Best of MMA 2011: Chris Weidman is Newcomer of the Year

Middleweight went 3-0 in first year in UFC

There were plenty of great candidates for the 2011 Newcomer of the Year, including this year’s winners of “The Ultimate Fighter.” But in the end, it went to a UFC middleweight who went 3-0 in his first year with the promotion, including a pair of first-round submission wins. Take a look at our list, and then hit up the ones you might have missed the last week. Wednesday, we’ll bring you the Event of the Year to close out our 2011 Best Of lists – and then we’ll start figuring out what will lead the pack in 2012.

Chris Weidman

1. Chris Weidman
Duane Finley: To be completely honest, I spent the majority of the year not entirely sold on Chris Weidman. He came into the UFC with a good amount of hype behind him and after a decision victory over Alessio Sakarra and a quick win over Jesse Bongfeldt, I wasn’t sure how much substance there was to back up the buzz. That all changed when he needed less than a round to put Tom Lawlor to sleep at UFC 139. “Filthy” is a hard-nosed, game fighter, and Weidman handled Lawlor with ease. It is going to be interesting to watch how Weidman handles the next level of competition in the middleweight division, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.
Matt Erickson: I was in Louisville, Ky., last March for UFC on Versus 3 working for another site when I got a call from a friend in the UFC’s public relations department. “Yo, ‘MattE Ice’ – I can get you Chris Weidman on the phone this afternoon if you wanna do a story on him. He trains with Matty Serra and Ray Longo, and I think he’s a pretty good story.” I’ll be honest – I really didn’t feel like doing a feature on a UFC rookie that wasn’t going to draw much extra traffic to the site. But when I got off the phone with him, I was glad I did. It was obvious from the start that Weidman, who was living in the basement of mom’s house at the time, had a good head on his shoulders and knew exactly the direction he planned on going in the UFC. He dominated Alessio Sakara in his debut, then pulled off a pair of first-round submissions to show even more promise – including a Submission of the Night bonus that probably made sure he won’t be back living in anyone’s basement any time soon.

Jimy Hettes

2. Jimy Hettes
Duane Finley: Jimy Hettes is possibly the most dangerous non-dangerous looking guy on the planet. The 24-year-old Pennsylvania native entered the UFC on a roll and didn’t slow down once on the sport’s biggest stage. He put two wins in his pocket this year, and both were utter drummings of TUF alums. In the fight with Alex Caceres, he made “Bruce Leeroy” look as if he had zero business in the same cage with him. And against Nam Phan, Hettes displayed one of the most accurate displays of ground striking I have ever seen. The UFC featherweight division has plenty of room for solid contenders, and I can see Hettes making his way to the division’s upper tier in 2012.
Matt Erickson: I have two favorite memories of UFC 141 last month, and both involve Jimy Hettes. The first came when I took advantage of a break on the pay-per-view to go to the media center for a bottle of water and a cookie (OK, two cookies) and saw Hettes doing a quick media scrum after demolishing Nam Phan to open the broadcast. In the middle of it all, Hettes’ face lit up when Tito Ortiz interrupted to congratulate him and thank him for being sponsored by Ortiz’s Punishment Athletics. And the second came when I got to watch Hettes try to NOT smile at the post-fight news conference when Dana White admitted he hadn’t paid any attention to Hettes before that night. Those two moments meant he had arrived – and that dominant performance (30-25, 30-25, 30-26) over a veteran like Phan certainly didn’t hurt. Hettes is now all over the radar in the featherweight division, and it will be exciting to see what he does next.

Diego Brandao

3 (tie). Diego Brandao
Duane Finley: The Ultimate Fighter featherweight winner has proven to create tremendous opportunities for fighters who can capitalize. Brandao not only put his brutal striking skills on display, but his temper made for some solid television along the way. The Brazilian was knocking blocks off on his run to the finale, where he faced Dennis Berumdez, and the two featherweights turned in a Fight of the Night-winning affair with what some have called one of the year’s best rounds. Bermudez dropped Brandao and appeared to have him in all kinds of trouble before Diego caught an arm and rolled for a fight-ending submission. Brandao stole the show, and it will be exciting to see how he handles life in the UFC.
Matt Erickson: As I watched my early screener copies of Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter” each week, I got excited every time Brandao tore through another opponent in the house. And then I got bummed because I had to wait a few days to see what the rest of the world thought of him after the episode aired. Very early in the season, it was hard to not think ahead to a possible showdown between Brandao and fellow Brazilian featherweight phenom Jose Aldo, the UFC’s 145-pound champ. The two have similar builds, similar styles and a title fight between them could be legendary. Of course, all those thoughts were put on hold in December when Brandao ran into serious trouble against Dennis Bermudez in the TUF featherweight finale. But when he rebounded and pulled off one of the slickest armbars in UFC history to rally for a first-round win, the Aldo-Brandao daydream was back on. The sky’s the limit for this kid.

Michael Chandler

3 (tie). Michael Chandler
Duane Finley
When the Season 4 Bellator lightweight tournament was announced, no one in the MMA world imagined Michael Chandler would not only win the tournament, but claim the championship belt as well. I can proudly say it was a shot I called from the jump. In a tournament with the likes of Rob McCullough, Toby Imada and Patricky “Pitbull” Freire, Chandler was cast aside. After solid wins over Marcin Held, Lloyd Woodard and Friere, the $100,000 check was his – but respect still seemed a bit off. Champion Eddie Alvarez was widely considered to be one of the world’s Top 5 lightweights and even he didn’t seem to be giving much thought to the former Mizzou standout. When they finally clashed in Hollywood Florida it was an instant classic. The fight was a tremendous back and forth with both men being hurt and battling back. Midway through the fourth round, Chandler stunned Alvarez with a hard shot. As Alvarez crumbled, Chandler pounced and put the stamp on a great year by choking out Alvarez and becoming the Bellator lightweight champion.
Matt Erickson: It’s a Missouri wrestling thing. It’s gotta be. That school just spits out great fighter after great fighter, and Chandler could go on to be one of the best of them. Chandler had five fights under his belt when he entered Bellator’s lightweight tournament, including a pair of Strikeforce wins and a pair of Bellator wins. But let’s face it – he was still plenty under the mainsteam MMA radar, even when he beat Patricky Freire to win the tournament and an oversized check to display on the wall of his garage. Against Eddie Alvarez when he got his shot at the Bellator 155-pound title, he was expected to be just another victim. But he was far from that, putting on one of the year’s best fights before submitting the champ and ending his seven-fight winning streak. He went 4-0 in 2011 with a Bellator tournament win and a new belt around his waste by the time all was said and done – and that’s hard to top at 25 years old.

Honorable Mention
John Dodson: Won TUF 14 bantamweight title
Brian Ebersole: 3-0, including major upset of Chris Lytle and two fight night bonuses. (Yes, a “newcomer” mention for a guy with 60 fights!)
Tony Ferguson: 3-0, including TUF 13 welterweight title

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.
Best of MMA 2011: Fight of the Year.
It was a fight years in the making, but Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was worth the wait – and one for the ages.
Best of MMA 2011: Knockout of the Year. In a year jam-packed with great knockouts a couple coming from the feet, and not the hands, lead our list. Whose foot topped the list – the Spider’s, or the Dragon’s?
Best of MMA 2011: Submission of the Year. Was it the introduction of “The Twister” to the world, or a BJJ legend’s arm getting snapped in half? See who delivered the year’s best tapout.
Best of MMA 2011: Upset of the Year. It was a big surprise when it happened, but it should come as little surprise that it leads our list of 2011’s biggest shockers. Tito Ortiz saved his career with a stunner.
Coming Wednesday: Event of the Year