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On Colby Covington and the fine art of the post-fight excuse

Colby Covington lost his welterweight title fight against Leon Edwards at UFC 296 on Dec. 16. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Colby Covington lost his welterweight title fight against Leon Edwards at UFC 296 on Dec. 16. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) (Sean M. Haffey via Getty Images)

If it weren’t for MMA, I might go years at a time without ever seeing an X-ray of the human body. It’s just not the kind of thing that comes up for many of us in the course of regular life. If you’re a fan of this sport, however, you hardly make it a month without some fighter volunteering various pictures of his fractured skeleton.

There are really only two reasons for fighters to do this. The first is to offer proof that they’re withdrawing from a scheduled fight for a very good reason. Scared to fight? Never! Look at this picture of my splintered fibula. It’s essentially the pro fighter version of a doctor’s note to get out of gym class, and it typically works — at least before a fight.

The second reason is far more common, and it comes after the fight. It’s what Colby Covington had in mind recently when he shared X-rays of his broken foot nearly two months after his loss in a UFC welterweight title fight against champion Leon Edwards. It’s what those who are feeling ungenerous might refer to as excuses, though more sympathetic observers might opt instead for the word "explanations."

See? I didn’t fail to perform. I just got hurt. Could happen to anybody.

And the thing is, sure, it absolutely could. This is the hurt business, after all. You spend 25 minutes in a cage with another human being who is being paid to beat you up, you’ve got to know that broken bones and other damaged body parts might be part of the bargain.

Still, many fighters can’t help themselves after a loss. Before the bout, every one of them would have us believe they’re coming off the best training camp of their lives and they’ve never felt better. It’s only after the fight we find out they were battling through a punctured lung, corrupt judges and a bad case of tuberculosis.

The sport of MMA has given us many famous examples. Tito Ortiz had a cracked skull. Alistair Overeem felt a tap. Poor Dominick Cruz was betrayed by a referee who smelled of booze and cigarettes. And don’t even get me started on Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a man who worked in excuses the way artists might work in oils or clay.

As Covington told it in an interview with Submission Radio this week, his cross to bear was a broken bone in his foot suffered almost as soon as the title fight with Edwards began.

“It was the first kick I threw,” Covington said. “It landed right on his elbow.”

From that point on, he said, he was essentially hobbled. He couldn’t push off that foot to implement his usual wrestling-based game plan. He went into “panic-type mode,” he said. The result was a unanimous decision loss in what could very well be the last UFC title shot Covington ever sees.

These types of post-fight admissions — even when accompanied by X-ray evidence — never seem to elicit the kind of sympathy or understanding that fighters are hoping for. That makes some degree of sense. Oh you broke your foot when the other guy blocked your kick? Yeah, that’s probably part of what he was hoping for.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 16: (R-L) Colby Covington of the United States kicks Leon Edwards of Great Britain in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Colby Covington tries to block a kick from Leon Edwards during their title fight. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) (Sean M. Haffey via Getty Images)

From the perspective of the injured fighter it might seem like the fickle hand of fate, but from the opponent’s perspective it’s simply the fruits of sound defensive technique. He’s trying to hurt you. If he did so effectively, within the bounds of the rules, and in a way that limited your ability to hurt him later on, that’s a job well done. So why come to us later with proof of your opponent’s good work, offering it up like a plea for partial credit on an assignment turned in months too late?

The answer is because, maybe more than other sports, fighting is cruel, unfair and unforgiving. You break your foot in a basketball game, you get to sub out immediately. If you decide to hobble back onto the court and soldier on, the announcers will spend the rest of the game talking about how brave and determined you are. Your injury becomes part of the narrative.

But in fighting there are no timeouts. You can’t go get checked out in the locker room. You don’t even get to acknowledge that you’re hurt, since all the incentives are built around deceiving everyone — the opponent, the referee, the doctor at cageside — into thinking you’re perfectly healthy and just as dangerous as ever. Can we really blame fighters for wanting to tell us afterward that they were not only soldiering on bravely, but also hiding it well?

But there’s also another reason the post-fight excuse has become its own special art form, and it has less to do with the battle in the public eye than with the one going on inside each fighter’s head. Talk to pro fighters and they’ll tell you, this is a psychologically grueling sport. You’re all alone in the spotlight and there are so many things that can go wrong. If you roll your ankle or twist your knee there’s no sympathy to be found inside that cage. There’s just an opponent looking at you like you’re a wounded gazelle and it’s almost dinnertime.

Faced with all that, you have to come up with a way to believe that each night is going to be your night. And part of that is convincing yourself that all those times when it wasn’t your night were just unlucky anomalies. You’re still the best in the world and some day soon you’re going to prove it.

If people don’t believe you? Show them the X-rays. There’s the proof of everything you went through, the suffering you endured, displayed right there in translucent tones of gray. Now all you need is for anyone to care.