FIGHT! Magazine Awards 2011

The month of February can only mean one thing: It’s time to give out the 2011 awards. I know what you’re thinking, “Are the 5th Annual FIGHT! Magazine Awards going to detract from the 84th Academy Awards that are scheduled for February 26?” Yes, but hopefully Billy Crystal will dull your pain by punching himself in the face. Award ceremonies are so much fun. Without further ado, the winners are…

Simply put, you can’t even make a case for any other fighter to win this award in 2011. “Let the bodies hit the floor” should have been Jones’ mantra for 2011, as he systematically destroyed four of the best light heavyweights the UFC had to offer. The big question is whether Jon Jones’ 2011 was the single greatest calendar-year performance in MMA history.

2011 Fighter of the Year: Jon JonesJones kicked off 2011 by choking previously unbeaten Ryan Bader into submission at UFC 126 in February. Bader and Jones were on parallel paths at the time—marketable fighters with seemingly limitless potential—but the UFC made the decision to have them declare dominance inside the Octagon. Bader was no match for Jones’ range, and when the fight hit the mat in round two, Jones used his go-go-Gadget arms to slap on a boa-constricting guillotine that left Bader tapping.

Six weeks later, Jones was back in action, filling in for an injured Rashad Evans against UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. The rift with Evans— his former Greg Jackson MMA teammate— turned out to be the real drama, as Jones left no doubt about who the better fighter was against Rua, TKO’ing the Brazilian with a series of kicks and punches in the third round.

Next up for the newly crowned UFC Light Heavyweight Champ was former belt holder Quinton Jackson, who hadn’t been stopped inside the cage in more than five years. Jones took the fight to Rampage, beating the brawler to the punch before locking on a rear-naked choke in round four. Jackson was humbled, and Jones had secured his first title defense.

Bones closed out the year with the everelusive karate kid Lyoto Machida. After stumbling through an uncharacteristically slow start where he was wobbled by a Machida punch, Jones unleashed hell in round two, choking out Machida with a standing guillotine before dramatically—if not controversially— dropping the Dragon’s lifeless body to the canvas. With the demolition of Machida came the exclamation point on Jones’ 2011. Jones had not only beaten three former UFC champions in three fights, but he also finished each one.

Was Jon Jones’ 2011 the best calendar year of fighting in MMA history? The only comparison might lie with one of Jones’ victims, Mauricio Rua, who, in 2005, won the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix by defeating Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and Ricardo Arona. With the exception of Arona, those are three of the most highly regarded fighters today. Also of note is the veracity with which he disposed of Overeem, Jackson, and Arona. To this day, Rampage probably can’t watch a soccer game without having flashbacks of Shogun booting his skull like a red, rubber kickball.

Fedor Emelianenko’s 2004 (Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Naoya Ogawa, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria) and Chuck Liddell’s 2006 (Randy Couture, Renato Sobra, Tito Ortiz) are two more outstanding years of note. You can even make a case for the early work of Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman, and Big Nog. However, negating those as secondary accomplishments, let’s focus on the 2005 triumphs of Shogun Rua. Does Jones’ 2011 supersede Rua’s 2005?

Respectfully, yes. Bones not onl y defeated three former UFC champions (including Shogun) and an unbeaten up-and-comer, but he also dispatched of each of them via TKO or submission. Jones didn’t eke out any decisions and only once did he even look threatened. Bones destroyed each of his opponents in 2011.

THE SKY IS THE LIMIT

More than two years ago, when FIGHT! put the relatively unknown Jones on the December 2009 cover, renowned MMA trainer Firas Zahabi—who had briefly worked with Jones—said, “I think he can not only win a world title in his division, but also clean it out completely. He can do that. He has what it takes if he does the right things.”

Zahabi’s words were the overture to the onslaught, as Jones made each of his 2011 opponents look like jack-in-the-boxes that wouldn’t jump.

“2011 was awesome for me,” says Jones. “I’ve grown as a fighter and a man. Winning the FIGHT! Magazine Fighter of the Year award is outstanding. 2012 is going to be even better. Explode. Dominate. Repeat. I’m going to continue to row, row, row my boat gently down the stream.”

Of course, the scary thing about talented youth is that it’s still limitless in potential, something of which Jones is aware.

“I’ve still got a lot of work to do as a fighter,” he says. “I’m still developing my boxing, and my goal for 2012 is to develop my leg strength, develop more power.

Develop his boxing? He dominated three of the best strikers in Shogun, Rampage, and Machida.

Scary.

Two years ago, in the same FIGHT! article, Greg Jackson added, “Jones has exceeded all my expectations, and he’s so young. I mean he’s just 22 years old. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Dan Henderson v Mauricio RuaWhile no mixed martial artists is unbeatable, Jones certainly positioned himself in 2011 to be thought of in the same rarefied air with the greatest combat champions of all-time (wrestler Dan Gable’s 1972 and boxer Jack Dempsey’s 1919 are two of my favorites). He’s not just good, he’s great, not just breathtaking, but suffocating. The best course of action for the current field of 205-pounders might be to send Jones a congratulatory gift basket that is filled with muffins, cheeses, and assorted sausages. Beef him up to heavyweight and send him packing, because if 2011 was just the overture to the onslaught, then 2012 might prove to be a very painful symphony for the rest of the light heavyweight field.

Nov. 19, 2011, was an epic night for fans of hand-to-hand combat. At Bellator 58 in Hollywood, Florida, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler put on a four-round barn burner that staked a claim for Fight of the Year honors. However, that claim would have to be reconnoitered, as it turns out that their lightweight title fight wasn’t even the best fight of the night. More than 2,500 miles across the country at UFC 139 in San Diego, Dan Henderson and Maurico “Shogun” Rua redefined what Fight of the Year means. Since there is no superlative to describe their 25-minute melee, I will borrow a made-up word from Will Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live days: the fight was simply scrumtrulescent.

If the fight had happened five years ago, Dan Henderson’s PRIDE Middleweight (205 lbs.) Title would have been on the line. Hendo, already the PRIDE Welterweight (185 lbs.) Champion, KO’ed Shogun’s teammate Wanderlei Silva to win the middleweight belt in 2007 and become the first dual titleholder in PRIDE history. However, Hendo and Shogun’s paths never crossed, and PRIDE folded a short time later.

If the fight had happened one month earlier, Henderson would have won a one-sided, three-round beatdown. However, since the UFC had recently retooled their non-title main event fights to be five rounds instead of the traditional three, Henderson wasn’t able to saunter out of the arena with a lopsided decision. Instead, he was forced to crawl. If Aesop were writing this fight’s fable, the hare would have bested the tortoise in the race, but the tortoise would have dished out an ass beating at the finish line.

Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race. Sometimes, it’s better to come out like gangbusters, which is exactly what Henderson did—battering Shogun with a devastating right hand, choking him with a standing guillotine, and bloodying him like a stuck pig. Rua responded with a big overhand right that buckled Hendo, and he followed it will several hammer fists before Henderson got back to his feet. The two fighters went toe-to-toe in the second round, with Hendo scoring points with dirty boxing toward the closing seconds. In the third round, Hendo landed a huge right hand that knocked the Brazilian to the canvas. The former Olympic wrestler swooped in to finish with a series of punches, and although it was close to being stopped, Rua survived the onslaught by threatening with a knee bar. At the end of three rounds, Hendo was up 30-27, and it looked like he could cruise to victory. However, Rua had other ideas. Rounds four and five were all Shogun, as it appeared that Hendo had punched himself out. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Shogun landed an amazing 112 strikes to Hendo’s 17. Rua dominated with takedowns and mounted control, but he couldn’t do the necessary damage to put Hendo away. While it looked like Rua may have done enough to score 10-8 in the fifth to eke out a draw, the judges gave Henderson the 48-47 unanimous decision.

“That’s without a doubt one of the top three best fights ever in MMA,” said Dana White. “I have so much respect for both of those guys to dig down that deep in a five-round fight. That was like our Ali-Frazier III. It was incredible.”

Henderson and Rua’s epic 25-minute battle wasn’t just a knockdown- drag-out, never-say-die, holding-on-for-dear-life, everything- but-the-kitchen-sink fight. It was scrumtrulescent.

After a heated stare-down with Vitor Belfort at the weigh-ins of UFC 126 in Las Vegas, Anderson Silva said, “How it’s gonna go? I’m not sure. You guys are gonna see a great fight though.” He was wrong. It wasn’t a great fight—it was a great soap opera, with everything from plot twists and betrayal to celebrity cameos and redemption. Like sands though the hourglass, so are the days leading up to the Knockout of the Year.

PLOT TWISTS

After returning to the UFC in September 2009 and knocking out Rich Franklin in the first round of their UFC 103 fight, Vitor Belfort was placed on the fast track to a UFC Middleweight Title shot. The fight was originally scheduled for UFC 108 on Jan. 2, 2110, but it was pushed back because Silva had not fully recovered from elbow surgery. It was rescheduled for UFC 109 on Feb. 6, 2010, and then UFC 112 on April 10, 2010, with the former cancelled because of Silva’s slow rehab and the latter because of an injury suffered by Belfort. The UFC decided to move on, and Silva fought—and defeated—Demian Maia at UFC 112 and Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010. Meanwhile, Belfort successfully recovered from his injury and was scheduled to face Yushin Okami at UFC 122 on Nov. 13, 2010. However, that fight was scrapped in favor of Silva and Belfort meeting at UFC 126 on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas. Confused yet? Good, this is just like the Brazilian version of Dallas.

BETRAYAL

According to Silva’s account, he helped The Phenom through a very difficult few months in 2009. When Belfort moved 200 miles away from Rio de Janeiro to Belo Horizonte, Silva and the Nogueira brothers spent time with Belfort to help him work through his rough spell. When the original fight was scheduled for UFC 108, their friendship crumbled. By the time they were set to lock horns at UFC 126, Silva said, “If I have the opportunity, I’m going to hurt Vitor. I’m going to hurt him really bad.” Insert: motive. This was more intense than waiting all summer to find out who shot J.R.

CELEBRITY CAMEO

Who does the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world seek counsel with when he needs technique tips? Of course, the easy answer is Steven Seagal, whose credentials include action star, writer, director, stunt coordinator, recording artist, reserve deputy sheriff, 7th-dan Aikido black belt, environmentalist, animal rights activist, and aftershave mogul. When video footage of Silva and Seagal training together began to circulate prior to the fight, Belfort probably called Chuck Norris, desperately pleading with him for some Hollywood magic. It was not to be, and Belfort walked out to the cage sans Norris, while Silva’s entourage included Seagal. Belfort was Marked for Death.

Silva v Belfort

REDEMPTION

In the opening minutes of the bout that the Brazilian press had dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” both Silva and Belfort circled each other tentatively. There was no kamikaze onslaught by Belfort. There was no Brazilian sambaing from Silva. Other than a brief skirmish that ended up on the ground, there weren’t any significant exchanges in the first three minutes. However, with 1:41 left in the round, Silva uncorked a left front kick to Belfort’s button, and that’s all she wrote. Goodnight, Irene. Silva reluctantly followed up with a one-two combo to his felled foe, but there was no need. Belfort was in la-la land, and Silva had his eighth title defense with a KO at 3:25 of the first round. While some of the most impressive submissions of 2011—including Chan-Sung Jung’s twister and Pablo Garza’s flying triangle—sound like Wizard of Oz references, it was Frank Mir’s arm-snapping kimura over Antonio Rogrigo Nogueira that made us believe that we were in the fantasyland of Oz. Mir’s submission is so compelling that he should sell the movie rights of his saga to Paramount and get Lou Ferrigno to play him on the big screen. If screenwriter guru Syd Fields was penning the script, it would look something like this three-act paradigm.

ACT ONE: THE SETUP

When Nogueira and Mir fought for the first time at UFC 92 in 2008, the Brazilian’s claim to fame was that he could take a licking and keep on ticking. Big Nog had been involved in some of the most epic clashes in the history of MMA and had never been defeated via stoppage. If anything, Nogueira was durable. However, after dishing out two knockdowns in the first round of their UFC 92 scrape, Mir stopped the ticking with a secondround TKO of Nogueira, dispelling any myth of Big Nog’s indestructibility. Nevertheless, days later, Mir’s victory was tarnished amidst Nogueira’s claim of a staff infection and knee injury.

“If you look at all Nogueria’s interviews, every camp before the fight was the best camp, every training session was the best, and he feels the best and is back,” Mir said. “And then after the fight, he talks about injuries and what happened. The fact of the matter is, I think he underestimated me the first time. I’m thinking he’s not going to do it the second time.”

ACT TWO: CONFRONTATION

Same actors, new stage, this time a cold December night at UFC 140 in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Big Nog planned on serving up his dish of revenge that had been chilling for the three years since their first fight, and he came out swinging. Nogueira struck first with a couple of combinations before they clinched. Mir retaliated with a trip-takedown, but they returned to their feet and continued fighting from close quarters. Nogueira got through with a few elbows and a knee, and he then wobbled Mir with quick a right hand. The former UFC Heavyweight Champ fell to his knees and ate a dozen punches. Big Nog, sensing the end was near, went for his bread and butter by locking on a guillotine choke. Everyone in the world—except for Mir— knew the fight was over.

Proving once and for all that he is the most cerebral fighter in the world, Mir somehow taught his brain how to function without the help of blood flow, fighting off the choke and eventually rolling through to end up in side control. Big Nog tried to reverse positions with a switch, but Mir trapped his right arm and kipped over into side control. From there, Mir locked on the kimura as Big Nog unsuccessfully tried to roll through to alleviate the pressure. As Mir torqued, Big Nog’s humerus (upperarm bone) snapped, his elbow crackled, and his shoulder popped. The Brazilian legend was forced to tap, but the damage was done.

ACT THREE: THE RESOLUTION

The complex fracture of Nogueira’s humerus required the surgical insertion of a metal plate and 16 screws.

By forcing Nogueria to tap, Mir was able to do what 41 previous opponents— including ADCC World Champion Fabricio Werdum, Sambo World Champion Fedor Emelieaneko, and catch-wrestling aficionado Josh Barnett—could not.

Never one for hyperbole, UFC president Dana White called Mir’s kimura the “Submission of the century.” Remembering that the 21st Century is only slightly older than 11 years, it may have been.

In addition, keep in mind that the 2008 version of Frank Mir could not make Big Nog tap, thus giving us the sequel to this saga in which 2012 Mir goes back in time to fight 2008 Mir. It’s called, Let’s Get Frank: A Mir Divided Cannot Stand.

Mir v Nogueira

On a warm July night in Las Vegas, Tito Ortiz entered the MGM Grand Garden Arena one defeat away from being handed his UFC walking papers. Ortiz, who was 0-4-1 in his previous five fights, hadn’t felt his hand raised since TKO’ing a paltry Ken Shamrock in October 2006. Things were going so poorly that “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” changed his nickname to “The People’s Champ.” Times were tough, and it looked like they were about to get tougher.

Enter Ryan Bader, who was coming off his own submission defeat to rolling-ball-of-butcher-knives Jon Jones. In a February 2010 interview with ESPN.com, Bader openly requested a fight with Ortiz, saying, “I would want to fight Tito Ortiz, just because I grew up watching him. I want to have one of those guys on my résumé like a Randy Couture or Chuck Liddell. Purely out of respect, he’s one I’d like to fight before my career is over.” In March, Bader got his wish when the fight was announced for UFC 132 in July. Ortiz’s stay of execution seemed to be three months, but in the eyes of most pundits, he was a dead man walking. In what scenario could Ortiz claim a win? Oddsmakers concurred with the critics and set an underdog line that jumped between the dismal 5:1 and the insulting 8:1.

Bader’s superior wrestling pedigree meant that Ortiz wouldn’t be securing any takedowns. Ortiz couldn’t take down former Division III wrestler Matt Hamill in their October 2010 scrap, so it seemed less likely he’d be controlling the wrestling game against two-time NCAA Division I All-American Ryan Bader. By default, Ortiz’s path to victory was the slim chance that he’d be able to out-strike Bader. You know what they say at the poker table, “A chip, a chair, a prayer,” or in this case, “Fourounce gloves, a fight, good night.”

Ortiz v BaderNever one for a lack of confidence, Ortiz guaranteed victory. Ortiz had been crying the victory-wolf for the past four years without a glimpse of success, and nobody was buying calls for an upset. When Ortiz entered the arena to Eminem’s “Not Afraid,” waving his American/Mexican flags like he had done so many times before, it felt like his swan song. It wasn’t—the former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion had other ideas for his UFC future.

When the action began, chants of “Tito, Tito, Tito” erupted from the crowd. A supremely confident Bader moved from side to side with his hands a little bit lower than where they should have been, landing a nice hook that was followed by a powerful leg kick and thudding jab. Not to be bullied, Ortiz dug in, landing a right hand that buckled Bader to the canvas. Ortiz pounced like a kitten on yarn, locking on a fight-ending guillotine that forced Bader to tap at 1:56 of the opening frame. For the first time in more than four years, Ortiz celebrated with his post-victory gravedigger routine, forcing Dana White to issue a rare presidential pardon…for the time being.

Outside of wrestling circles, the name Michael Chandler didn’t mean much to fight fans in 2010. However, after four victories in 2011—including a submission win over Eddie Alvarez—Chandler’s nameplate is now prominently displayed on the desk of Bellator’s lightweight division.

Chandler carved a name for himself as a hard-nosed scrapper on the wrestling mats of the University of Missouri, earning All-American honors in 2009. As a walk-on in 2004, he had to prove himself to a fiery arsenal of talent, including two-time NCAA Champion/Olympian/Bellator Welterweight Champion Ben Askren. While Askren has relied on his analytical funk to find success, Chandler has channeled his blue-collar bravado. In other words, he’s a workhorse, and 2011 was his chance to prove it to the MMA-watching world.

You don’t have to convince Marcin Held, Lloyd Woodard, or Patricky Freire of Chandler’s skill set, as each experienced it firsthand during the 2011 Bellator Lightweight Tournament. The three aforementioned fighters— with a combined pre-tourney career record of 29-2—left the Bellator cage dogged by the same question: How did Michael Chandler— a relative newbie—beat me?

In the opening fight of the tournament, Chandler defeated Held by choking the Polish prospect unconscious with an arm triangle choke in the first round. In the semis, he used a series of takedowns, slams, and ground-n-pound to secure a unanimous decision over Woodard. In the finals, Chandler took home the $100,000 prize by grinding out Team Nogueira’s Freire, which earned him a shot at Bellator Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, who was riding a seven-fight win streak.

Michael Chandler
Although Chandler’s progression and confidence had grown with each fight, oddsmakers still listed the veteran Alvarez as a 2.5 to 1 favorite. Chandler wasn’t deterred, and he came out swinging in the first round, dropping the champion with a Superman-punch and taking the opening five minutes. In the second round, both men landed clean shots, but Alvarez looked like he’d done enough to earn the frame. The third round was all Alvarez (speculatively 10-8), and it looked like Chandler would have nothing left for the championship rounds. However, in round four, Chandler stalked Alvarez, dropped him with a pair of right hands before securing mount and locking in a fight-ending rear-naked choke. Alvarez tapped, and Bellator had its newest star.

“It was a busy year that went according to plan,” says Chandler. “I knew I had three fights, and my goal was to win the belt and be a world champion. The key was to always stay positive. I was the underdog in each of my fights, but I chose to focus on my goals. You’re in control of you’re own destiny—control what you can and forget about the rest of it.”

Now, the bull’s-eye is on the back on the breakout star of 2011, but Chandler and his workhorse mindset like it that way.

“I want to defend the Bellator Lightweight Title and show my dominance in 2012,” he says. “I want to give fans the fights they want to see. I want to be a guy who everyone knows for his ability to carry weight in MMA.”

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