Editor’s note: Next week, the ESPN MMA page will roll out its official end-of-the year awards. With winners in each of the most popular categories seemingly pretty clear cut, however, ESPN staffers Chuck Mindenhall and Chad Dundas will take the final week of 2011 to offer up a few “alternative” choices.
When it comes to 2011’s “Fighter of the year” those are really your only realistic choices and -- let’s face it -- if you don’t think it’s Jones going away, you’re probably just being contrary. If you’re really reaching, you might be able to make a case for Donald Cerrone, but the conversation for this year’s FOTY pretty much starts and stop with those three guys.
That’s not to say there weren’t a number of other notable performances during 2011. Here are our picks for this year’s alternative “Fighter of the year.”
Chad Dundas’ pick: Nick Diaz.
Jones and Hendo may have won a lot of important fights this year, but in the same way 2010 saw the rise of Chael Sonnen as one of the sport’s top draws, 2011 was undeniably Diaz Time.
After years abroad, the world’s least agreeable welterweight returned to the UFC in June and immediately whirled the company’s 170-pound division into a state of unending chaos. It would be impractical to try to list all of the outlandish things Diaz did this year, but here are some of his greatest hits ...
He fumed his way in, then out, then back into UFC title fights while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge a lick of responsibility. He went missing, causing some people to genuinely fear for his well-being only to emerge from hiding via a profanity-laced YouTube video recorded while driving down the California freeway. He threatened (in a roundabout way) to slap MMA’s best-known reporter. He accused Georges St. Pierre of faking an injury to avoid fighting him. He routinely forced UFC President Dana White -- a man seldom lost for words -- to stare helplessly at reporters the way characters on “The Office” sometimes look blankly into the camera.
It was, in short, a command performance from start to finish. Never before have we seen someone so effectively game the system without even realizing he was doing it.
It wasn’t a bad year for Diaz inside the cage, either. He twice successfully defended his Strikeforce welterweight crown in wild affairs against Evangelista Santos and Paul Daley. The latter might have been a solid choice for alternative Fight of the year, had we been so inclined. After vacating that title and returning to the Octagon, he stomped a mudhole in B.J. Penn at UFC 137, then put on what had to be one of the single greatest performances in MMA history at the postfight news conference.
Diaz will begin 2012 as ESPN.com’s No. 2-ranked welterweight and No. 10 on our pound-for-pound list. He has not lost since 2007, but prior to his win over Penn had not defeated much top-flight competition during his current 11-fight streak. His interim title bout against Carlos Condit in February should tell us a lot about his future.
Chuck Mindenhall’s pick: Michael Chandler.
With Jones batting former champions around throughout 2011, guys like Donald Cerrone and Henderson -- each whom had ridiculous years -- will end up getting short shrift in all these totally dismissive “Fighter of the year” categories.
Then there’s Chandler, whose young career is made of just showing up and winning with unusual anonymity. Midway through the year he was leading a Wikipedian life, just a former Mizzou Tiger who wore his singlet well and who somehow got by Patricky Friere to earn a title shot. Next thing you know, 2011 was all (or at least also) about him.
And what a year it was -- the 25-year-old went about winning all four fights he was in and becoming Bellator’s 155-pound champion. The last feat Chandler accomplished by beating perennial top-five lightweight Eddie Alvarez in an epic back-and-forth battle that should have cinched itself as Fight of the year, had it not had the misfortune of occurring on the same night as Henderson's chaotic clash with Mauricio Rua. For those fortunate enough to catch it live (and others who have DVRs), you witnessed the entire width of this kid’s abilities. For 18 minutes and six seconds, Alvarez and Chandler pushed each other to the brink, trading punches and one-sided rounds, and in the end it was Chandler who sunk the rear-naked choke.
Besides the wrestler’s doggedness that he displayed in beating Marcin Held, Lloyd Woodard and Patricky Pitbull en route to his title shot, Chandler showed that he can take Alvarez’s best punch -- which is substantial -- and persevere. He showed he can out-technique you, he can outbrawl you, he can outwork you. As cliché as it sounds, he showed the heart of a champion in 2011.
And as the year closes out, there’s this suspicion as well -- with so much upside, 2011 might not be Chandler’s best when all’s said and done.
Up next: Alternative fight card of the year.