Top 11 Moments of 2011 in MMA

2011 is a year of many things to many people. And in MMA this was a remarkable year in that history was made a handful of times by a handful of people. And while Inside Fights has presented a handful of pieces covering the best of 2011 in terms of knockouts, submissions and fights, 2011 was also a year of moments in the sport that forever changed it. Thusly I present to you the 11 top moments in MMA for the year 2011.

11. Brock Lesnar RETURNS and Alistair Overeem becomes a star in the process

If you’ve followed the K-1 Grand Prix for years, you’ll know that Alistair Overeem has some of the best striking in the world. But his MMA record didn’t reflect his ranking; he was ranked as the 2nd or 3rd best heavyweight in the world but there was enough room in there to drive a bus through it.

And then he went out and destroys Brock Lesnar in dominant fashion, thus silencing everyone who ever doubted him. Myself included.

Lesnar was never quite the same after two battles with diverticulitis; he wanted to make one last run at the title and then walk away, knowing whether or not he still had it. It’s admirable in a way; he didn’t linger around like Jens Pulver, fighting in regional shows and at bars convinced he can make one last run to the big show of the UFC. He’s walking away, not wanting to settle for fighting guys like Roy Nelson in the mid card, when he probably could still make a fortune fighting against second tier guys as a fringe contender.

10. An Icon Walks Away – Randy Couture Retires for the final time

He introduced the Greco-Roman clinch into the game and the concept of dirty boxing is something he pioneered the use of. An Olympic team alternate who entered the sport at an age when many would be walking away, Randy Couture was in the midst of one final great run. Submitting fellow UFC legend Mark Coleman and boxing great James Toney with a decision victory over Brandon Vera thrown into the mix, Couture wanted one man for his final fight in the UFC: Lyoto Machida.

Could Couture solve the sport’s biggest riddle?

After a round of frustration against the karate fighter, Couture’s final moments in a cage would be ones he probably won’t remember as Machida caught him with a spectacular front kick in front of 50,000 plus in Toronto. And while Couture walked away from the fight without explicitly mentioning the word “retirement,” having done so a couple times already and come back, “The Natural” walks away perhaps the most universally beloved fighter to have graced a cage.

9. “Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck!”

There’s something inherently amusing about Chael Sonnen. Whenever he opens his mouth something good is going to come out. After over a year of talking trash and legal problems for a variety of things, Sonnen finally got to let his fists do the talking against a true American hero in Brian Stann. Dismantling the Marine Corp Captain and submitting him in brutal fashion, Sonnen had only thing left on his mind.

Anderson Silva.

In what was one of the craziest moments of the night, and his career, Sonnen called Silva to the carpet for a Super Bowl rematch. And while it never came to fruition for a variety of reasons, it was one of the surreal moments of the year.

8. November 19th ends up with the two best fights of 2011

For fans of Bellator, Eddie Alvarez was the golden boy. Amongst the best ranked lightweights in the world despite not having a UFC contract, all he had to was continue winning in remarkably dominant fashion and no one could doubt his place with much veracity. Michael Chandler was a top prospect but for someone of Alvarez’s caliber was supposed to be another speed bump. After a barn burner of a first round, Alvarez seemed to be en route to another win. Chandler opted to make this a close fight, instead, and choked Alvarez out in the fourth.

For UFC fans, Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua was a forgotten main event. Coming off the first UFC on Fox, this was the card that JDS/Cain was supposed to headline and Hendo/Rua was an afterthought. And for three rounds, Henderson looked to be en route to a fairly dominant victory as well. Henderson was resigned to the UFC after a top run in Strikeforce, culminating with a knockout of Fedor and a light heavyweight title run. This seemed to be proof that Hendo was on yet another run back to a title shot against someone with a belt. A third round was close but if the fight had ended there it would’ve been a dominant win from the US Olympic team member. Rua wasn’t gassed and Henderson was, however, and Rua took it to him for 10 more minutes in what was an epic comeback in its own right.

One epic fight per year is something. But two in the same night? That’s something remarkable.

7. Dana White buys his competition … again

Leave it to Dana White to shock the world one more time. How so? He bought his competition. Again. It was one of the big moments of the year when the biggest competitor to the UFC’s MMA throne became his employees.

6. The UFC draws the biggest North American crowd to see an MMA event ever

With its biggest draw (GSP) taking on his most formidable challenge yet (Jake Shields), UFC 129 packed in the biggest crowd for an event ever. There was something EPIC about seeing such a massive crowd for a fight.

5. Fedor gets planked by Dan Henderson

I was there for this one, maybe 10-15 feet away from the cage itself, and there was something remarkable happening as both men came to the cage. This was a clash of legends and everyone in attendance was amped for it. You couldn’t hear Jimmy Lennon Jr. because of the roar for Fedor; the one for Henderson which preceded it was almost as loud. This was a crowd that had crapped on nearly the entire card, which was fairly lackluster in retrospect, and now they were unhinged in glee. After a wild brawl, Dan Henderson did what no one has ever done to the man who had one of the greatest runs in MMA history in the heavyweight division: turn his lights off.

You could argue that Werdum was a case of getting caught by a premier submission artist. Bigfoot Silva’s size played a big part in his win. But Henderson was about the same size as Fedor and caught him with a vicious punch that put the Russian down and out. It was as horrifying as it was spectacular; I really worried Fedor was seriously, permanently hurt as he went down. It was such a vicious shot, much more so in person than on television, and it was the type of moment Fedor based his reputation on delivering, not receiving.

4. Edgar-Maynard 2 becomes a draw for the ages

You couldn’t have scripted this fight any better if you wanted to. It’s the first main event of the year and a card that appealed more to the hardcore fans than mainstream ones. And what a war it was.

After a dominant round where he looked to be finished, Frankie came back and fought his way to what many thought was a victory. And Maynard thought he had the win, too, with a dominant first round and winning at least one of the next four. Edgar showed a champion’s heart in coming back after a disastrous opening round, something that would repeat itself in the rematch as well, and “The Answer” once again answered everything Maynard had for him. But the first time felt more special than their third fight because it was; we’d seen this before and knew that Edgar could will himself back. Going into the second round of their second fight, I wasn’t sure if Edgar was going to answer the bell.

And yet he came back and soldiered on, managing to get the draw in what would be the basis for a fairly engaging promo for the fight card. I had the first fight 48-46 Edgar but a draw, or a Maynard victory, was something I could see as well. There was no outcome that could’ve happened that wouldn’t have shocked me at this point. Right before the judges read the scores, one thing was certain: we had just seen what in any normal year would’ve been the fight of the year.

3. Tito Ortiz grave digs one more time

I had an entire article written, for the most part, about the fall of Tito Ortiz and what I presumed to be a final nail in the coffin defeat against Ryan Bader. It was really eloquent too, if I don’t say, with this grand tale about how pride goes before the fall and that Tito’s inability to adapt over the years coupled with injuries turned him into a shell of what he was. I even had a top 10 list of things I thought he’d use as excuses for his loss, including one involving Testosterone Replacement Therapy that was fairly funny. As he walked to the cage to “I’m not afraid” by Eminem, there was an ominous feeling in the air. This was his last walk to the cage and the MMA community was just waiting for his destruction to publish articles about the rise and fall of “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.” I had one all ready but let’s face it: everyone did. But it wasn’t like the outcome was up in the air for most people.

Bader was a bigger, more athletic version of Matt Hammill, who had just destroyed Tito. You couldn’t have said back then that Bader was a favorable matchup for Tito. Coming off a loss to Jon Jones, Bader was still the best light heavyweight prospect in the UFC and a legitimate top 10 fighter. This seemed to be a case of Tito perhaps biting off more than he can chew, a former champion being put out to pasture by someone who could be one in the future. The epitaph on his MMA career was all but chiseled.

No one told Tito that.

Summoning up one massive punch that clipped Bader and then choking him out, the change in emotion went from confusion to elation. With everyone rushing to check on Bader, Tito dug a grave for Bader like he had for many other fighters over the years. As the MGM Grand exploded one more time, we got to relive a glory we’d never thought we’d see again. With two losses to top fighters signaling that this “comeback” was more of a mirage than an actuality, and Ortiz planning on one more fight before retiring, there’s still something magical about this win. Tito had gone from being the bad boy of MMA to redeeming his character over the years, two stints on “The Ultimate Fighter” rehabilitating his image remarkably, and for a brief moment the possibilities seemed endless.

It may have passed but watching Ortiz celebrate that victory when everyone counted him out reminded why I was a fan of MMA in particular and sport in general; sometimes it’s nice to see an aging hero show he’s still got it.

2. Jon Jones arrives faster and better than anyone could’ve imagined by destroying Shogun Rua

The UFC light heavyweight champion ended 2010 with the destruction of Vladimir Matyushenko and the perception that he’s on the cusp of greatness. He ended 2011 with the second defense of his title but the signature moment of his in 2011 was against Shogun Rua. Dominating the Pride stalwart from start to finish, the Jon Jones era began improbably after Rashad Evans’ knee injury opened up a slot for “Bones” in six weeks time. Stopping him midway through the third after beating down the champion in convincing fashion in only the way Randy Couture’s win over Tim Sylvia matched in terms of dominance, Jon Jones arrived.

It wasn’t over quickly and Rua didn’t enjoy it. But he was no longer the champion; no one knew it but Jon Jones before they stepped into the cage and everyone did afterwards.

And while his wins over Machida and Quinton Jackson cemented his status as the sport’s big rising star, the biggest moment for Jones was his title win. This was a ruthless, bloody changing of the guard like no other. Rua, the Pride stalwart and beloved by many hardcore fans, was dismantled by a guy who was in high school during the epicenter of the Pride era. An athlete level athlete, Jones upset the equilibrium forever in a shockingly violent manner.

1. Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez battle on Fox

When the most important fights in UFC history are written down years from now, this one will be up there with Griffin-Bonnar 1 and Ortiz-Shamrock. Why? Because this was the fight that gave a formerly outlaw sport and promotion mainstream credibility and was the first step towards MMA’s next major growth cycle. It may have lasted shorter than it took to read this column, but it was epic while it lasted.

The two best heavyweights in the world walked into the cage. JDS was the underdog, coming out to “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky to signify it one supposes. Cain comes out with a mariachi band, playing to his roots in San Jose, CA, and the Hispanic community there. Cain is the champ, no fear in his eyes. JDS comes out to the middle of the cage during the introductions, throwing down the gauntlet and daring the champ to meet him there. And then he became like Caesar in a way.

He came. He swung. He conquered.

The future is tough for Dos Santos, as there isn’t an easy fight amongst the contenders for the heavyweight crown. But for one night he was king of the world; he did what Mike Tyson did in his heyday by dismantling his opponent in a hail of power punches. For all the things that could’ve happened in the very first UFC fight broadcast on Fox, especially after such a remarkable broadcast that made you feel like this was just as big an event as the PAC-10 and BIG 10 college football conference championships (amongst others) that air on the same network, this brief slugfest was a preview of what should be good things to come.

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