Colby Covington | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
American Top Team owner Dan Lambert played a major part in creating the Colby Covington you see today, but even he couldn’t have predicted how far Covington would take his act.
Lambert has become well known in the combat sports world not just for the incredible success of the athletes fighting out of his famed gym, but also for his dalliances in the professional wrestling world. He currently plays the role of a reviled manager on All Elite Wrestling programming and has brought MMA stars such as Jorge Masvidal, Junior dos Santos and Paige VanZant as backup.
One could assume then that Lambert contributed to the bombastic and polarizing persona that Covington adopted years ago in an attempt to boost his profile. Ahead of his former pupil’s grudge match with Jorge Masvidal this Saturday in the main event of UFC 272 in Las Vegas, Lambert revealed on The MMA Hour that he helped Covington develop a character.
“I may have put an ingredient or two into the early mix of what you see now, I didn’t think Dr. Frankenstein was going to come along and add every other ingredient in the world to it and make it blow up the way it blew up,” Lambert said. “It’s one thing s******* on a particular country or a particular guy to get under people’s skins and to get yourself noticed, it’s another thing to take it to the next level and s*** on every single person in the entire sport and everybody in every other sport. Men and women and people in different weight classes and then people in your own gym.
“If I had seen it going down that direction and knew then what I know now about what a distraction it would be for our gym, I probably would have tried to insert myself a little differently into that equation.”
The way Covington has often told it, he was on the cusp of being released amid a four-fight win streak before a clash with Demian Maia in Brazil in October 2017. After defeating Maia, Covington cut a now-infamous promo in which he directed offensive remarks at the Brazilian crowd, referring to them as “filthy animals.”
Since then, Covington has become an interim champion and twice headlined pay-per-views opposite undisputed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. Given his continued success, Lambert can’t fault his methods.
“If the story had gone the way it looked like it was gonna go and he had one fight left and then was gonna be unemployed and looking to go fight somewhere else versus what he’s accomplished and the money he’s made and the notoriety he’s gained, positively or negatively, I think it worked out pretty damn well for Colby,” Lambert said. “So I think some of the initial advice that I may have given him was probably sound advice at the time.”
If Lambert has any regrets, its that he didn’t intervene sooner when it became clear that Covington’s antics were making things uncomfortable at ATT. As Covington’s notoriety grew, he used interviews to hurl insults at teammates including Masvidal, Dustin Poirier, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
It was then that Lambert knew the situation had gotten out of hand.
“It got uncomfortable when it started being directed at other people in our gym,” Lambert said. “When he first got back from Brazil after the Demian Maia fight, it was what it was and a couple of people were rubbed the wrong way and a couple of the coaches on the team were getting blown up by people from back in Brazil like, ‘What are you doing? Stand up for our country, you piece of s***. You need to kick this guy out. How are you not fighting this guy?’ That was easy to overcome. I just grabbed everybody and sat them down and said look, here’s what the story is, here’s what he’s doing, he’s trying to get himself out in front of this and get himself noticed and make some money on his own. It’s out of the gym. What happens outside of the gym is outside of the gym. Inside the gym, we’re not American, Brazilian, this, that, we’re just American Top Team. It’s your team. And that was easy, that was an easy sell.
“Once stuff started getting directed at Masvidal and Dustin and Joanna and it started becoming internal, that’s when it got uncomfortable and it got uncomfortable quick. You need to be able to walk into your gym and that’s got to be your safe spot. That’s gotta be a comfortable zone where everybody’s there to help each other and when it gets the other way it became a distraction pretty quick.”
Lambert attempted to fix the situation by implementing house rules and calling for a moratorium on public trash talk. That cease-fire was immediately ignored as Masvidal continued to take public shots at Covington, forcing Lambert to exile both fighters from the gym.
He recalled sending Covington and Masvidal the message in a clear and concise text.
“I said, ‘I liked you guys both better when you were fighting in prelims and we were broke as s*** and you cared more about the gym than you did about yourselves,’” Lambert said. “‘Neither one of you are welcome back. I hope you fight each other soon and I hope you beat the s*** out of each other.’”
Lambert added that Covington took it better than Masvidal and appeared to be at peace with the situation (Covington has not returned to ATT since). It was a different story with “Street Jesus,” with whom Lambert has shared a longer relationship.
“Masvidal called me and said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You can’t kick me off this team. I’ve been here longer than anybody. I’m like, third in line to take over this gym when a couple of you guys die. I’m not going anywhere,” Lambert said.
Eventually, Lambert went on to say that his own children were upset with him banning Masvidal from ATT and after about three months Masvidal returned to the gym.
As for Covington, Lambert believes that there’s no beef between the two of them and described Covington as “a pretty good heel.” That said, he also thinks that Covington’s shtick would have worked without creating so much internal conflict at ATT.
“I understand why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Lambert said. “I don’t think he had the best interests of the team in mind. I think he could have changed it up a little bit and been just as effective. I think he could have s*** on whatever country his opponent was from and jumped about the MAGA train and pissed off half the country in his love of Donald Trump and I think everything would have been fine for him.
“I don’t think he needed to add everything else to the mix, but obviously he did and it works for him and when you combine it with the fact that he’s gonna win just about every fight he has because he’s a really talented fighter, it works for him. It just works better in a smaller gym without a million other targets that you feel the need to attack.”