MMA Mid-Year Awards: Jon Jones Reigns Supreme

Jon JonesThe first half of 2011 clearly belonged to Jon “Bones” Jones, who captured the UFC light heavyweight title and the eye of the public by capturing a burglar the morning of his title fight.  Yet Jones was just one of the major stories of the year.

The UFC made headlines with its purchase of Strikeforce, Nick Diaz and Paul Daley clashed in a classic battle, and Steven Seagal of all people influenced some of the best KO’s of the year.

Read on for my mid-year awards and send Twitter feedback to @mmafrenzy and @petemma:

MVP – Jon Jones

Jon “Bones” Jones has packed more into the first half of 2011 than most people pack into a year.   After dismantling Ryan Bader at UFC 126, Jones accepted a surprise offer to replace an injured Rashad Evans in a title bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128.  The rest is the stuff of legend.  Jones gained national notoriety by apprehending a burglar the morning of his fight with Rua, then later that night laid a hellacious beating on Shogun to win the light heavyweight title.  The charismatic and stylish “Bones” parlayed his success into a spot on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” couch and a starring role in a Bud Light commercial with Dana White.  A hand injury prevented Jones from facing hated rival Rashad Evans; he instead will defend his belt against “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 135.

Fight of the Year – Nick Diaz vs Paul Daley, Strikeforce: Diaz vs Daley

For four minutes and fifty-seven seconds these two battled at a breakneck pace that thrilled fight fans worldwide.  It became very clear from the opening bell that this was not an athletic contest- it was a fight that could take place on any street in the world.  Both fighters are known for their macho, “I’m the baddest dude in the room,” demeanor and each set out to prove that their testicular fortitude surpassed the others.  Both fighters were rocked in the fight, yet both showed remarkable resilience.  In the end, an accumulation of punishment forced Daley’s legs to fail him and Diaz earned the victory.  In terms of edge of your seat excitement and reversals of fortune, this fight was the best of the year so far.

Knockout of the Year – Lyoto Machida vs Randy Couture, UFC 129

Lyoto Machida’s stunning front kick knockout of Randy Couture evoked images of “The Karate Kid.”  In the blink of an eye, Machida hopped on one foot, flicked his other foot upward towards Couture’s head, and sent “The Natural” into retirement.  Video replays showed a tooth flying out of Couture’s mouth on his way down.  A kick straight from the movies, explosive and improbable, coupled with the resulting dental work; make this the best knockout of the year.

Perhaps action movie star/lethal tactics instructor/lawman Steven Seagal deserves some credit in this category as it was reportedly his influence that led to Machida’s knockout, as well as Anderson Silva’s front kick knockout of Vitor Belfort at UFC 126.  Non-Seagal knockouts that deserve mention include Travis Browne’s superman KO of Stefan Struve, Sam Stout’s flattening of Yves Edwards, and Shane Roller punching Thiago Tavares into the next area code.

Submission of the Year – Chan-Sung Jung vs Leonard Garcia, UFC Fight Night: Noguiera vs Davis

“The Korean Zombie” and Leonard Garcia first met at WEC 48 in April of 2010.  Their fight was widely considered the best of 2010, as both fighters threw everything but the kitchen sink at each other in a thrilling standup war.  Their rematch this year was completely different.  It was clear from the beginning that Jung was more deliberate and measured with his attack, in contrast to the always wild Garcia.  “Zombie” took the fight to the ground and that’s where the magic happened.  With a hook in, Garcia’s arm around his head, and a tight cross-face grip, “The Korean Zombie” literally twisted Garcia into a pretzel.  Garcia, one of the toughest in the sport, tapped immediately.  “The Twister” stands alone as our submission of the year.

Upset of the Year – Charlie Brenneman vs Rick Story, UFC on Versus 4

Yes, I remember Melvin Guillard beating Evan Dunham.  I was just as shocked as you when Dennis Siver dominated George Sotiropolous.  Antonio Silva’s win over Fedor Emelianenko was shocking as well.  Yet no victory this year was more improbable than Charlie “The Spaniard” Brenneman’s defeat of Rick Story on a day’s notice.  When Nate Marquardt mysteriously dropped out of the main event, the UFC inserted Brenneman, whose own fight with T.J. Grant had fallen through only days before.  Story was the heavy favorite and had just defeated former title challenger Thiago Alves a month before.  From the opening bell, Brenneman was not intimidated by Story and took him down in the opening minute.  Brenneman used his speed, takedowns, and punches to keep Story off balance and ultimately take a unanimous decision.  What might have been a disastrous cancellation for the UFC provided us with a “Rocky” type performance by “The Spaniard” and our upset of the year.

Comeback of the Year – Cheick Kongo vs Pat Barry, UFC on Versus 4

Boy, did this past weekend’s UFC on Versus show provide us with some great moments or what?  Right when we exhaled from the Brenneman win, Cheick Kongo and Pat Barry showed us once again that “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”  Barry rocked Kongo twice, with referee Dan Miragliotta inches away from stopping the fight.  Yet Kongo regained his senses long enough to launch one last shot at Barry, which connected, knocking Barry out and ending the fight.  In terms of pure drama, nothing beats this fight.

Breakout Fighters – Brian Stann, Clay Guida

Both fighters have solidified their positions in their respective top tens with two impressive wins in 2011.  Showing improved technique and incredible speed and athleticism, Stann wasted no time in dismantling the durable Chris Leben at UF C125.  Stann moved on to finish respected international veteran Jorge Santiago in two rounds at UFC 130, moving him up the 185 pound ladder and closer to a title shot.  With his military background, exciting fight style, and well spoken demeanor, Stann is set to be a major star in the sport.  The always exciting Clay Guida made the transition from gatekeeper to contender starting in 2011.  The likable and energetic Guida started his year off right by submitting former Pride champion Takanori Gomi, and followed that up by winning a surprising unanimous decision over former WEC champion Anthony Pettis.  Pettis was promised the winner of the Edgar-Maynard fight at UFC 125, but opted instead to face Guida in June’s Ultimate Fighter Finale.  Guida used a smart wrestling gameplan to control the dynamic Pettis and earn the biggest win of his career.

Newcomer of the Year- Chris Weidman

Chris Weidman has the pedigree to be an elite mixed martial artist.  The former NCAA wrestling All-American and Serra-Longo protégé opened his career with four wins on the local level.  When Rafael Natal pulled out of his fight with Alessio Sakara at UFC on Versus 3, Weidman stepped up to take the fight on two weeks notice.  Unfazed by Sakara’s wealth of Octagon experience, an injured Weidman out-wrestled and outworked Sakara to take the fight on all three judges’ scorecards.  “The All-American” continued his success with a submission win over Jesse Bongfeldt at UFC 131.  Now six fights into his mixed martial arts career, Weidman is only scratching the surface of his potential.  That’s bad news for the rest of the UFC middleweights.

Story of the Year – Zuffa Purchases Strikeforce

On March 12th, Dana White dropped a bombshell on the mixed martial arts community.  White revealed that Zuffa had purchased its number one competitor Strikeforce and intended to run it as a separate promotion independent of the UFC.  The initial images were staggering – White cage side at Strikeforce, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker holding press conferences with a UFC logo behind him, and Diaz vs Daley commercials airing on UFC programming. The catchphrase “business as usual” held true until White announced that Strikeforce champ Nick Diaz would face UFC champ Georges St. Pierre at UFC 137 in October.  Surely more fighters will cross over as needed, but the main thing to keep in mind is that the world’s best fighters reside under the Zuffa banner.  Once the Showtime contract expires there will be little holding us back from the dream fights that we’ve always imagined.

There were some other notable stories: Brock Lesnar’s continued battles with diverticulitis, Chael Sonnen’s struggles to get licensed, and most recently Nate Marquardt’s mysterious and cryptic (at the time) release from the UFC, yet none changed the landscape of MMA as much as the purchase of Strikeforce.

Ideas of the Year – Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, UFC Prelims on Facebook

Grand Prix tournaments were long considered the ghost of MMA past, yet Strikeforce resurrected the idea for its deepest division, the heavyweights.  With a star-heavy tournament boasting the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, and Fabricio Werdum, Strikeforce heightened fan anticipation for the crowning of a Strikeforce heavyweight king.  So far the tournament has given us the fall of Fedor, the return of “The Baby-Faced Assassin,” and a highly anticipated match-up between Overeem and Antonio Silva.  With the purchase of Strikeforce by Zuffa, the Grand Prix takes on added importance as now the door is open for fights with heavyweights from the UFC.

The UFC has done a huge service to its fans this year by streaming the prelims of its events on Facebook.  In the past, the prelims were only seen by the live crowd until the official DVD release.  Now, the organization provides a very reliable stream of anywhere from five to seven preliminary bouts, thus ensuring that fight fans spend more time hunched in front of their computers devoid of all human contact.