Best of MMA 2011: Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua is Fight of the Year

Pride legends battled in five-round war

Thursday, HeavyMMA handed out its Fighter of the Year award to UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Today, we take a look at the best fights of 2011, which included a long-awaited bout that never happened in Pride and a rematch for the UFC lightweight belt that ultimately turned the division on its ear thanks to a draw.

So check out our 2011 Fight of the Year picks, stay tuned for the rest of our Best-of lists over the next week and make sure you check out the links at the bottom to Wednesday’s best James Law photos of 2011 and Thursday’s Fighter of the Year.

Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua

1. Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
UFC 139 | Nov. 19 | HP Pavilion, San Jose, Calif.
Matt Brown: Having been fortunate enough to attend a healthy number of major MMA events over the last six years, I’ve seen my fair share of amazing fights. But what happened that Saturday night in San Jose between Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua left me speechless. We’d just been thrilled by Cung Le and Wanderlei Silva, and everyone in the building thought we’d just seen the Fight of the Night. Boy were we wrong. Instead, these two warriors stole the show by not only entertaining, but displaying every facet of the great sport of mixed martial arts en route to the Fight of the Year. It’s not only my Fight of the Year, but easily the best I’ve ever witnessed in person.
Duane Finley: When this matchup was announced, I was excited we actually were going to see these two legends throw down. It had all the makings for a great fight, but never did I imagine it would go on to become one of the most epic clashes of all time. The fight had everything: A great storyline, brutal back-and-forth action and throughout the course of this fight, Henderson proved at 41 he is still one of the world’s best, while Rua silenced critics who questioned his heart and determination. Personally, the craziest angle is that Bellator’s Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler happened earlier in the evening, and in the aftermath of Hendo vs. Shogun, I found myself debating Fight of the Year twice in one night.
Matt Erickson: “No cheering in the press box” is the cardinal rule of sports journalism, and one that I’ve been following since I was taught it in college. But sitting 15 feet from the Henderson-Shogun fight, by the time it was over I won’t lie – I wanted to throw that tenet out the window. Instead, I looked over to John Morgan from MMA Junkie, who was sitting to my left, and we both mouthed the same stunned reaction to each other: “Holy (crap).” Even though it happened right in front of me, there was almost no way that fight could have been real. It featured Hendo dominating early, and Shogun not just surviving, but turning the tables on Henderson later in the fight – nearly getting a stoppage himself. At times, was it technically masterful? No, of course not. But Griffin-Bonnar I was ugly as hell, and that endears it to us even more, it seems. But for all its moments of ugliness – and let’s face it: watching guys gas out can be ugly – Hendo-Shogun was a thing of absolute beauty. All 25 grueling minutes of it.

Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II

2. Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II
UFC 125 | Jan. 1 | MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
Matt Brown: On Jan. 1, most thought the Fight of the Year award had already been handed out. Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar battled tooth and nail with each overcoming some form of adversity – only to have the dang thing end in a draw. Both guys took some time to heal injuries and we were finally treated to another installment in October. Just like the first, that version became an instant classic. Edgar survived Maynard’s onslaught early and went on to finish “The Bully” in the fourth round in another back-and forth-affair.
Duane Finley: There is no doubt in my mind this fight held “Fight of the Year” honors up until UFC 139. While the action was classic, the reason I find importance in this fight is most likely different from my colleauges. BJ Penn was widely considered the best lightweight fighter to ever wear the 4-ounce gloves, and despite Frankie Edgar defeating him on back-to-back occassions, there did not seem to be any validation in the “post-Penn” era. No one seemed to be paying attention to the talent that was beginning to amass in the weight class. On Jan. 1, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard stepped up and demanded the spotlight for their division. In the months that followed, the race to the top heated up and fighters like Benson Henderson, Joe Lauzon, Anthony Pettis and company emerged to make the UFC lightweight division one of the UFC’s best.
Matt Erickson: There’s something symbolic about this fight taking place on New Year’s Day. The crazy thing was, it was anointed Fight of the Year that night – and it had to stand up against the scrutiny of every fight to come the rest of the year. And damned if it didn’t almost make it wire to wire, no thanks to Henderson and Shogun. Edgar nearly lost this fight three times in the first round – but like some kind of bop-’em kids boxing toy, he kept popping back up for more. After one round, he was done. Toast. Kaput. No one thought he’d make it out of the first 30 seconds of the second, let alone the entire round – let alone win the round and battle back to force the most famous draw in MMA history. His two wins over BJ Penn, first to take the lightweight title and then to defend it, let fans know Frankie Edgar was real. But the way he persevered against Maynard put him on the map to stay.

Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida

3. Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida
UFC on Fox: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos | Nov. 12 | Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
Matt Brown: A packed house in Anaheim for UFC on Fox 1 got the fight we all expected when Clay Guida and Ben Henderson went to war for 15 minutes in a lightweight contenders fight. The pace, even for a lightweight fight, was frantic. There were boxing exchanges, takedowns, submission attempts and lots and lots of hair. The scores (29-28, 30-27, 30-27) were in favor of Henderson, but the fight was much closer than the judges’ final decision. The only “bad” thing about this fight was that it didn’t end up on the Fox network broadcast.
Duane Finley: Citing the reasons previously stated above, this fight found two warriors coming together at the perfect time. Guida was riding the momentum of several outstanding performances and Henderson lead the charge to validate the band of WEC fighters crossing over into the UFC. The fight was a beautiful display of skills and conditioning. It was non-stop from bell to bell with each fighter showing why they deserve to be at the top of the heap.
Matt Erickson: This was Fight of the Night for weeks leading up to the fight. UFC president Dana White was under constant barrage from fans and the media, who wondered why the fight wasn’t going to be part of the Fox broadcast since it was such a certainty it would deliver. And deliver it did, forcing another round of critics wondering, after the fact, if keeping it off the broadcast was the right call. That’s an argument for another time – the fact is, whether you watched it on a 3-inch Facebook screen on a laptop, or plugged your computer into a 50-inch plasma, this fight featured crazy-good boxing from Henderson, multiple takedowns, multiple submission attempts, multiple guard passes – it had everything, including the close calls that made you wonder if either guy was about to get the finish.

Honorable Mention
Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez: Bellator 58 | Nov. 19 | Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Hollywood, Fla.
Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard III:
UFC 136 | Oct. 8 | Toyota Center, Houston
Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber: UFC 132 | July 2 | MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
BJ Penn vs. Jon Fitch: UFC 127 | Feb. 27 | Acer Arena, Sydney, Australia
Wanderlei Silva vs. Cung Le: UFC 139 | Nov. 19 | HP Pavilion, San Jose, Calif.

HeavyMMA’s Best of MMA 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.
Best of MMA 2011: Fighter of the Year.
With a spotless 4-0 record and four stoppages, it should come as no surprise UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones is our Fighter 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

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