We’ve almost reached the end of the 2011 unofficial awards season, and after counting down the imports, newcomers, upsets, knockouts, and submissions, it’s time to pick the fights that defined the past year and made you say ‘this is why I’m a mixed martial arts fan.’
10 – Edson Barbosa-Anthony Njokuani
It says something about Anthony Njokuani’s character that after watching Edson Barboza finish Mike Lullo with leg kicks that he would step up to the plate and offer himself up for the same type of punishment. But hey, that’s what a real Muay Thai fighter would do against one of his peers, and his willingness to do so at UFC 128 in March led to one of the purest displays of the Art of Eight Limbs that you will ever see in the Octagon. For striking aficionados, this bout, won by Barboza via close, but unanimous, decision, was gold.
9 – Kyle Kingsbury-Fabio Maldonado
Former college football player Kyle Kingsbury wasn’t the most highly-touted prospect to emerge from the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, but quietly and steadily, “KingsBu” began to make his mark, most notably with a Fight of the Night win over Jared Hamman and a 21 second destruction of Ricardo Romero. But against Brazil’s Fabio Maldonado, an undefeated pro boxer, in June, Kingsbury showed not only his growing skill set, but his heart, as he and Maldonado engaged in one of those grueling, blood and spit flying brawls that make you want to stand up and cheer when it’s all over. Kingsbury won the bout via unanimous decision, and while you would love to see the light heavyweights do it again, you get the impression that after their 15 minute blood and guts scrap, they’ll want a little break from each other for the moment.
8 – Wanderlei Silva-Cung Le
Yes, all true mixed martial arts fans can appreciate a tense ground battle or the ability of top-level wrestlers to control where and how a fight takes place, but when it comes to pure savage beauty, nothing compares to the visceral thrill 30-something veterans Cung Le and Wanderlei Silva bring to the table, Le with his action movie moves and Silva with his pure aggression and callous disregard for defense once the fists start flying. At UFC 139, both delivered the only way they know how, and after Le turned in a strong first round, Silva roared back and finished the former Strikeforce champ in the second. Who said MMA was just for the young kids?
7 – Diego Sanchez-Martin Kampmann
In talking to one of Diego Sanchez’ peers last year, he said that the fearless Albuquerque warrior has engaged in so many wars that his “cuts are starting to have conversations with each other.” This was never more evident than in Sanchez’ March battle with pinpoint striker Martin Kampmann, who opened his opponent’s face up by the middle of the second round and appeared to be on his way to a possible stoppage victory. But Sanchez refused to back down, and his rapid fire flurries and relentless attack not only inflicted damage on his opponent as well, but allowed him to eke out an exciting unanimous decision victory in a bout that proved why fans never get disappointed when “The Dream” takes to the Octagon. UFC President Dana White agreed, giving $160,000 bonus to both fighters.
6 – Nate Diaz-Donald Cerrone
From the time this one was signed, the anticipation began for what couldn’t help but be an exciting fight, and lightweights Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone didn’t disappoint. From the press conference to the weigh-in to the final bell, this one was all fire, and while Diaz took the decision, controlling the majority of the bout with his pinpoint striking accuracy, as soon as Cerrone warmed up in the second round, it became a fight, and one that lived up to the hype to boot.
5– Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard III
Many times when you say something was a carbon copy of an earlier event, that’s an insult. Not here. At UFC 136 in October, Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard met for the third time, and as was the case in their second fight last January (which you know is coming further up the list), Edgar got rocked and almost finished in the first round by “The Bully,” only to shake off the cobwebs and get himself back in the fight. This time though, he wasn’t going to let the judges decide his fate. New Jersey’s finest had his fists do the talking, and in the fourth round, he stunned the Houston crowd with a knockout of Maynard, capping off one of MMA’s great series in emphatic fashion.
4 – Dominick Cruz-Urijah Faber II
The grudge between bantamweight stars Dominick Cruz and Urijah Faber was real, so before their UFC 132 main event earlier in July, there was a fear that the fighters wanted so badly not to lose to their rival that they would be too cautious. Not a chance. Instead, Cruz and Faber fired off all their tricks at one another, fought at the insanely high pace 135-pounders are known for, and gave the fans a 25 minute fight to remember that Cruz won by unanimous decision. In the process, he evened the score with the only man to ever beat him, and also set the stage for an Ultimate Fighter 15 coaching stint for both, as well as a third fight later in 2012.
3 – Ben Henderson-Clay Guida
Cardio machines Ben Henderson and Clay Guida met in November for a shot at the lightweight championship, and both fought for 15 minutes as if THAT was their title fight. Filled with fast paced grappling, knockdowns scored by each, and submission attempts that once again put Henderson’s rubber neck to the test, this was high level stuff that showed why this sport is continuing to set the standard in combat sports. When it was all over, Henderson secured the win and his February shot at Frankie Edgar, but when he’s finished with that business, no one would complain if they saw “Smooth” and “The Carpenter” run it back one more time.
2 – Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard 2
This UFC 125 bout between UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and number one contender Gray Maynard nearly ended in the first round when “The Bully” rocked and dropped the champ and nearly finished him. But Edgar remarkably made it out of the opening frame and began the task of not just surviving, but getting back on track to retain his title. And he did just that, stunning the Las Vegas crowd with a show of resilience that cemented his place on top of the 155-pound weight class. And kudos go to Maynard as well, who battled past a gas tank depleted by his frenzied first round attack to continue to go after Edgar in a quest to repeat his first win over “The Answer” and take home the championship belt. In the end, the two fighters were disappointed by the five round draw verdict, but no one who saw that 25 minute bout would ever say that they felt the same way.
1 – Dan Henderson-Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
If you watch a fight and you get to see top-level technique or an action-packed brawl or an amazing display of heart, you’ll undoubtedly be happy to see at least one of the three. Two? That’s a Fight of the Year candidate. All three, like we saw in the UFC 139 bout between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in November? That’s all-time great territory right there, and that’s what this fight was. From start to finish, you saw everything that makes mixed martial arts great, and you saw two of the sport’s superstars doing it, fighting as if there was more than a win on the line in San Jose. To add to the intrigue, the bout was five rounds, only the second non-title fight in UFC history to be scheduled for that length of time, and the first to succeed in going 25 minutes. So for nearly half an hour, Henderson and Rua traded blows that would have knocked out lesser men, pulled off amazing escapes and comebacks, and truly left everything they had in the Octagon. Even before Henderson left the Octagon with the decision victory, it was clear that we had our 2011 Fight of the Year, and it may be safe to say that every year from here on out will have a tough act to follow.
Honorable Mention - Cheick Kongo-Pat Barry, Chris Lytle-Dan Hardy, Nam Phan-Leonard Garcia II, Renan Barao-Brad Pickett, Diego Brandao-Dennis Bermudez, Nick Diaz-BJ Penn, Jon Jones-Lyoto Machida, Matt Wiman-Mac Danzig, Jose Aldo-Mark Hominick, Michael McDonald-Edwin Figueroa
Ten Best - 2011 Fight of the Year
The best fights of 2011 are here...and we don't think you'll argue with the bout in the number one spot...