Fighters to Watch 2022: The Prologue
Setting the table for the return of Keyboard Kimura's in-depth look at names to know in each division
The first 90 minutes of my morning were spent mapping out the athletes I wanted to include in this year’s edition of the Fighters to Watch series, the “more detailed than it probably needs to be” look at each division that I dropped last year and will carry on annually every January from here on out.
In sitting down and combing through the divisions, it became clear that the categories that I grouped fighters into last year — Champion, Contenders, In The Mix, Emerging, Prospects, Wild Card — needed some tweaking because where does someone like Neil Magny fall in those choices?
He’s not a contender, but he’s not really in the championship mix either — at least not in the way I tend to think of that category — but he’s not emerging or a wild card either.
I toyed with the idea of adding an “Established” category for fighters like Magny and Drew Dober and Joanne Wood — fighters whose place in their respective division is pretty clear — but the more I kept working through each weight class, the more I realized that what I actually needed to do was write this prologue, focusing on how we talk about these athletes and the labels we place on them.
Back in February of this year, I penned a piece titled “Who You Calling Average?” after Antonio Carlos Junior was released by the UFC and called “average” in a tweet by my fellow Canadian Adam Martin.
What I argued was that a guy like Carlos Junior being classified as “average” felt like a miscategorization because while he lost three straight on his way out of the UFC, each of those losses came against opponents ranked in the Top 15, and if that made someone “average,” what were we supposed to call those that didn’t have as much success as he did and lost to lesser competition?
The more macro point I was trying to make in the piece was that we have too limited a lexicon when it comes to talking about the men and women that step into the cage and compete, offering the following thoughts:
… I do think that we, as observers, critics, pundits, and fans, need to find different ways of speaking about these athletes, more accurately quantifying what they’ve accomplished, and doing so with greater consistency.
It’s the old problem the UFC created for itself with its pre-fight packages, where everyone was called a contender. If everyone is a contender, it devalues actual contenders and blurs the lines on what it takes to be a legitimate contender.
I think about this stuff a lot because I really do believe there are tiers within categories and better ways to talk about these athletes than the limited number of descriptors we use now. I thought about it more this morning trying to figure out where to put fighters like Dober and Magny and Wood, but also competitors that are ‘tweeners like Pat Sabatini, who is coming off a 3-0 rookie campaign in the UFC, but at 31, doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a prospect.
What it comes down to for me — and what I hope others agree with and will adopt going forward — is that we need to find more accurate, more nuanced ways of speaking about these athletes, even if it means straying away from the traditional categories and descriptors we’re all used to using.
Take someone like Brad Tavares, who handed Carlos Junior his final UFC defeat before the Brazilian signed with the PFL, entered its light heavyweight tournament, and won a million dollars, which feels like something “average” fighters generally don’t do, but I digress…
Tavares is 34 years old and has been in the UFC for more than a decade, amassing a 14-6 record inside the Octagon. He’s been a fixture in the middleweight Top 15, but never quite risen to be a contender. He’s probably best described as a gatekeeper, but some people think that term is derisive, and he’s better than a journeyman, another perfectly proper combat sports descriptor that too many have misappropriated over the years, thereby making it seem like a slight when it most certainly is not.
Based on Carlos Junior grading out at “average,” that would mean Tavares would likely be “above average,” but that doesn’t feel like it fully describes him as a fighter either. He’d fit in that “Established” category I mentioned in the lede to this piece, but that’s broad and vague as well.
Ideally, this is how I would describe Tavares:
The 34-year-old Hawaiian is a 20-fight UFC veteran — someone that came into the UFC as a young, inexperienced fighter via The Ultimate Fighter and build a solid career for himself. He’s earned some good wins over the years, but also come up short against the best competition he’s faced, leading to an extended run in the Top 15 where he failed to climb into the Top 10.
Tavares is a technical striker who has shown good durability throughout his career, and the type of established, veteran talent you need in each divisions to serve as a test for emerging competitors and challenging assignment for anyone else looking to get a victory by sharing the Octagon with him. He’s had a very good career and remains a very capable competitor in the 185-pound weight class.
Now, I understand that’s wordy and too long to say each time you talk about him on a podcast or UFC broadcast, but boiling it down to calling him “average” or a gatekeeper doesn’t do his career justice either.
And I want to do right by these men and women as frequently as possible, even if it means getting a little wordy and needing to take an extra beat or two in order to accurate present where I think they’re at in their career or where they fit in their respective divisions.
What this means for the Fighters to Watch series is that I’m actually going to cover far fewer competitors than last year, when more than 250 names appeared across the 11 weight class.
I’m cutting out all those established veterans and rankings fixtures you should already know and be paying attention to every time out because you should already be aware of what they bring to the table each time they compete and paying close attention to them every time they step into the Octagon.
Champions will kick-off each weight class because having gold around your waist means you get top billing, both on the fight card and in this series, but rather than breaking each division down by category, I’m going to just list everyone in alphabetical order and give you an explanation of why they made my list, where I think they fit heading into 2022, and what it is I’m looking to see from them in the year ahead.
This is the stuff that I love the most about covering this sport, and I think there is tremendous value in these “bigger picture” approaches that not only focus on the here and now, but also touch on where a division may go in the next couple of years and who might lead the way.
And going forward, I plan on continuing to do my best to not simply rely on easy designations that don’t fully articulate who these athletes are, what they’ve accomplished in their careers, and where they fit in their respective divisions.
I want to provide as much clarity and context as possible when I speak about these fighters and fights, and not only do I hope that comes through in this series and all my work, but I hope others will opt to do the same as well.
See you next year with the first entry in the 2022 Fighters to Watch series.
If you feel like checking out who made the list in each weight class last year, here are the 2021 instalments:
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