Commentary

ESPN.com MMA awards for 2011

Originally Published: January 6, 2012
By Josh Gross | ESPN.com

You voted, we tallied. Here are ESPN.com's 2011 MMA awards:

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Fighter of the year: Jon Jones. Voters were overwhelming in their choice for fighter of the year, and for good reason. Jon Jones, UFC light heavyweight champion, engineered arguably the most impressive campaign in mixed martial arts history. Four fights, all wins, all ending before the bell and all versus opponents who, on paper, had as good a chance as anyone of beating him. In reality, though, no one could touch the lanky 24-year-old from upstate New York, which is all the more stunning considering he's just three years into his MMA adventure. Jones went from top-flight prospect to defending UFC champion in 2011. After a stunningly easy win over then-unbeaten Ryan Bader, Jones answered the call to fight Mauricio Rua six weeks later for the title. He dominated the Brazilian champion, who prior to Jones' 2011 held the distinction for best results in a calendar year by a mixed martial artist. Jones affirmed his status by manhandling Quinton Jackson in September and choking Lyoto Machida cold in December. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jones is this: He's only now starting to understand how to fight.


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Fight of the year: Dan Henderson versus Mauricio Rua. The year was thick with memorable action. Among the numerous and justifiable choices for best bout of 2011, fans went with Dan Henderson's epic showdown with Maurico Rua at UFC 139. This was a contest that spoke to the strengths of both fighters and brought out the best in each, the hallmark of a standout contest. From the opening bell, Henderson, 41, and Rua, 30, both former Pride champions, engaged in a no-nonsense affair that lasted 25 minutes. The American hurt and nearly finished Rua, capturing the first three rounds as a result, before Rua showed what he was made of by rallying in Rounds 4 and 5. I scored the fight a draw, giving the final round 10-8 to Rua, but judges saw it unanimous -- 48-47 three times -- for Henderson, who capped off one of the most impressive years of his tremendous career with the win. Other fights up for consideration may have offered a slightly better display of pure MMA, but none captured the emotion, determination and historic nature of Henderson-Rua.


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Knockout of the year: Anderson Silva front kicks Vitor Belfort. Anderson Silva, the UFC's grandest champion, continued to find ways to wow fans in 2011. Two wins, both knockouts, kept the middleweight king firmly planted atop pound-for-pound rankings. His first finish -- Feb. 5 at UFC 126, 3:25 of Round 1 versus Vitor Belfort -- held up as the best KO of the year, a snapping flash front kick to Belfort's jaw. Silva barely engaged before the stunning strike produced a result even the most veteran of fight watchers hadn't seen save the original "The Karate Kid." In slamming the ball of his left foot into Belfort's face the way he did, Silva showed yet again that no moment, no distance, no defense exists in which opponents can feel safe against the 36-year-old Brazilian. He is so fast and accurate and does his work with such style that it can be safely said there is only one Anderson Silva, and he is the best.


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Submission of the year: Frank Mir's Kimura of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Top moments of the year aren't necessarily reserved for the flashiest performances. Basic techniques done well can distill into MMA's most impressive results just the same. In the case of Frank Mir's arm- and gut-wrenching finish of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, they can be their most vicious too. Many of this sport's most dramatic moments come during submission battles, as was the case when Mir, badly hurt by Nogueira's strikes, countered an attempt by the Brazilian heavyweight to finish by choke. Acting on instinct, Mir reversed Nogueira's pressure and properly isolated the former Pride and UFC heavyweight champion's right arm. They struggled and rolled around the canvas. Tension among fans at the Air Canada Centre matched the torque Mir exhibited on Nogueira's limb. Then, pop! The arm was snapped -- gory stuff that forced Nogueira into surgery and Mir back into heavyweight contendership. Sub of the year was the closest category among voters. Chan Sung Jung's brilliant twister on Leonard Garcia (26 percent) and Jon Jones' conscious-robbing guillotine over Lyoto Machida (28 percent) made it a good race against Mir-Nogueira's 36 percent.


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Round of the year: Dan Henderson's first round with Mauricio Rua. It's fitting that the best fight of the year should contain the top round of the year. The opening salvo of a five-round war produced a high-drama showdown, one in which each man was hurt, recovered, hurt again and recovered. The manic five-minute period set the tone for the remaining four rounds, just at a higher pace. Henderson won the round, which some argued could have gone 10-8 in his favor, and kept the heat on Rua until he wore down later in the fight. The year also featured some incredible first-round finishes. Nick Diaz's finish of Paul Daley registered 16 percent among voters. Pat Barry and Cheick Kongo put together the most topsy-turvy period, which fans appreciated to the tune of 29 percent. Also eligible were the first and third rounds of a classic fight in Bellator pitting lightweights Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler and an oddly memorable performance by Rousimar Palhares against Dan Miller.