So there were like, at least three years crammed into 2018, right? Remember the winter Olympics? Or when Black Panther was in theaters? Those happened this year. I know. Though 2018 seemed indifferent to the linearity of time, here we are at another end of the calendar. The future arrives with or without our consent, and sometimes, without our conscious awareness.
I can’t lie; this was an up-and-down year of writing for me. I wrote a lot more than I have in recent years, though a lot of what I wrote never ended up anywhere. I published in a couple of cool new places, but also had a story accepted by one of my favorite publications only to be killed a week later. (Said publication still paid me a kill fee, which was nice of them).
Perhaps most importantly, I made the conscious decision to focus on nonfiction moving forward, as it became unavoidably obvious that my fiction just isn’t very good. That alone was a tough realization to come to, but a liberating one as well. Like I said: mixed bag, this year.
Still, I consider myself lucky that people spend any of their finite time on Earth reading my work, and I try to keep that in mind through the ups and downs. Here are 15 (!) things I wrote this year that I’m most proud of, for one reason or another:
North Korea’s Olympic Delegation to South Korea is a Huge Deal
Vice Sports, January
In the run-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, I talked to a North Korean escapee about what it meant to see the country of his birth compete in his new country of residence. In an offhand comment, he mentioned that while he served in the North Korean army, his superiors told him the 1988 Seoul Olympics actually happened in Tokyo. In 2018, the Kim regime publicly sent athletes and high-level diplomats to the Games. A lot can change in 30 years.
The Main Event
Left Hooks Magazine, January
I went to a regional MMA promotion in Seoul, and the fights became a meditation on my life as an expat. The action in the cage mirrored the oddities and challenges of being a foreigner abroad. The full version of this essay was also published in the 40th anniversary issue of Bamboo Ridge literary journal. I read a few passages from it at the book launch.
Lessons from the Hawaii Missile Crisis
Summit Magazine, January
Usually, living in Seoul means that people back home are worried about me whenever North Korean threats become especially bombastic. But earlier this year the roles reversed, as my friends and family back home spent 38 minutes believing a ballistic missile was inbound. The episode was cause for reflection. For 38 minutes, Americans felt what it’s always like to live in either of the Koreas.
The Cathartic Zen of the Cowboy
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is one of the most interesting and enigmatic personalities in all of combat sports. I explored just what it is about him that makes him such an endearing figure. Beyond being a busy and exciting fighter, his yawning sense of ambition and desire to spend his life joyfully is particularly resonant with fans.
More Than A Fight
Ever since Colin Kaepernick made people mad by saying police shouldn’t murder black kids, the “stick to sports” sentiment has come back into fashion. The phrase is silly and self-defeating; sports and politics are inseparable. I look at how money is used to corrupt in MMA, focusing on Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. The final sentence is one of my favorite closing lines I wrote this year.
Every Crazy Thing Leading Up to the Cursed UFC 223 Event
Vice Sports, April
Conor McGregor hadn’t defended his title in a year and a half, and there were two contenders that were clearly a cut above everyone else. So those guys fight and a champion is crowned — simple, right? If only that were the case. Even in a sport as insane as MMA, the lead-up to UFC 223 was one of the most acutely ridiculous weeks ever.
What It Means to Make A Mistake
There are always unsavory characters in sports, specifically in combat sports. But when Greg Hardy — unrepentant domestic abuser and overall villainous ghoul — started to get a big promotional push by the UFC, I thought it necessary to explain that not only was the decision to sign him gross, it also violated the very ethos that makes fighting virtuous. Also one of my favorite closing lines of the year.
Stay Weird, MMA
Fighting is an undeniably strange sport. It’s barbaric yet technical, morally indefensible and absolutely exhilarating. As the UFC continues to do all it can to make MMA mainstream, I took some time to look back on its seedy, back-alley roots, focusing on a regional fight that was absurd and hilarious and, in a distinctly MMA way, beautiful.
The Ultimate Goal: Sports Diplomacy and Inter-Korean Peace
During the winter Olympics, I went on CGTN news to discuss the inter-Korean geopolitics of the Games. Here, I expanded on my interviews in writing, taking a historical look at how South Korea has used sports for successful diplomacy in the past, and why the attempt to do so with North Korea this year may possibly yield different results than previous efforts.
The Daddest Man On the Planet
Daniel Cormier, the asterisked light heavyweight champion, won the heavyweight title, earning him the title of “The Baddest Man On the Planet.” It was an incredible moment for a man who tucks his shirts into his sweatpants. Here, I take a look at his life story — including the murder of his father and the tragic death of his daughter — to understand why fatherhood is so central to who he is as a fighter and a person.
Score One For the Good Guys
Truth be told, I had forgotten about this piece until I started sifting through my columns this year to compile this “best of” list. This is a fun one, though. It contrasts the allure of the “bad guy” trope in combat sports with the impossible innocence of Sage Northcutt, the golden retriever of professional fighting.
Breakin’ da Mold
Summit Magazine, August
Before the internet or MTV existed, hip-hop traveled 5000 miles from its New York birthplace to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I traced the story of how hip-hop went to Hawaii, and how Hawaii went hip-hop. This essay was, by a wide margin, the most laborious thing I wrote this year. It took nearly 18 months of interviews and research and revision to come together, but I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time, so I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to do so.
The Classical, August
Moments into his rematch with Demetrious Johnson — possibly the most dominant champion in the history of the sport — Henry Cejudo rolled his ankle. Twice. In his first fight against Johnson, Cejudo had perfectly healthy ankles and he got destroyed within a round. This time, in spite of his flimsy ligaments, he managed to pull off the biggest upset of the year. Here, I look at Cejudo as a fighter and person by ruminating on the importance of ankles.
We Are Who You Thought We Were
Perhaps the biggest MMA story of the year was the post-fight brawl between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib had just trounced the biggest star in the sport, but that wasn’t enough: he leaped out of the cage and started attacking the Irishman’s team. A lot of performative outrage in the MMA community took place in the ensuing days, but lost in the noise of it all was the fact that most casual observers of the sport were more shocked by the brutal, bloody bout that happened right before. Regular face-punching fans didn’t even think twice about that bout, so commonplace is that genre of donnybrook. It was a reminder that MMA how it actually is, without any extracurricular shenanigans, is still an off-putting and questionable sport.
Just A Moment
Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie,” had fought a hell of a fight against the flashy, youthful up-and-comer Yair Rodriguez, and was up on the scorecards after four rounds. The fifth round was more of the same, and Jung was a lock to win the decision. Then, at the 4:59 mark of the final round, only one second left, Rodriguez pulled off the most spectacular knockout of the year, reminding us that the instantaneity of MMA makes it genuinely special.
That’s a wrap for 2018, everyone. Words can’t express how grateful I am for everyone who reads my stuff, especially those of you who hit me up through the site. It’s always a surprise, and almost always a pleasant one. Here’s to bigger and better things in 2019!
PS: I also did this last year and the year before, if you’d care to take a look.