UFC light heavyweight champ went 4-0 in 2011
Last year isn’t so far in the rearview mirror that it’s too late to look back on 2011 and hand out some prizes for the best of the year that was in mixed martial arts. And over the next week, that’s what we at HeavyMMA will do – we’ll honor last year’s best fighter, fight, newcomer and more – and we’ll try to keep an eye on the future.
Wednesday, we started with the best photography of the year from acclaimed HeavyMMA shooter James Law. Today, we honor the 2011 Fighter of the Year – Jon Jones. Agree with us? Disagree? It’s all good – those circular discussions and varied opinions are what makes this sport constantly interesting. So check out our 2011 Fighter of the Year picks, and stay tuned for the rest of our Best-of lists over the next week.
1. Jon Jones
Matt Brown: Not only do I think Jon Jones is the Fighter of the Year for 2011, but I think he put together the single greatest year in the history of MMA. Each of his victims was considered a legitimate Top 10 guy at the time he dismantled them, with each outing seemingly more impressive than the last. I can’t imagine anyone coming close to this single-year resume anytime soon.
Duane Finley: Giving out a Fighter of the Year award is never something you imagine to come easily – but no fighter in mixed martial arts came close to doing what Jon Jones did in 2011. Over the course of a year, Jones went from prospect to champion, then on to become widely accepted as the future of MMA. He turned in nearly flawless performances against top-notch talent and with every outing, the “it” factor he posseses surged. He not only defeated but dominated the likes of Ryan Bader, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida – a feat that will remain impressive for years to come.
Matt Erickson: There’s really no other way to describe Jon Jones’ year than simply: SICK. You don’t have to like him – and judging from crowd reaction at weigh-ins and his last couple walkouts, and comments on message boards and the Twittersphere, there are plenty of folks out there who aren’t buying his particular brand of hero. But you have to respect what he’s doing as a fighter – he may be a once-in-a-generation superstar. In one calendar year, he dominated four fighters who just don’t get dominated. Here’s something fun to think about: Since “Bones” entered the UFC, the closest thing he’s had to a test came in his second fight, a unanimous decision win over Stephan Bonnar. Since then, everyone he’s faced has been lit up like a New Year’s drunk.
2. Dan Henderson
Matt Brown: Not only did Henderson dispose of former UFC light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua in 2011, but he crushed Fedor Emelianenko, a fighter that long reigned as the baddest man to ever slap on a pair of MMA gloves. At 41, Hendo is showing no signs of slowing down – and all signs point to a scrap with Jon Jones at some point in 2012.
Duane Finley: Even if you put the age factor to the side, Dan Henderson’s run this past year was outstanding. It seemed to be milestone after milestone for the MMA legend. After starting the year off by claiming the Strikeforce light heavyweight title, he finished his run in Strikeforce by defeating the enigma known as Fedor. With his contract complete, the UFC once again brought Henderson back into the fold and he capped off his year by winning what is being called the greatest MMA fight of all time against Shogun Rua at UFC 139 in San Jose.
Matt Erickson: Hendo won the Strikeforce light heavyweight title in March, and it probably wasn’t even the best thing he did last year. He put another major notch on his belt with his first-round TKO of Fedor in July – but it was how he did it that was most impressive. Fedor had Henderson rocked and was close to getting the fight stopped – and Hendo simply slipped under him, pushed him away and turned the tide. But how do you top winning a major title and beating the most legendary fighter in history? How ’bout you go out and put on arguably the greatest fight in the history of the sport? Though there was seldom anything pretty about Hendo’s win over Shogun at UFC 139, it was an unforgettable moment in the sport’s history, and it’s fascinating that after an amazing career, Henderson might be just now peaking.
3. Donald Cerrone
Matt Brown: Most guys are content getting two or three fights a year. The “Cowboy” would fight every month if the UFC would let him. Going a very respectable 4-1 with four “of the night” bonuses, Cerrone put in his best year as a mixed martial artist in 2011 and came up one win short of easily taking the No. 2 spot on our list.
Duane Finley: Five fights in one year is insanity at the highest level of the sport, but it’s something Donald Cerrone pulled off in 2011. He may have come out on the business end against Nate Diaz, but this was the year “Cowboy” broke through in the ultra-competitive UFC lightweight division. Cerrone’s performances against Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver were lights out, and alongside current No. 1 contender Benson Henderson, he helped disprove the stigma of WEC fighters not being able to thrive in the UFC.
Matt Erickson: There must be some kind of jinx attached to streaking fighters in the UFC’s lightweight division. Cowboy fell victim to Nate Diaz last week and had his six-fight winning streak snapped, becoming the latest in a line of oh-so-close 155ers, like Melvin Guillard and Jim Miller, who sniffed No. 1 contendership in 2011 only to get upset. But it was Cerrone’s grit and never-say-no attitude that endeared him to fans and, likely, his bosses. Cerrone went 4-1 in 2011 and won four bonus awards – and he was utterly dominant until he ran into Diaz. It takes a special kind of fighter to strap ‘em on five times in a year – and still come out and ask for more. Don’t be surprised to see Cerrone making the walk four or five times in 2012, too.
Nick Diaz: It was a weird year for the former Strikeforce welterweight champ, who no-showed as many press conferences, it seems, as he had fights. But he went 3-0 in 2011, including a dismantling of BJ Penn in his return to the UFC that ultimately got him an interim title shot against Carlos Condit while Georges St-Pierre is on the shelf.
Ben Henderson: The “Smooth” one had no problems making the adjustment from the WEC to the UFC. The former WEC lightweight champ went 3-0 last year with strong decision win over Mark Bocek, a complete destruction of Jim Miller and a Fight of the Year candidate win over Clay Guida that earned him a shot at Frankie Edgar‘s lightweight belt next month in Japan.
Michael Chandler: What do they put in the water for the Missouri wrestling team, anyway? The All-American wrestler at Mizzou had a breakthrough year in 2011, going 4-0 and winning Bellator’s lightweight title in one of the year’s most surprising upsets – and also one of its best fights. Chandler looked impressive early in the year, getting a win a month to capture the Bellator lightweight tournament and earning a shot at champ Eddie Alvarez. And while Chandler’s lightweight tourney title wasn’t a huge surprise, his big upset of Alvarez was. Chandler was strong early in the fight, faded in the third and was nearly finished and came back to win with a fourth-round rear naked choke – ending Alvarez’s seven-fight winning streak.
HeavyMMA’s Best of 2011 Series
Best of UFC 2011: The Photographs. Acclaimed MMA photographer James Law shares some of the best captures of the year in a slideshow that has been viewed all around the world in the last 24 hours.
Coming Friday: Fight of the Year
Coming Saturday: Knockout of the Year
Coming Sunday: Submission of the Year
Coming Monday: Upset of the Year
Coming Tuesday: Event of the Year
Coming Wednesday: Newcomer of the Year