington will look to make Usman work until he is losing himself in the storm and Usman will look to make every shot count to try to shut down Covington’s body piece by piece. Whoever dictates the pace will be the one who can make the fight run by their game.
If the two engage in more wrestling than the first time, Covington will be carrying more weight via Usman and battling more physical strength than vice versa, but for each shot, scramble, and get up Usman has in the tank, Covington may have two.
It’s a fascinating match-up between two fighters with so much in common yet such important differences.