On the campaign trail ahead of the US presidential election in November, Trump continued to court key figures from the UFC who had turned up to support him, including Russian lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, and welterweight champion Usman.

Speaking at an event in Atlanta focusing on “black economic empowerment”, the Republican incumbent used his established ploy of pointing out the fighter in the crowd while quipping that he did not want to fight him.

“He’s tough,” said Trump, who welcomed the man Usman knocked out at UFC 245 to the White House in 2018 and praised him backstage at a rally last week.

“Come on champ, get up. Man, oh man. What a fighter you are. I don’t want to mess with him. I think I may weigh a couple of pounds more.”

Trump’s lavish praise for Usman is certain to infuriate Covington. After his win over Tyron Woodley last week, which had been at the center of a bitter political row between the pair in the build-up, the American taunted Usman and ignited accusations of racism by claiming that the Nigerian came from a “little tribe” that uses “smoke signals”.

“Who did you get a call from?” Covington asked Usman after a congratulatory exchange with the president, speaking as part of a spat that forced UFC president Dana White to deny that his remarks had been racist and insist that fighters were free to “speak their mind.”

Covington’s claim that he is the president’s favorite fighter seems in doubt after Trump claimed to have watched Usman’s decision win over Jorge Masvidal on “Fight Island” in July, calling his performance “unbelievable”.

“Talent, right up here too,” he added, pointing to his head. “The muscles are important but you’ve got to have that too.

“He actually looks very good in a suit but he’s one of the few people who looks better without a suit. There aren’t too many of us – right, men?

“I just want to thank you, champ, and good luck to you… I’ll be watching.”

Trump has worked closely with White over the years, welcoming his fellow businessman to several of his rallies and consulting him on the return of sport in the US during the pandemic.

Several fighters have dismissed the UFC’s denials of any racist undertones to Covington’s remarks, with some also arguing that the promotion should be engaging in the kind of high-profile Black Lives Matter protests that have been seen in the NBA and NFL.

Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who headlines UFC 253 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, said the response to Covington “shows you the landscape of the media, what it is right now.”

“I made a joke about dropping [Yoel] Romero like the Twin Towers and everyone lost their mind, even if I said it was a joke and it was pretty funny,” Adesanya told ESPN. “But people took it as I was being offensive and like, digging. But I was making a joke.

“This guy [Covington] has directly insulted my culture, my brother and many other cultures, and no one says anything. But it just shows you a mirror.”

A fierce critic of the social justice protests that have become prominent in the US this year, Trump turned his attention to talking to Hispanic Americans in another rally during the week, when welterweight fan favorite Masvidal was in attendance.

In a description of Masvidal’s achievements, the president appeared to be referring to his five-second knockout of Ben Askren last year when he mentioned “the fastest knockout”.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but [Askren] was supposed to be the future of the UFC but he had to go through this guy right here [and] it didn’t go well.

“What a champion you are. What was it? About a second? Two seconds? You ran across the ring and the guy was gone and that was the end of it.

“Did they have to pay you for that evening or not? Because one second…that’s a good return. This guy was a fighter on the street. He used to beat up people…and somebody said, ‘Come on (into) the gym. Let’s see if you’re so good.’

“Then he goes into the gym and guys who are fighting for a long time, he beat the hell out of him. They said, ‘I think he’s going to be a good fighter,’ and they were right. But these are all different stories, right?”

Askren was happy enough that Trump had called him a “young superstar” while recalling his lightning defeat, and Masvidal was overjoyed by the speech.

“Can’t believe the president knows who I am,” he said. “Humbled. Leader of the free world knows my name.

“President Trump knows of me. My father hasn’t stopped smiling.”

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