Covington, who was 26 and had only five pro fights under his belt, was hired to be a sparring partner for his fellow American Top Team fighter, but Covington was hoping there would be something more to it, something mutually beneficial.
“The experience was very fake,” Covington told ESPN. “I could tell that the first day after training. He wasn’t bringing me in as a teammate or this and that. He was trying to tee off on me. He was trying to look good and build his confidence off of me. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I’m not here to be a sparring partner. I’m here to win my own world title and to be the best fighter in the world.
“I thought I’d be there, we’d do some things at night, hang out. No, I got left at the hotel — find your own way. And that’s what I did.”
For six years, Covington has carried that resentment. It became public in 2017, when Covington began campaigning for a title shot against Woodley, who was the UFC welterweight champion. The trash talk grew personal, but the bout never materialized after several tries.
Covington vs. Woodley will headline Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.
“I’ve always hated the guy,” Covington said, “since that training.”
It’s one of the most heated rivalries in the history of the UFC’s welterweight division. And, in a way, it was the launchpad for Covington’s current pro wrestling-style heel persona.
Long before Covington’s feuds with current champ Kamaru Usman and former teammate Jorge Masvidal, Covington’s crude barbs were directed at Woodley, and Woodley had no problem giving them back just as sharply.
“I thought Colby-Usman was Colby-T-Wood light,” said American Top Team owner Dan Lambert, Covington’s former agent and a longtime confidante of Woodley. “It was a lot of what Colby-T-Wood could have been, but not everything it could have been. There’s just so many layers to [Covington vs. Woodley].”
Woodley, who is six years older than Covington, considered himself a mentor to the young fighters — especially the wrestlers — at American Top Team. In fact, ATT started a program for high-level college wrestlers about eight years ago, partly based on Woodley’s success representing the team. Lambert said the gym put an ad out with the Flo Wrestling website asking for wrestlers to come to try out for ATT. Dozens showed up, but only five were selected. Covington was one of the five.
“And it was all based upon me,” Woodley told ESPN’s UFC Fight Camp. “So his affiliation [with ATT] before I even met him came from my hard work and my mentality and my work ethic.”
Woodley and Covington first met during that camp in 2014, when Qui Tran, a restaurateur, flew Covington into Woodley’s hometown of St. Louis, where Woodley owns his own American Top Team affiliate, ATT Evolution. Mai Lee, Tran’s Vietnamese restaurant, was a sponsor for both fighters.
Covington said he didn’t like the initial vibe he got from training with Woodley. Covington said the training on the mats was one-sided, focused on a singular goal: improving Woodley. Covington also said Woodley attempted to give him advice about his career — “a lot of bad ideas,” he said.
“There was always a rivalry when we stepped on the mats and trained together. When they lock that Octagon, the truth is gonna come to light.”
“He was trying to tell me about a model or way I should build my brand,” Covington said. “He’s always been about the brand. It doesn’t matter about the fighting, it’s about building the brand. At the end of the day, fighting is fighting. You get locked in the cage, and if you get your hand raised everything speaks for itself. I don’t really care about a brand. I’m here to fight and be the best in the world.”
To those who sense a degree of hypocrisy in Covington criticizing someone else for embracing a brand while he rejuvenated his career by crafting what he’s admitted is an over-the-top persona, let him explain.
“I don’t look at it like a brand,” Covington said. “He looked at it completely different, like all that mattered was the brand.
“I’m here to fight, and I want to fight my heart out and I want to keep winning and do what I do best.”
Din Thomas, Woodley’s head coach, has a different recollection of the few days Covington spent in St. Louis. Thomas said Covington didn’t click with the group and actually left town earlier than scheduled. Covington, Thomas said, “wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with.”
“Most guys when they come out to camp, Tyron takes them out to eat,” Thomas said. “There were times Tyron has taken us all out for laser tag or to the movies, and that stuff wasn’t happening with Colby. He wanted to be off on his own, doing his own thing and even in the gym, he would peel off and start lifting weights or whatever on his own when he felt like it. He didn’t give off that vibe that he wanted to be part of the team.
“All the other sparring partners we’ve brought out over the years will say they’ve had a good time, made some money and went home. Even in just drilling he would try to refuse to allow Tyron to get an advantage everywhere, and you know, I think he was being more competitive. We were looking to get work and get reps, and I think maybe in his own mind he was giving himself a tryout to see how he stacked up against Tyron.”
Covington said he handled Woodley in sparring. Thomas said Woodley was “just better.”
“Colby used to be my warm-up guy,” Woodley said in an Instagram video he posted in 2018. “I hate to break the news to you, but I used to pay him to beat him up. Five hundred bucks a week, plus food, plus hotel, plus rental car, plus gun range, plus entertainment, plus personal trainers, pad work, massage therapy, yoga. I spoiled [him], now all of a sudden he’s bumping his gums.”
Woodley thought he settled his issues with Covington on Aug. 23, 2014, when they were backstage during a UFC card in Macau, China. Covington was making his UFC debut and Woodley was in the co-main event.
“I remember telling him, ‘You’re an asshole. I want to whoop your ass,'” Woodley said. “‘But I’m literally gonna squash all the beef. We’ve both got work to do.’
“We squashed it up in the locker room then and said a prayer before we went out there and fought.”
Woodley beat Dong Hyun Kim that night to start a three-fight winning streak that culminated with him capturing the welterweight title by first-round knockout over Robbie Lawler at UFC 201 on July 30, 2016.
Covington also won that night and began his UFC career 7-1, but he was told that winning was not enough. Covington has said that the UFC told him his wrestling-heavy style wasn’t exciting to fans and he was on the verge of being cut.
So, Covington, a longtime fan of pro wrestling, developed a biting, “heel” persona. And Woodley was one of his first trash-talking targets, beginning in June 2017.
“Last time I trained with him, he wasn’t even competitive,” Covington said at the time. “I’ll break him in half.”
Covington crossed the line with his new, antagonistic persona on Oct. 28, 2017, when he called Brazilian fans “filthy animals” after beating Demian Maia in Sao Paulo. ATT star Amanda Nunes lashed out at her ATT teammate on social media. That same year, Woodley defended his title against Maia and Stephen Thompson.
Covington and Woodley were on a collision course.
In early 2018, Covington began calling Woodley “TyQuil” because, Covington said, Woodley’s fights put people to sleep. On Feb. 3, 2018, Covington did a skit at an independent pro wrestling show in New Jersey, with an opponent called “TyQuil Woodley,” whom Covington promptly beat up.
After defeating Maia, Covington called for a title shot, but he said Woodley — who was dealing with a thumb injury — was “ducking” him. The UFC booked Covington against Rafael dos Anjos for the interim welterweight title at UFC 225 on June 9, 2018. Woodley called it the “boo-boo belt,” because he felt there was no reason for the UFC to install an interim title since he wouldn’t be out all that long.
“I’ve just got to whoop [Covington’s] ass,” Woodley told MMA Junkie in April 2018. “He’s doing a lot of barking.”
Covington dominated dos Anjos, winning a unanimous decision to take the interim title. By all accounts, it should have been Woodley vs. Covington to unify the title next. But that didn’t happen.
Woodley was set to return in September 2018, but Covington needed sinus surgery. The UFC didn’t wait for him. Instead, the promotion gave Darren Till the title shot against Woodley at UFC 228 on Sept. 8, 2018. Woodley won by second-round submission.
“I was stunned that they did not try to do that [Woodley vs. Covington] title fight when it was there,” Lambert said. “It did not make a lot of sense to me. I feel like they rushed Till into that spot.”
With Woodley winning, the Covington fight was still a possibility. Once again, Covington was told he’d get the next title shot. And once again, it didn’t happen. Covington wasn’t able to come to terms with the UFC, and Usman was granted the opportunity against Woodley at UFC 235 on March 2, 2019.
Covington said it was Usman’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, whose relationship with the UFC allowed Usman to hurdle over him in the welterweight pecking order.
“He’s talked himself out of three world title fights,” Woodley said at a UFC Q&A in September 2019. “He was supposed to fight me before I fought Till, he b—-ed out of that fight. He was supposed to fight me before I fought Usman, he b—-ed out of that fight. You guys can do the math as to what he did with the Usman fight.”
During UFC 235 fight week, Covington crashed Usman’s open workout at the MGM Grand, talking trash and causing a stir with fans. Usman ended up defeating Woodley by unanimous decision.
Woodley and Covington moved on from each other. Covington, focused on a title shot, beat Lawler on Aug. 3, 2019, to set up a bout with Usman.
Tyron Woodley says the fifth attempt to negotiate a fight with Colby Covington has fallen apart 💰
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) April 7, 2020
Meanwhile, Woodley was dealing with a hand injury.
Covington finally got his first chance at the undisputed title at UFC 245 on Dec. 14, 2019. But Usman beat him by fifth-round TKO in a back-and-forth war. Both men were left bloody at the end and Covington suffered a jaw injury.
“I wasn’t impressed,” Woodley told TMZ after that fight. “I was really disgusted. I wanted to throw up, the fact that I lost to Usman. If I would’ve punched Colby, he may be on life support right now.
“When I’m looking at how many punches those guys took, I was impressed by their durability, I was impressed by the fact that they kept doing it over and over again — it was kind of a teeter-tottering thing — but as far as IQ, move your f—ing head maybe?”
Woodley returned to the Octagon for the first time since his loss to Usman when he fought Gilbert Burns on May 30. There was talk of Covington vs. Woodley in that slot, but again it didn’t come together when the UFC and Covington couldn’t come to terms.
“The thing is, his last fight he looked so washed up, the UFC wants to see if he has anything left in the tank, so they want to see if he can prove himself to earn the losing ass-whooping paycheck to me,” Covington told MMA Fighting before Woodley vs. Burns. “This is a test by the UFC — they’re making him fight some kid named Dilbert, nobody even knows who Dilbert is.”
Burns won by unanimous decision. It seemed at the time that Covington vs. Woodley might be lost for good, but talks resurfaced about that fight headlining a card in August. Woodley said he was still healing from the Burns fight, but could do it in September. Covington agreed.
“Yes, I will fight him,” Woodley said on Instagram in July. “But I’m gonna do a camp. I’m not gonna go out there and fight Colby Covington without a full camp.”
Woodley has had his camp. And he brought in Masvidal to train with him in St. Louis. Woodley and Masvidal trained together for years through their American Top Team connection and have been friendly for a decade.
Covington brushed off the addition of Masvidal, who is nicknamed “Street Jesus” because he “baptizes” opponents by knocking them out.
“Woodley is a smart man,” Covington said. “He brought in the ‘Street Judas’ Masvidal to learn how to lose. Because I’ve been training with Jorge for nine years and I beat his ass every day. He’s a joke. I’m sure he’s training Woodley to learn how to lose and how to get his ass beat by me. That’s all he ever did.
“It doesn’t really affect me. They’re trying to get in my head, but how is that going to get in my head when I could beat you both in the same night?”
Woodley has made it clear how much this fight means to him, calling it perhaps the biggest of his career. He has lost two straight. The former champ is 38. On Instagram last week, Woodley vowed he would throw more punches and make the most out of his one-punch knockout power, something he has struggled with recently.
Covington admitted that Woodley has more to gain than he does. Covington’s previous fight was for a title and he’s still ranked No. 2 in the world at welterweight by ESPN. Woodley is No. 8.
A win here could propel Covington back into a title fight. And, he said, it’s a chance for him to prove what would have happened if he and Woodley had fought in 2018 or 2019 while Woodley was champion.
“There was always a rivalry when we stepped on the mats and trained together,” Covington said. “When they lock that Octagon, the truth is gonna come to light.”