2021 in Review: My Favorite Features
A month-by-month look at the interviews and ideas that I enjoyed writing the most over the last year
I did this for the first time last year and knew right away I wanted to make it something I did towards the end of each year going forward.
Part of it is because I write a lot — more than 500 pieces focused on the UFC this year when you include everything I’ve done here, the UFC website, and OSDB — which means stuff can get missed, but also because I like to look back through my portfolio each year to see how the year progressed and remember the cool stuff that I produced.
Part of it is because I want to have a one-stop shop for 12 of my favorite pieces from each year, so that when I’m pulling together sample clips to send in for job opportunities or need to point someone to some of my best work, I can direct them to these pages and they can check things out for themselves.
Part of it is because after hearing countless times over the last 10 years that the work I produce for the UFC website doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, doesn’t resonate because people don’t look at that site as a meaningful source for news or information, I wanted to collect some of the great work I did there this year and put it out there again, proudly, because regardless of what you think of the promotion and the platform, you can’t tell me that the stories aren’t excellent.
And lastly, a big part of it is because I’m really goddamn proud to have put out as much material as I have this year.
I wrote well over a piece per day and well over half-a-million words about the UFC in 2021, and while they weren’t all home runs or Hall of Fame caliber pieces, there weren’t many misses either, and every single one of them was an original piece, based on my own thoughts, my own conversations, my own observations.
This was the first year in over a dozen years doing this that I didn’t worry about traffic and views and likes and what have you, and I can honestly say it was the most rewarding, fulfilling year of my career.
Enjoy this look back through my 2021 favorites, and please believe that another 500-plus pieces are coming your way again in 2022.
January: 2021 Fighters to Watch Series
Maybe it’s cheating to list a seven-part series as my favorite feature of the month, but it’s my list, which means I make the rules, and this was too much fun, too much work, too much a distillation of who I am as a writer and a fan to not mention it here.
I wrote this series — and will write it again for 2022 starting in a couple days — because I don’t want there to be any fighters that “come out of nowhere” for people because, as I said in the first instalment of this series last year and many times here over during the course of 2021, no one ever comes out of nowhere.
I still missed on some fighters — and was wrong about plenty of fighters as well — but the exercise was challenging, yet fulfilling, and felt like the best way to introduce myself and what to expect in this space at the start of last year.
February: Ciryl Gane: The Best is Yet to Come
One of the absolute joys of this job for me is building relationships and getting to a point where athletes and coaches and everyone feels comfortable enough with me to just be themselves, say what they want to say, and know I’m going to present them as they were said, not some cut-and-paste version of things.
Having spoken with Ciryl Gane and his coach Fernand Lopez multiple times, we’ve hit that point, and ahead of his 2021 debut in February, “Bon Gamin” and Lopez gave me one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve had in quite some time:
Lopez was legitimately salty about Gane refusing to put himself over, even though he understood it’s not in his charge’s nature, but the way he interrupted the now interim champion to speak about his potential without mincing words had be cracking up in the moment, and proved quite prophetic as well.
I need to get back to doing a little more Sunday morning writing because there are always interesting talking points to tackle coming out of an event, especially after a pay-per-view. I tend to take Sundays off because I write literally every other day, but some of my favorite stuff from this year came when I spent Sunday morning thinking about Saturday night, like this piece in the wake of UFC 259.
I’ve always been an advocate of the “Next Man Up” approach rather than whittling each division down to a single undisputed No. 1 contender, and got into the thick of why after Jan Blachowicz defeated Israel Adesanya to retain his light heavyweight title, covering ground in the 205-pound ranks, as well as middleweight and lightweight.
And, I have to say, some of the things I wrote in this piece have come to pass, which is a nice reminder all these months later that I tend to have a good sense for this stuff.
April: “Dangerous” Uriah Hall Relishes Weidman Rematch
Uriah Hall and I have developed a good rapport over the years, which means a lot to me because I’m acutely aware of his feelings towards the media and his reticence to do interviews.
Ahead of his rematch with Chris Weidman at UFC 261, “Prime Time” took a great deal of time to talk about his journey to being a comfortable in his own skin, confident in his skills, and in a position where he could make a push towards title contention in the middleweight division.
There was a lot of hesitation and hand-wringing about the state of the May 8 fight card when news broke that TJ Dillashaw was forced to push back his return engagement with Cory Sandhagen, which was followed by the announcement that Diego Sanchez had been scratched from his bout with Donald Cerrone and released by the UFC.
People thought the event was going to suck, while I felt otherwise, and was happy to say as much.
A week and change later, after Marina Rodriguez beat Michelle Waterson in the main event of an entertaining show, I penned the above piece, climbing up on my soapbox to once again question why we’re so negative, so reactive, so lazy when it comes to looking beyond what is right in front of us in this sport in order to see the value in some of these smaller shows.
Here’s my favorite bit from the column, which is pretty much a perfect encapsulation of how I feel about the coverage of this sport in general, even seven months later:
We want everything to be super-dope on paper in order to even be remotely energized about it, and when it’s not, we act like we can’t be arsed and you shouldn't be either, but then when it’s pretty cool on Saturday, everyone’s like, “Man, did you see that pretty cool thing this weekend?”
You told me not to bother.
You told me it didn’t matter.
You told me it was average, at best.
I know this is a lot of the same shit I said in the Unpopular Opinion piece last week, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t fucking right… and being right actually makes me angry because if I can see it, why can’t everyone else?
BTW: I’ve asked that last question a couple more times this year and no one has ever given me a good answer.
I’ve been a Leon Edwards booster since before being a Leon Edwards booster was cool, talking about the man from the Midlands as someone deserving of attention several years ago in relation to the way folks fixated on Mike Perry, who was always more personality than performance to me.
I returned to riding for “Rocky” in the spring when his win over Nathan Diaz got reduced to an afterthought because Diaz had one good moment in a 25-minute fight that otherwise went poorly for him.
I know I seem to ask a lot of questions of fans and media when I write these Aftermath columns, but it’s because I genuinely want to have conversations about this stuff and hope to engage people. It’s also because I think there is so much that we miss out on covering and talking about in comparison to the major sports because we’re so fixated on the biggest names, and not presenting everything in full context. We tell half-truths and present partial pictures, shifting the goalposts all too frequently in order to make a case for the most popular fighters in the sport.
Most people would probably just stop pushing this particular boulder up this particular hill, accepting that things will never change and no one wants to discuss the things I find most intriguing about how this sport is covered, but where’s the fun in that?
So yeah, I’ll still be writing about it in 2022 and beyond because I’m Sisyphus, and pushing boulders up hills is what I do.
I started speaking with TJ Dillashaw when he was a contestant on Season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, working with him on his TUF blog at HeavyMMA.com.
We’ve spoken a lot since then, and I think that familiarity and relationship made our conversation ahead of his fight with Cory Sandhagen in July — his first following a two-year suspension after testing positive for EPO in his fight with Henry Cejudo — even better. Dillashaw has never been one to mince words, but I think we were able to get into the thick of things quickly and speak about them fully because we do know each other and have all that history behind us.
Just as he was when the suspension was coming down, Dillashaw was honest and open about things, reflecting on his time away, how his mistakes will forever impact his legacy, and how he plans to make none of that matter by winning the bantamweight title for a third time.
When I pitched this story to my editor at OSDB, I framed it as a chance to speak with an unbeaten Olympic medalist who was competing just after the Olympics and chasing down a second sporting dream. I’d spoken with Madsen before his previous fight, enjoyed our conversation, and knew I would get something solid from the Danish wrestler.
I never thought I would get a twisting tale of personal hardships, family challenges, and persistence in the face of it all.
The thing that really sucks is that too many people missed this piece, and I don’t say that in a selfish, “more people should be reading my work” sense. These are the kinds of stories that humanize these athletes, give us a reason to root for them, follow them, invest in them, and I believe that this piece and the one filed by Gavin Porter for the UFC website were the only two detailing Madsen’s long journey to facing Clay Guida in August.
That shouldn’t be the case, especially not when so many people want to act like anything written for the UFC website doesn’t count, but that’s a story for another day.
September: Laura Sanko Aces Yet Another Challenge
This one was special to me.
Three years prior, following the conclusion of Season 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series, I spoke with Laura Sanko about the show’s success, her tremendous work on the annual talent search series, and her desire to do even more on the broadcasting front, including getting the chance to be an analyst for UFC broadcasts.
This fall, we caught up again after she made her debut in the role during the fifth season of the Contender Series.
I love seeing people set goals for themselves, chase them, and succeed, and it’s even more enjoyable when you know the effort they put into it and that they’re going to be amazing once they get the chance. I felt that way about Sanko even before she started working on the Contender Series — her Aussie & Fancy breakdowns with Megan Anderson were sharp and funny — and to see her thrive this year on both the Weigh-In Show and DWCS was really something special.
She’s a rockstar, and it’s been fun to chronicle her journey.
I do most of my interviews by phone — I don’t need video for any reason — but I spoke to Makhachev over Zoom in October, and it was beneficial because while he’s a man of few words, the smirks and bright eyes that accompanied several of his statements were more telling than the words themselves.
Like his friend, teammate, and coach Khabib Nurmagomedov, Makhachev is declarative about things when it comes to his success in the Octagon — it’s not if he’ll win or if he’ll claim the lightweight title; everything is when, like it’s been pre-ordained and we just have to get to the point where it all plays out as it should.
What’s more impressive though is that each time he steps into the cage, he makes it seem like that very well could be true.
November: Chris Curtis’ Time Has Finally Come
This was my favorite story of 2021 — Curtis finally getting his chance to compete in the UFC and making the absolute most of it.
Speaking with the veteran ahead of his UFC debut was tremendous fun, and his openness about his unique journey to the Octagon was refreshing. For him to then go out and get a victory was awesome to see, and the story became even more compelling when he raised his hand for another short-notice assignment a couple weeks later, giving me a chance to connect with him again for a follow-up piece for OSDB.
And wouldn’t you know it, Curtis went out and won that second fight in dramatic fashion as well. While it didn’t result in the move into the Top 15 he envisioned, the 34-year-old is well-positioned to get there in 2022, especially if he keeps adding more chapters to his already incredibly entertaining story.
So I had the idea for this in January and then actually followed through by keeping track of my top picks for each position on the fight card throughout the year. My thinking was that while we spotlight the best fights and knockouts and submissions each year, what would it look like if we combined them all into one event, with the caveat being you could only select on fight from each position on the fight card?
In 2021, we had one event with 15 fights and a couple with 14, which meant being able to sneak a couple more quality finishes into the mix, including Gillian Robertson’s “neck cuddles” with Priscila Cachoeira at UFC 269, and while not everyone is going to agree with every selection, I think this UFC 2021 fight card mixtape sounds like a real good time.
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