8:04 AM ET
Marc RaimondiESPN Staff Writer
Miguel Baeza was doing a strength-and-conditioning drill, jumping over hurdles at his gym, MMA Masters, in Miami. The up-and-coming UFC welterweight had just completed three rounds of sparring. Fatigue was setting in.
On his second and third jumps over the hurdle, he touched the bar. On the fourth and fifth times, he barely made it over.
“Man, these legs aren’t the same,” Baeza chuckled under his breath.
Colby Covington, Baeza’s new teammate who was training alongside him, shook his head.
“He just stopped me right there and said, ‘No, they’re even better — you’re jumping even higher now,'” Baeza told ESPN. “He’s always like that. It’s something to always have in your mind, to keep grinding and believe that you’re only going to get stronger in the fight.”
Covington and Baeza were training for their appearances at UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Las Vegas. Covington headlines the card against former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. Baeza will compete on the undercard against Jeremiah Wells.
“He’s pretty much about his business,” Baeza said. “I haven’t seen much of that other persona since he’s been in the gym.”
Covington cultivated the “other persona” in 2017 when his UFC contract was running out and he thought he needed to create some controversy to get fans interested. So he took trash talking to a personal level, invented crude nicknames for opponents and even started calling out teammates at his former gym, American Top Team (ATT).
This was Covington’s first camp at MMA Masters after he departed ATT in May following a messy spat with several of the gym’s top stars, including Covington’s former best friend Jorge Masvidal. Coaches and fighters at MMA Masters say they have not seen any of the issues that sprung up between Covington and his former teammates. And Covington raves about what he describes as a drama-free environment.
“Personal careers are aside when we step in that gym,” Covington said. “We try to help each other genuinely and we’re trying to get the best out of each other. And we’re trying to push each other. Like the saying goes, iron sharpens iron.”
That was not always the case at ATT, Covington said. The issues he had there are well-documented. Covington got into very public feuds with Masvidal, UFC lightweight contender Dustin Poirier and even former UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Covington’s willingness to talk trash about anyone got under the skin of many at ATT, prompting owner Dan Lambert to hand down an edict in March. There was to be no insulting fellow ATT fighters publicly, unless there was a bout agreement signed by both parties for a future fight. Covington violated that rule.
Though he still remains friends with Lambert, Covington said he could feel the “bad energy” there “really draining” him. For his training camp last December ahead of a title fight with Kamaru Usman at UFC 245, Covington was training much of the time behind closed doors, away from potential altercations with Masvidal and others.
“You’ve got people at that old gym, they played the fake friendship game,” Covington said. “It’s not really a team over there. Everybody is trying to cut each other down. There’s a lot of snakes over there.”
When Covington made the decision to depart ATT, he reached out to a friend, Robert Johnston, a ring announcer for Florida combat sports shows. Johnston is a friend of Daniel Valverde, the head coach of MMA Masters in Miami, a gym at which Johnston also trains. Valverde said he would accept Covington without condition.
Valverde is familiar with Covington from the South Florida MMA scene. He said Covington has never been anything but respectful to him and his fighters any time they’d bump into him at local events.
“I’ve known Colby for a long, long time,” Valverde said. “He’s always been so respectful to us. ‘Coach, how you doing? Good?’ I knew. At the end of the day, it’s a show. You have to sell your fights. You have to sell it.”
After four months, Valverde has no regrets. Covington has meshed with the team at MMA Masters.
“Everybody likes Colby here in the gym,” Valverde said. “Colby is a nice guy behind the scenes. He tries to help everybody in the gym. It’s been good. Good vibes, good energy in the gym.”
The most important thing, of course, will be the finished product inside the cage. Covington said striking coach Cesar Carneiro has worked with him on stand-up differently than anyone ever has. Carneiro implied Covington, who usually fights out of a southpaw stance, might use a conventional stance because his right hand might be more dominant.
And Valverde, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo black belt, has been “a godsend,” Covington said.
“He’s completely changed my game,” Covington said of Valverde. … “He’s brought some new elements to my takedowns and to my finishing skills on the mat with submissions that I could have never asked for.”
MMA Masters has had plenty of success in the UFC, particularly with former UFC featherweight title challenger Ricardo Lamas. Valverde vows that the Covington who shows up against Woodley will be the best Covington to date. But they don’t want to alter too much. Covington is ranked No. 2 in the world at welterweight by ESPN. He’s coming off a title loss to Usman at UFC 245 in December. Covington is already elite.
“He’s pretty much about his business. I haven’t seen much of that other persona since he’s been in the gym.”
“We don’t try to change his game,” Valverde said. “Colby is a wrestler. He likes to go forward. He has great cardio. We’re just working to get his game better.”
Covington, 32, said Valverde and Carneiro are his co-head coaches now. But he doesn’t necessarily want to be affiliated with a specific gym. The fighter nicknamed “Chaos” wants to be considered independent.
“Things at Colby Covington, Incorporated are really good,” Covington said. “I acquired the best coaches to bring in for me. The big thing is that this isn’t a team sport; this is an individual sport. I’m not associated with any gym. I did the gym thing before and that didn’t work out. People get jealous, people get envious. And that’s not what I’m about. I’m about doing what’s best for my business and not worrying about what anybody else in a gym cares about. That’s why Colby Covington, Incorporated was formed.”