In the first part of my look back at 2011, we talked about the biggest stories of the year in MMA. Now, we’ll hand out some awards in the categories we’ve all come to know and love. All awards, of course, are decided by me and are completely reflective of my own biases and
shortcomings outstanding understanding of the sport’s subtleties.
Fighter of the Year
This is probably my least favorite annual award, because it always seems so damned obvious. What’s a guy to do? Arbitrarily hand the award to someone other than the obvious choice out of sheer boredom? Certainly not, dear reader.
When the debate centers around not whether someone was the fighter of the year, but whether he had the best year any fighter has ever had, it’s clear that they should win it. Thus, this one goes to Jon Jones.
Jones fought four times in 2011, all of them against top ten light heavyweights. Three of those fights involved the light heavyweight championship and were against top five fighters and future Hall of Famers Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Of the four fights Jones fought in 2011, he lost all of one round; a mutually tentative opening round against Machida that was lost likely more due to Jones biding his time than anything else.
I was not on the Jones hype train going into 2011. Looking back, I probably stubbornly refused to do what I felt everyone else was doing- giving Jones credit before he earned it. Sure, he had looked great, but against who? His win over Bader was his first against a truly high-level opponent, and with that lone top ten win on his resume, he was favored over friggin’ Shogun?!?
Jones went on to not just beat three of the better light heavyweights in MMA history so far, but utterly destroy them. He does it with creativity, fluidity and an unpredictable approach that always seems to provide foes with challenges they didn’t plan for. People talk about his spinning back elbow when it’s actually his ground and pound that remains the most impressive part of his arsenal. Even so, he uses so many techniques well- kicks, elbows, a variety of takedowns, opportunistic submissions- that he’s one of the hardest fighters in the world to game plan for right now.
Honorable Mentions– Dan Henderson, Michael Chandler, Ian McCall, Nick Diaz, Ronda Rousey.
Fight of the Year
For completely different reasons, this is another category that can easily put a person into a bad mood. Why? Because in order to decide a winner, you have to take great fights- beautiful exhibitions of splendid violence- and nitpick them to death, to the point where you feel like you’re just making shit up in order to come up with some semblance of a rationale. Like any other year, we’ve been blessed with many great possibilities for this one, but there’s one that still stands out to me: Edgar-Maynard III.
Edgar-Maynard III gets a check box next to just about everything you’d want from a great fight. It was for a title, it was the rubber match in a very good rivalry, it was highly-anticipated because of how exciting the previous fight was, it featured an amazing comeback and plenty of high drama, and there was a definitive finish.
I still remember watching the opening round, seeing Frankie Edgar get rocked (again) by Gray Maynard and thinking, “No freaking way this is happening again.” Sure enough, it was. Edgar again scampered around the cage, trying to fight back and get his wits about him at the same time. Maynard seemed a bit more cerebral this time, but nonetheless pursued Edgar with a Terminator-like sense of deadly purpose, landing solid blow after solid blow. How many people watched this with others and heard someone say, “He’s done!” more than once in that first round?
And what happened? Edgar wasn’t done, not by a long shot. He once again showed an uncanny ability to rest and come out looking completely unscathed after the sixty-second break between rounds and set out to turn the tide. He did so, using his expert footwork and smart combinations to wear Maynard down before putting him away with surprising efficiency in the fourth.
My quick reasoning on why I didn’t pick the other popular choice from this year: I can’t get over the terrible judging in Henderson-Shogun. Also, though there’s something gritty and compelling about watching exhausted fighters dig deep, I tend to prefer fights where nobody completely gasses.
Honorable Mentions– Henderson-Shogun, Chandler-Alvarez.
KO of the Year
There are always different schools of thought on this one. Do you go for the most violent knockout? The most meaningful one (say, a knockout victory to win or retain a title in upset fashion)? I don’t know that there’s any set formula, but for me anyway, no knockout made me wonder if I really saw what I just saw like Anderson Silva’s knockout of Vitor Belfort.
Suffice to say that if you watch thousands of fights, like many of you and I myself have done, over a period of longer than ten years, you start to get an idea over what will and won’t work in a “real fight”. No matter how many times you’re proven wrong (Diaz’s gogoplata of Gomi that supposedly never happened, the Pettis Kick), you feel pretty confident that some techniques are best left for the movies.
Then, you see Anderson Silva floor Vitor Belfort with a front kick.
I learned how to throw such a kick (my instructor called it a “front snap kick”, but it’s the same thing, no matter what Steven Seagal tries to tell you) as a ten-year old in tae kwon do class. Coincidentally, that was the last year in my life that I ever thought that kick might be useful. Side kicks, roundhouse kicks? Sure, they might work. The front kick, though, was the red-headed stepchild of traditional martial arts techniques. You’re going to knock somebody out with the ball of your foot? And unlike a roundhouse kick or spinning back kick or what have you, the margin for error is small. You’re trying to land this on someone’s chin, after all. If you miss a bit with a muay Thai head kick, you simply strike with your foot instead of your shin, but it still hurts like a bastard. If you miss a bit with your front kick (which you will), you hit nothing but air and look like a clown.
Unless, of course, you’re Anderson Silva. Now, I won’t pretend that seeing Lyoto Machida knock out Randy Couture with what was basically the Crane Kick from The Karate Kid didn’t take a little luster off Silva’s knockout. However, Belfort is several times the striker that Randy was, and is also several years younger and has better reflexes, to boot. That’s why Silva’s takes the cake.
Honorable Mentions– This ridiculous tornado kick KO by Adam Khaliev against Alexei Belyaev, Cheick Kongo coming back from the grave and erasing Pat Barry, Carlos Condit’s flying knee KO of Dong Hyun Kim.
Submission of the Year
There are also many great possible choices here, but one that stood out right away for me: Frank Mir’s kimura that broke Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s arm and forced the Brazilian legend to tap out for the first time in his storied career.
We’ve seen great fighters get tapped before, but there’s so often an asterisk there. Often, the submission is immediately preceded by a powerful strike that has the losing fighter seeing stars and unable to protect himself. Other times, as we see so often with rear naked chokes, the submission is not so much proof of jiu-jitsu savvy as it is proof that the fighter on the bottom got tired of taking punishment, gave up his back and didn’t feel like taking any more punches to the face.
None of that was true with Mir’s kimura. In fact, what many people don’t discuss with this submission is the fact that Mir looked to be in very deep trouble immediately preceding it. Nogueira had hurt Mir with punches and Mir was turtled up on the canvas until Nogueira pounced and tried an Anaconda choke. When it didn’t work, a scramble ensued and Mir was able to snatch up a kimura that myself and probably a million other viewers immediately didn’t take very seriously. Nogueira tried to roll out of it and couldn’t, and the rest is history as Mir kept torquing and the arm suddenly, violently gave out. Nogueira tapped as Herb Dean was already breaking up the fight, and no other submission left me as shocked in 2011.
Honorable Mentions: Jon Jones’ painful guillotine choke against Lyoto Machida, Chan Sung Jung’s epic twister against Leonard Garcia, Tito Ortiz’s “turn back the clock” moment against Ryan Bader via arm-in guillotine, Diego Brandao’s sudden armbar against Dennis Bermudez.
Disappointment of the Year
Injuries. Lots of them.
For starters, every one of the seven UFC champions missed at least one engagement due to injury. Some, like Georges St. Pierre, not only missed a fight in 2011, but have already missed one in 2012 and will continue to be out for some time. In part one of my year-end special, I talked about the sheer number of UFC events where marquee bouts were lost or had to be changed due to injuries. Let’s hope we get better luck in 2012, for both the sake of the fighters and ourselves.
Honorable Mentions– Fedor Emelianenko’s Strikeforce performances and exit, Japanese MMA continues to struggle as Sengoku closes and K-1 is sold.
Holy $#!% Moment of the Year
Even with all the great moments I’ve already mentioned: front kicks for knockouts, submission wins over Brazilian jiu-jitsu legends, even the purchase of Strikeforce by Zuffa- one moment trumped them all for me.
That moment was when Cheick Kongo, already basically put to sleep a couple of times within the opening minutes of his fight with Pat Barry, somehow starched Barry with a counter right hand and turned the tide in one of the quickest, most ridiculous swings of momentum you will ever see in any sport. I believed it was the best in-fight comeback in MMA history when it happened, and nothing has changed that opinion since.
Event of the Year
In a very close one, I’ll go with a tie between UFC 139 and UFC 140. While it didn’t feature my honorable mention choice for Fight of the Year (Henderson-Shogun), UFC 140 had two jaw-dropping submissions (by Frank Mir and Jon Jones) and a ridiculous seven-second knockout of Mark Hominick by Chan Sung Jung, to boot.
UFC 139 was also great and was headlined by what was by any measure a simply outstanding fight. The lunacy of three judges who wouldn’t know a 10-8 round if it front kicked them in their respective faces aside, Henderson-Shogun was a great scrap that featured plenty of drama and showcased not only the skill, but the heart that is required to be a top-level MMA fighter like either of the two men who competed that night have been for years. We also got outstanding performances by two great former champions (Urijah Faber and Wanderlei Silva) and some peeks at possible future greatness courtesy of prospects Michael McDonald and Chris Weidman, as well.
Honorable Mentions– UFC 132, Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva, UFC 136, Bellator 58.
Tags: Adam Khaliev, Anderson Silva, Bellator, Bellator 58, Carlos Condit, Chan Sung Jung, Cheick Kongo, Dan Henderson, Fedor Emelianenko, Frankie Edgar, Georges St. Pierre, Gray Maynard, Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida, Pat Barry, Sengoku, Strikeforce, Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Silva, Tito Ortiz, UFC, UFC 132, UFC 136, UFC 139, UFC 140