• Review of the Year

Jon Jones the icon as UFC raises the bar in 2011

Ben Blackmore December 24, 2011
Winners and losers of 2011 in the UFC

Every year the UFC promises it will get bigger, every year it promises to become more spectacular, and every year we doubt that the next 12 months can better those just passed.

We should have known better.

In 2010 we had five UFC champions, now we have seven. In 2010 we had 24 events, now when we pull the party poppers on December 31 we'll have had 27. And in 2012 the number will smash the 30-barrier.

Those with a thirst for speed have been well-and-truly introduced to Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo and Co. Those who prefer power are witnessing arguably the most talented heavyweight of all time in Junior Dos Santos. And those who wondered if a new Anderson Silva would ever be created have been allowed to marvel at Jon Jones - champion of the light-heavyweight division but no longer a friend of Rashad Evans.

Of course, Silva is still going... as is Georges St-Pierre. Another year, another flawless 12 months for the middleweight and welterweight kings. Will 2012 pit them toe-to-toe in the same Octagon?

On the other hand we seemingly said goodbye to legends in the shape of Randy Couture, BJ Penn and Mirko Cro Cop. Although you get the feeling at least one will return.

On a British level Michael Bisping is back on his lifelong hunt for a title shot, while life can only get better for Dan Hardy. The lightweight Anderson Silva, Terry Etim, is back, Ross Pearson's dropped himself into the featherweight ocean, while John Maguire and Che Mills have announced themselves to the world.

Ground-breaking moves to merge the UFC and the WEC, and to bring Strikeforce under the same Zuffa umbrella, have all combined to create the biggest and best fights, while on an amusement level Chael Sonnen has rivalled Will Ferrell for belly-aching laughter.

It's been a glorious year, so let ESPN review the biggest moments, the dominant characters and the memorable controversies of 2011, beginning with our star man.

Star man: Jon Jones

Jon Jones was the first man to stop Rampage Jackson in the UFC © Getty Images

If Jon Jones manages to better his efforts of 2011 in 2012, we really are in for something very special. Arguably the most dangerous 24-year-old on the planet, Jones has already been labelled the Muhammad Ali of mixed martial arts, and you get the feeling he is only just moving through the gears.

Four big wins, three title fights, two successful defences, all resulting in Jones becoming the youngest champion in UFC history. And all without breaking a sweat.

The UFC light-heavyweight champion's first true test of the year (after a February win over Ryan Bader) was to defeat the reigning light-heavyweight champion Mauricio Shogun Rua, the man who had just ended the era of Lyoto Machida. "The best I've ever faced", commented Shogun. Even more impressive was the fact that, just hours before the fight, Jones had helped apprehend a thief who had snatched a woman's handbag. All in day's work...

Next came his first defence, against a man who had never been stopped in the UFC. Rampage Jackson came questioning Jones' power and chin, but walked away admitting a "changing of the guard" moment after tapping to a fourth-round choke.

Lastly there was Machida, a man Jones could not lay a hand on for five minutes. For the first time the champ got tested, but boy did he come through it. Catching the Brazilian in a standing guillotine, Jones choked his foe unconscious - sending out a warning to all future rivals.

An outstanding year, but you wouldn't bet against 2012 being even better.

Fight of the Year: Henderson v Shogun

Mauricio Shogun Rua fought through the pain barrier © Getty Images

For pulse-racing excitement, it may not have matched Leonard Garcia v Nam Phan or Martin Kampmann v Diego Sanchez, and for sheer shock factor it did not equal Frankie Edgar's victory over Gray Maynard or Cheick Kongo's slaying of Pat Barry.

But Dan Henderson v Mauricio Shogun Rua did something that took it way beyond those mentioned above. It may not have been pretty, it may not have been fought at 100mph, but it took you to a place you may never have been as an MMA viewer.

Five punishing rounds, the most punishing rounds you're ever likely to see, saw two of the sport's great knockout artists take each other's best punches... and keep coming. Racked with exhaustion, riddled with pain, two of MMA's greatest legends kept finding a way to attack - even when it was clear their legs and minds disagreed.

First Henderson was in charge, dropping Shogun. Then by the end of round one it was Shogun sending Henderson's chin to the floor. By round three Shogun looked ready for the hospital, his face a mess as Henderson smashed him with that legendary right hand.

Shogun has the heart of a champion though, and in round four he wobbled his rival, changing the momentum of the fight. This time it was Henderson forced to display unbelievable courage as he hung in to the final klaxon, Shogun raining down blows in an attempt to finish. The final decision went to Henderson, just, although it barely seemed necessary.

"That man can take a f***ing punch," said Henderson. "I was seeing stars," commented Shogun. The words of two gladiators who, thanks to their efforts at UFC 139, will never be forgotten.

Comeback of the Year: Kongo v Barry

Cheick Kongo snatched victory from the jaws of defeat © Getty Images

The greatest comeback in the history of the UFC, to paraphrase UFC co-commentator Joe Rogan. He would have been just as accurate if he had labelled it the most memorable Hail Mary.

For those not familiar with the Hail Mary pass in American football, it is the moment when the clock is almost down, the quarterback needs to find one match-winning pass, so he desperately sends the ball long in the vague hope that it will land in one of his team-mates' hands.

Kongo was the quarterback. To continue the NFL vernacular, he had felt the sack (a fierce shuddering tackle) of Pat Barry on more than one occasion - the only difference being Barry was delivering the punishment with his fists. The ref almost stepped in on more than one occasion as Kongo wobbled from one corner of the Octagon to the other, eating punches as he went.

Barry, previously accused of failing to show his nasty side in a loss to Mirko Cro Cop, went head-hunting, but as he did so Kongo threw up the pass. The scenario dictated that Kongo effectively had one shot at finding Barry's chin - and he made no mistake. From the jaws of defeat, Kongo snatched victory, the touchdown signalled by the sound of Barry's chin hitting the canvas.

Submission of the Year: Zombie v Garcia

The Korean Zombie twisted Leonard Garcia into submission at UFC Fight Night 24 © Getty Images

Outside of the UFC, Richard Hale deserves a mention for his inverted triangle choke against Nik Fekete, which saw Fekete lose consciousness even though Hale worked all his magic whilst upside down.

Equally as impressive, though, was the Korean Zombie's Twister submission against Leonard Garcia - the first Twister to finish a fight in the UFC. The pair had put on one of the greatest wars in MMA history in their first fight, but the sequel was memorable for an altogether different reason as the Zombie took a giant page out of Eddie Bravo's book. Controlling the leg of Garcia, the Zombie cranked his rival's head in the opposite direction, contorting the spine for a submission so painful that Garcia tapped with just one second remaining in the round.

Knockout of the Year: Silva v Belfort

Anderson Silva completely crumpled Vitor Belfort © Getty Images

One man in particular can feel very hard-done-by to miss out on this award, after Lyoto Machida's quite brilliant jumping front kick performed dental surgery on Randy Couture. However, Machida's blow was an adapted version of what Anderson Silva had showcased two months earlier, and Silva's came against one of the best strikers of all time.

Vitor Belfort was - and is - a world class striker, boasting hand speed perhaps even superior to Silva himself, and he'd not suffered a clean knockout in his 14-year career. Unlike Couture, Belfort was far from past it, and he was actually turning up the heat on Silva as the pair settled into the contest. It was two of Brazil's favourite sons going at it, and Silva picked the perfect night to put himself on a pedestal (at least when it comes to striking) that no other man on the planet has reached.

Seemingly adding an extra second to the day, of which Belfort was totally unaware, Silva planted the most pin-point front kick on the chin of his adversary, simultaneously making the entire MMA world jump to its feet as Belfort fell from his. President Dana White simply stated: "I think he's the best fighter in the world. When he does what he's capable of doing, you have nights like tonight. I've only seen that in a video game."

Champion-in-Waiting: Rory MacDonald

Nate Diaz was tossed around by Rory MacDonald © Getty Images

Unfortunately we were robbed of Rory MacDonald's final outing in 2011, after injury forced him out of a clash with the tricky Brian Ebersole. However, we had already seen enough in the previous 10 months to realise the 22-year-old has a huge future in the welterweight division.

MacDonald's year began in April against Nate Diaz, a man who can inflict damage with his hands and end fights with his ground game. There was danger everywhere for MacDonald, but you wouldn't have known it. Dishing out the biggest rag-dolling since Cain Velasquez got his hands on Cheick Kongo, Diaz was thrown to every side of the Octagon.

Then came the turn of Mike Pyle, a veteran ground master who gave England's own hopeful John Hathaway a lesson at UFC 120. MacDonald cares little for reputations though, and he pounded Pyle into first-round submission, chalking up his third UFC win. By contrast, Georges St-Pierre had not even entered the UFC at the same age.

Champagne Moment: Edgar v Maynard III

Frankie Edgar rose from his knees to conquer the world at UFC 136 © Getty Images

12 months ago we handed Frankie Edgar the Biggest Upset award for his victory over BJ Penn, but this time we credit the lightweight champion with providing the moment of the year. Champagne Moment went to Randy Couture in 2010 for upholding the good name of mixed martial arts against James Toney, but this time the award goes to an act of sheer heart, immortal defence, and undeniable talent.

Edgar had already taken one pounding from Gray Maynard when the pair drew in January. So when the seemingly unthinkable happened as Edgar got used as a punchbag for a second time at UFC 136, surely this time the champ would buckle.

No chance. Clinching, ducking and diving desperately for a leg to cling to, Edgar saw out two-and-a-half minutes of agony. Face swollen and nose busted, he breathed exclusively through his mouth in order to stop blood heading to other sections of his head. In short, the champion was a mess. However, after two calculated rounds of striking to work his way back into the contest, Edgar completely turned the tables, slamming an uppercut into Maynard's chin in one of the all-time great comebacks. A true champion? Without a doubt.

Biggest Upset: Ortiz v Bader

Tito Ortiz rolled back the years against Ryan Bader © Getty Images

UFC 132 had all the hallmarks of a former UFC champion, totally outstaying his welcome long past his sell-by date. When Tito Ortiz stepped into the same Octagon as Ryan Bader, the UFC's most dominant light-heavyweight champion of all time had not won for five years, drawing one and losing four of his last five bouts. A loss to journeyman Matt Hamill in his most recent outing left Ortiz begging for his job, pleading for one more chance, and the UFC begrudgingly agreed.

On paper, he was faced with a younger opponent who was more athletic, more powerful, and in possession of more dangerous knockout power in his hands. It was surely an unglamourous one-way ticket out of the UFC for the Huntington Beach Bad Boy.

This is Tito Ortiz though. This is the man who defended his UFC title five times back-to-back, beating Wanderlei Silva and Ken Shamrock en route. Win-or-bust moments, when the world is watching, are what he does best. With Bader looking to land his big right hand, it was instead Ortiz who landed, temporarily switching off Bader's senses. By the time he came around, he was in one of the tightest guillotine chokes you're ever likely to see, and before he knew it Ortiz was digging his burial site - as is his trademark. For just a moment, the UFC wheel had been rewound by five years, and it was glorious Ortiz.

Talking point: Nate Marquardt

Nate Marquardt was booted out of the UFC © Getty Images

Nate Marquardt's drop to the welterweight division was supposed to bring him a UFC title shot, but the American did not even get as far as his 170lb debut. Scheduled to fight Rick Story, Marquardt was forced off the card 24 hours prior to the event, and within minutes he was axed from the UFC via an angry video message by Dana White. The reason was left a mystery. Was it a failed weight cut? Did he have a serious illness? Even a "disgusted" White couldn't give an explanation, telling Marquardt to "man up" and tell the world.

When Marquardt did face the world four days later, tears filled his eyes as he explained he needed testosterone therapy. He claimed he'd been having the treatment for months, but that his doctor had issued too much testosterone prior to fight night, meaning Marquardt was over the legal limit.

"Bull****" called BJ Penn. "Cheat" remarked Michael Bisping. "He had it coming" was Dan Hardy's assessment. Marquardt responded by promising he could beat all of them, but the truth is he'll never get the chance.

Quotes of the year:

"Just put the sign on my hotel door for housekeeping. This is when I sprawl out on my bed naked & play the waiting game."
Kenny Florian uses a moment of boredom to amuse his fans on Twitter

"All that we were saying is that we think he has sex with animals."
Jorge Rivera's camp clarify their pre-fight trash talk aimed at Michael Bisping

"Mention to your idiot-in-residence Michael Spitsbing it'll be a tougher to knee ME in the head when I'm charging at him like a runaway train and mincing him through the fence like a boiled potato."
Chael Sonnen writes to the UFC asking for a showdown with Michael Bisping

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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk