By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
As we move on to 2012, we'll take a look back at the year that was in 2011 with MMATorch's 11 of 11. For the next 11 days, several MMATorch writers will be providing top 11 lists in a number of different categories regarding the year of MMA in 2011. We start today with Shawn Ennis' top 11 fights of 2011.
I've never tackled a list quite like this before. I've always had my opinion on what is the Fight of the Year, but I've never published it, much less the top eleven. This year is going to be different. I've got a list of eleven fights here. The top three are in the exact order I want them. The other eight will be separated into tiers. But to start out, here are my three main personal criteria for Fight of the Year:
-Significance: Not every FOTY is going to be a championship fight, but if a championship fight is great, it sure helps.
-Competitiveness: It's always good to have some back-and-forth. Domination can be fun to watch, and it can certainly be compelling, but competitiveness always adds drama, and drama is what makes sports great.
-Universal Appeal: Technical battles are great, but not everyone can always get into them. To be Fight of the Year, a fight should appeal to anyone who has enjoyed watching a fight at some point. Casual, hardcore, whatever. It captures the imagination of everyone. High-level skills being on display is certainly a plus, but a slugfest born of desperation is not always a bad thing.
So with all that having been said, here is the list:
Tier 3 ? Crowd Pleasers
These fights may not have been the most technical, but they were competitive, and they all have one thing in common: They were memorable.
Cheick Kongo vs. Pat Barry ? June 26 ? UFC on Versus 4
The argument against having this fight on the list is that you could say I've only got it on here for the ending. While that is wholly correct, I think the ending is argument in favor of including it on the list. Here's the thing: I counted five separate times that Cheick Kongo looked like he was about to lose and took undefended shots to the head. Five times. I remember watching this fight live and literally yelling at the TV, "Stop the fight!" And then what happened put Scott Smith-Pete Sell to shame. Backing up against the cage on roller skates, Kongo plants Barry with an uppercut and knocks him out cold. Done. Scene. It was the craziest ending I've ever seen. But you know what really told the tale here of how unbelievable this ending was? It was the reaction of those who were cageside. When Kongo landed that punch, all three ring girls leapt to their feet with their mouths a perfect "O" of surprise. Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan were on their feet, eyes bugging out of their heads, Goldberg gesticulating as he talked. One of the photographers at cageside took his camera down after Barry hit the mat, said, "OOHHHH!" and then kept taking pictures. These people have seen literally thousands of fights from this vantage point. It's not just anything that elicits that kind of reaction. This was special.
Wanderlei Silva vs. Cung Le ? November 19 ? UFC 139
Let's be clear here: this was not old Wanderlei. Old Wanderlei is never coming back. This was a display of heart by a legendary fighter. It also wasn't a technical masterpiece, but if you want drama, you came to the right place for this fight. Many, including myself, thought that Le would be able to keep the fight at a distance and take advantage of Silva's diminished chin. Of course I hoped that Wanderlei would persevere, and I wasn't the only one having a wish fulfilled on that night. Cung Le dropped Silva with a spinning back fist in the first round but was unable to capitalize and finish off "The Axe Murderer." That's why Cung Le is Cung Le and Silva is Silva. By the end of the round, Le was gassing out and Silva was smelling blood. The second round consisted of Silva mostly biding his time until Le gave him the proper opening. And once that opening came in the last minute of the round, Silva took it and pounced. By the time it was over, Silva had quite literally rearranged Le's face with his trademark knees, and the fight had been stopped. Joe Rogan called it a bad stoppage because Le was holding on to a single leg. He was wrong. The picture of Le on the stool told the story ? he was finished. Sadly this was probably not the last time we'll see Silva in the cage, but if it was, that would be the way for the legend to go out.
Tier 2 ? Battles of Attrition
Ben Henderson vs. Clay Guida ? November 12 ? UFC on Fox 1
You knew what was going to happen when this fight was announced, and it did not disappoint. The only disappointment associated with the fight was that it famously didn't make the UFC's inaugural FOX broadcast (which of course included a little over a minute of actual in-cage action). But as expected, Guida and Henderson waged a war that only they could. Guida's style is meant to wear down and eventually break his opponent. Henderson's style is made to do the same. Predictably and despite those facts, both men were completely fresh after three rounds of insanely-paced fighting and could have gone another two. It's a shame that they didn't. Loaded with scrambles, reversals, and overall a great use of every aspect of MMA, the fight delivered on all levels. Henderson ended up winning the fight pretty handily, proving once again that he is somewhere between very difficult and impossible to choke out (Guida had a couple of guillotine chokes that looked like they could have been tight). Guida, while ending his four-fight win streak, did very little to diminish his status among fans and the UFC brass.
Diego Sanchez vs. Martin Kampmann ? March 3 ? UFC on Versus 3
This is familiar territory for Diego Sanchez. He's been here with Clay Guida, Nick Diaz and Karo Parisyan. To put it shortly, Diego Sanchez can put on a show. This fight was no different. Kampmann battered Sanchez in the first round, working those facial injuries for the rest of the fight to leave Sanchez's face a bloody mess by the end of the third. Sanchez, though, as he tends to do, never wilted. He battled back and kept the final two rounds very close. Kampmann almost seemed to be confused at the fact that the fight was still happening, let alone the fact that Sanchez kept pushing forward with these crazy-but-somehow-still-effective flurries. Sanchez ended up taking the unanimous decision, and though I had it scored for Kampmann myself, it's hard to dispute that this was one of the year's best fights.
B.J. Penn vs. Nick Diaz ? October 29 ? UFC 137
This fight was a bit different than most of Diaz's fights, at least in the buildup. Diaz didn't want to talk trash about B.J. Penn, and Penn felt the same. Two of MMA's better self-promoters (whether intentionally or not) just didn't want to promote. And when the fight started, it didn't look like a normal Nick Diaz fight. Diaz was countered and outstruck in the first, while the two basically cancelled each other out on the ground. Going into UFC 137, one of the prevailing theories for those picking Diaz was that Penn would have a problem with Diaz's volume of body punches. About two minutes into the second round, Diaz landed a couple of those punches, and that was the beginning of the end. Penn began to gas at that point, and while he landed a few combinations during the remainder of the fight, it was mostly a test of will for the former multi-division champion. Diaz would take the unanimous decision handily, but Penn showed why he's considered an all-time great. He never gave up and battled Diaz tooth and nail until the final bell.
Tier 1 ? Great Title Fights
Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley ? April 9 ? Strikeforce Diaz vs. Daley
I couldn't not include this fight, even though it was only one round. There were things that happened here that were not surprising: the pre-fight staredown was great. Diaz fought with his hands down against arguably the most dangerous pure striker in the welterweight division. Daley made him pay by dropping him with a minute and a half left in the round. Diaz almost never stopped talking. But then there were things that were surprising. After Diaz was dropped, he not only recovered almost immediately, but he sat back against the cage, still with his hands at his sides while Daley had a clean view of his chin. Then there was the time that Diaz punished Daley with body shots, forcing Paul Daley ? Paul Daley ? to shoot for a takedown on Nick Diaz. Paul Daley shot for a takedown on Nick Diaz. That happened. Oh, and about a minute and 27 seconds after he was put down with a left hook, Diaz finished Daley with a couple of seconds left in the round. And yeah, all that happened in one round. So while a case could surely be made for fights like Cruz-Faber II in this space, I'm giving the nod to Diaz-Daley, which packed all the drama of a multi-round title fight into five minutes.
Mark Hominick vs. Jose Aldo ? April 30 ? UFC 129
The story of this fight was heart and conditioning against superior skill. Mark Hominick was never out of the fight, despite losing either three or four of the first four rounds, depending on whom you ask. Aldo started breathing with his mouth open in the second round, and wore down gradually throughout the fight, but he still did enough to take most rounds. Aldo would wobble Hominick a few times during the fight, but rather than finish on the feet as he is known to do, Aldo would shoot for takedowns that weren't always successful. Hominick showed excellent boxing throughout and peppered Aldo even while taking several unchecked leg kicks and almost getting knocked out late in the third round. After the second round, the late Shawn Tompkins told Hominick, "He's fading, and you're never gonna fade!" Those words would prove prophetic in the culminating round of the fight. Hominick, fighting essentially on one leg and sporting a hematoma the size of a grapefruit on his forehead, came out in the fifth round and was pounded in the first minute, resulting in a desperation takedown. From that position, Hominick landed ground and pound for the final four minutes of the fight, whipping the Canadian crowd into a frenzy and giving himself hope of a last-minute stoppage. Mark Hominick knew he needed to stop the fight, he knew what he needed to do once he got in position, and as a result, even with his lackluster finish to 2011, no one will think of Hominick the same way again. As for Aldo, he showed the heart of a champion as well, fighting through conditioning issues he's not used to facing and weathering a late storm to cement himself as the best featherweight in the world.
Frank Edgar vs. Gray Maynard III ? October 28 ? UFC 136
It wasn't as epic as their second fight in January, but the fact that the second fight happened added so much to this one. Even without the second fight this one would have been great, but this was almost like adding four more rounds to a classic five round fight. The first round looked almost like a replay of the first round at UFC 125. Maynard tagged Edgar with an uppercut that put Edgar in a bad place. That uppercut was used throughout the round to continually wobble Edgar. After the first round, though, the only other uppercut landed would come in the fourth round, and Edgar was the one throwing. Edgar won the second and third round by simply being more efficient than Maynard. Somehow Maynard seemed to lose his rhythm ? perhaps trying not to get overly excited about his second 10-8 first round in as many fights and gas himself out. But the story of this fight, and this epic trilogy, was ended in the fourth round when Edgar landed that uppercut, wobbled Maynard, followed up with two big right hands that put Maynard down, and proceeded to finish the fight as Maynard lay face down taking punches. Maynard was incredulous after the stoppage, probably wondering how it had happened as much as he was disputing it, but there was no more disputing after he saw the replay. As Mike Goldberg said (yeah, I'm quoting Goldie), "That, my friends, is closure."
And now, the top three fights of the year:
3. Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez ? November 19 ? Bellator 58
I've heard a few people talk about this fight as Fight of the Year. Let me be clear here: I loved this fight. That's why it's in my top three. But to call it the Fight of the Year is madness. To say that the Fight of the Year should take place in the UFC is not being a fanboy. It's being rational. That's where the most important fights happen. That's where the best fighters are. Chandler and Alvarez put on a classic ? that's beyond contention. The fight was fantastic. Both are very good fighters. I've thought for a while that Alvarez is the best non-Zuffa lightweight out there. But that's kind of the point. Lightweight is the most competitive division in the sport, and if you're not fighting the best, we simply don't know enough to know how good you really are. The Bellator title, when it comes down to it, doesn't mean anything in the big picture. It's an impressive accomplishment to win a tournament and then a championship fight, but it doesn't automatically put you in the top ten or anything. But that's all premise. Let's talk about the fight.
As I said, I think Eddie Alvarez is the best non-Zuffa lightweight out there. I figured he'd roll through pretty much anyone that Bellator could put in front of him for the foreseeable future. Michael Chandler changed all that. From the opening seconds, Chandler established that he had the power to beat Alvarez. He dropped the champion almost immediately but didn't finish it. Alvarez was able to control a lot of the round, but Chandler pretty clearly won it between the initial knockdown and the second one that happened in the waning seconds of round one. Alvarez started to take over the fight in the second round, and it looked toward the end of that round as if Chandler was fading as Alvarez was hitting his stride. That trend continued in the third round as Alvarez battered Chandler throughout, clearly taking the round. The fourth round looked to be more of the same until Chandler caught Alvarez coming out of a scramble with a right hand that stunned him. Not long thereafter Chandler would crack Alvarez with a big winging right hand that put him on the ground. Chandler got the mount, Alvarez, gave up his back, and the rear naked choke sealed the deal. This was the kind of fight where the winner gained a lot of credibility and the loser didn't lose much. Chandler looks to be a big up and comer at lightweight, so the question coming out of this fight is whether we've seen the best of both men already, or whether we'll see more from them as time goes by. Alvarez has said before that he doesn't have any interest in going to the UFC, but I think he was assuming that he would remain champion for quite some time in Bellator. Lightweight is simply too tough across the board to assume anything. We'll see where he ends up when his next contract runs out without the famous Bellator Champion's clause.
2. Frank Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II ? January 1 ? UFC 125
Joe Rogan was giddy after the second round of this fight, when it became apparent that Frankie Edgar was not only still in the fight after coming very close to being knocked out in the first round, but he had a chance to take the fight over. "Just beat him up!" was the desperate cry from Gray Maynard's corner. Edgar would make that impossible as the two battled back and forth for three more rounds in what was, for my money, the greatest Lightweight Title fight in UFC history. Maynard almost had the fight won in the first round, and had he done so the legacy of Frankie Edgar's championship reign would be very different right now. The fight would end in a draw, which is usually not a crowd-pleasing result. But with this fight, it would be difficult to find anything to complain about. For five rounds, Frankie Edgar showed again, after beating the great B.J. Penn twice, that he is a deserving champion and not one to be counted out. The fact that this fight took place on New Year's Day and is still being remembered as a Fight of the Year candidate speaks to how good, and how memorable, it was.
1. Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua ? November 19 ? UFC 139
There's not much to say about this fight that hasn't already been said. Some have called it the Fight of the Decade, the best fight ever, and on and on. But what makes it Fight of the Year for me, besides how unbelievable it was to watch as it unfolded, is the stakes and who was involved. Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua are legends in MMA. Henderson was a two division champion in Pride, ending the interminable championship reign of Wanderlei Silva at 205 pounds and also capturing the 185 pound title. Shogun had one of the most memorable years in MMA history in 2005, and then he came to the UFC and eventually ended the "Machida Era" before it really started. Neither fighter needed this fight to cement his legacy. They would both be remembered as all-time greats either way. This was the kind of fight that never lives up to the hype. One of those, "finally this fight is happening" kind of things that ends up leaving fans wishing it had happened however many years ago when it should have. And then the fight happens, and you can't believe what you're seeing as you're watching. I remember watching it at my parents' house when I went home for Thanksgiving weekend. My dad had fallen asleep, my brother had to take off earlier because of some unforeseen circumstances, and there I was watching by myself. I was lamenting at the time that I had no one to share this with.
In the weeks leading up to the fight, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I was pretty sure it was going to be a decent fight, but I wasn't expecting anything close to what we got. What we got was epic. To recap the fight in detail is to do it injustice. These were two men who refused to wilt no matter what happened. I had each fighter taking a 10-8 round. In the third round, when it looked as if Shogun would surely be knocked out, not only did he stay in the fight, but he mounted his own offense toward the end of the round. This was at a time when Shogun's face looked like it had been run over by a truck. He was a mess. It didn't matter. Through everything ? huge standing strikes, ground and pound, takedowns, submission attempts ? everything, these two never stopped. This fight showed why fighters are different from the rest of us. I often joke with my friends that I'd tap out the first time I got punched in the face. I'm not a fighter. This fight embodied what fighters are and what they do. When it was all over, I had the fight scored for Shogun, but there was no way to argue any judgment here.
To me, a big part of what defines a Fight of the Year is how it makes you feel as you watch it. I'm usually pretty active on Twitter between rounds. At some point I put down my phone and just watched with my jaw on the floor until the end of the fight. Thinking about it, re-watching it, gives me goosebumps. I almost get choked up. To me, there is no question what the fight of the year is. You couldn't script this situation and this fight. Before the last round, right before the crowd went into a fever pitch, Henderson's corner could be heard: "Look at me. Look at me. Do you want this? One more round. Let's go." To me, there has never been a better fight than this one. Not this year, not ever.