Every year in the world of combat sports, there are a handful of fighters who either defy the odds or support them wholeheartedly, laying waste to all in their path in unexpected (or entirely expected) fashion.
Loved, loathed, or regarded with mild disinterest once their rampages get dull, these warriors command the attention of viewers through the universal language of violence.
As such, we’ve seen the meteoric rise (or surprising rebirth) of a select few over the past 12 months. But which combatant was the best of 2011 in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and mixed martial arts (MMA) overall?
Follow me after the jump for some of this year's top candidates and to cast your vote for 2011's "Fighter of the Year:"
(Insert Rocky and/or Hulk music here)
Photo via Yahoo! Sports
Despite caving in Brandon Vera’s eye socket and unleashing a hailstorm of elbows on Vladimir Matyushenko’s face the previous year, Jones still had plenty of questions to answer as he entered 2011. Unfortunately for the rest of the light heavyweight division, he quickly proved himself up to the task, throttling Ryan Bader at UFC 126 before defeating Mauricio Rua for the 205-pound title on short notice and defending it in dominating fashion against former champions Quinton Jackson and Lyoto Machida. The young phenom is quickly running out of obstacles in the way of uncontested dominance of the division, and MMA fans await his 2012 campaign with bated breath.
Photo via UFC.com
Diaz has long been known for laying a physical and verbal smackdown on anyone unlucky enough to be on the opposite side of the cage, but his low level of competition left his status as a top welterweight up for debate. After submitting Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, however, Diaz took steps to correct that issue, becoming the first man to ever knock out Paul Daley before returning to the UFC and absolutely decimating former champion B.J. Penn. Now scheduled to face former WEC champion Carlos Condit for the interim UFC welterweight title while champion Georges St. Pierre recovers from knee surgury, Diaz has the chance to finally be recognized as the premiere welterweight in the world on Super Bowl weekend.
Photo via UFC.com
WEC lightweights had a stigma attached to them of being second-rate, and the only thing that frustrated Donald Cerrone more than being disrespected was his apparent inability to win a title. After an illegal knee on his end forced an early end to his title fight with Jamie Varner, leading him to lose a technical decision, he took on Ben Henderson twice, falling both times. After getting revenge on Varner, though, "Cowboy" made his way to the UFC and commenced a thorough obliteration of everyone in his path. This year alone, he submitted Paul Kelly, battered Vagner Rocha, scored his first-ever (T)KO over Charles Oliveira, and pummeled Dennis Siver before choking him out. With his fifth fight of 2011, against Nate Diaz, scheduled for Dec. 30, Cerrone may be dangerously close to challenging for the title once again, only this time on the biggest stage there is.
Junior dos Santos
Photo via static.enlapelea.com
Junior dos Santos only fought twice in 2011, but he made up for lack of quantity with sheer brutality. After coaching in Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), "Cigano" was matched up against notorious knockout artist Shane Carwin, who was replacing the ailing Brock Lesnar. Dos Santos barely broke a sweat over the course of the fifteen-minute beatdown, crushing the American wrestler with brutally-precise punches. Impressive as this win was, his greatest highlight was yet to come; the hard-charging Brazilian got the opportunity of a lifetime this past November, headlining the UFC’s first show on FOX opposite heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Stunningly, dos Santos flattened his foe in a grand total of sixty-four seconds despite a torn meniscus, becoming the first Brazilian heavyweight champion since his mentor, "Minotauro" Nogueira, who guillotined Tim Sylvia for the interim title. At only 27, the best is yet to come for dos Santos, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that’s a bloody scary thought.
Photo via mmaweekly.com
Dan Henderson has always had a right hand that he needed to register as a concealed weapon to wear a glove on, but in 2011, he truly, unequivocally mastered it. He started the year off by capturing yet another title, knocking out Strikeforce 205-pound champion Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. He went on to score one of the biggest upsets of the year in late July, putting the legendary Fedor Emelianenko to sleep for the first time with a hard uppercut from behind. Not content with just making history, however, Henderson also won arguably the best fight of 2011, battering Mauricio Rua for three rounds and fending off a late rally from the deposed champ. On the cusp of a title shot and widely regarded as one of the best light heavyweights in the world, Henderson has defied age and expectations to establish himself as one of the finest fighters in the world.
That's a wrap.
Be sure to let us know if we missed anyone sufficiently awesome in the comments below and be sure to stop by tomorrow for the finale of our "Best of 2011" series, when we look for "Event of the Year."