How will we remember 2011 in Mixed Martial Arts history? So much happened in our sport this year, from huge business moves to epic fights to legends falling. Here, we'll attempt to recap some of the biggest stories of the year and figure out just how to define MMA in 2011.
As I look back over the MMA landscape of 2011, one of the stories that most sticks out to me is the fall of the old guard. Time and again over the past 12 months, we saw veterans of the sport fall and fall hard - the old guard replaced by the newer, younger, faster models. Of course, this is not an overnight process, as we've seen these things for the past few years, but 2011 felt like the year these moments all came together.
Think of the legendary, unbeatable Fedor Emelianenko collapsing face first into the mat after a Dan Henderson punch. Think of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira looking in disbelief at his mangled arm while Frank Mir calmly walks away. Think of the look of pure shock and confusion on the face of Randy Couture as he fell to the mat, victim of a Lyoto Machida kick that was simply unfathomable during most of The Natural's career. And think of men like Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn, Mirko Cro Cop - three all time greats who, if not "retired", at least hung up the gloves for awhile after hard loses in 2011.
This isn't the first time we've seen this in MMA, and it won't be the last. This group who faded away in 2011 was really the 2nd wave of MMA, and many of them made their names in the sport by defeating the 1st wave - the MMA pioneers - roughly 10 years ago. Back then, it was Royce Gracie being beaten down over 90 grueling minutes by Kazushi Sakuraba, Pedro Rizzo leg kicking Dan Severn into submission, Tito Ortiz establishing his dominance over Ken Shamrock. Today, all of those winners are at the very end of their own careers.
Which brings me to one man. The man who, in many ways, defined that 2nd wave of fighters, at least for the UFC. And the man who defined that 2nd wave again this year. I'm talking about The People's Champ, The Huntington Beach Bad Boy, the former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz.
Tito Ortiz is a legend of the sport who looked to be finished before 2011. A grueling series of fights and a non-stop assault of injuries had slowed Ortiz down considerably, and it looked like 2011 would finally be the end of the ex-champ.
But Tito Ortiz would not go into the night so quietly. At UFC 132, Ortiz pulled off the upset of the year, submitting Ryan Bader in the first round. That led to what was, for me at least, the emotional highlight of the year, as Ortiz dug out the old trusty shovel and body bag, and laid Bader to rest. It was a huge moment for anyone who has followed this sport since the days of Ortiz's UFC dominance, and a highly charged display from the notoriously emotional Ortiz.
It wouldn't last. Mere weeks later, Ortiz had lost again, stopped by a nasty Rashad Evans knee to the sternum. And to wrap up the year, Ortiz was defeated once more, this time by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 140. That fight ended with Ortiz grasping his side and grimacing in pain - an image that truly encapsulates this year for the fighters of Ortiz's generation.
Still, Tito Ortiz (and let's not forget Minotauro here too) showed that, despite becoming holdouts from a bygone era in MMA history, that old guard keeps kicking, and remains dangerous. How much longer will we see anyone from that era compete? The clock is winding down, and 2011 definitely sped up that process.
So as we look back at the year, we can remember the loses these men endured - but it's important also to remember the great heights they once reached that brought them to this point. Yes, we remember Fedor vs, Henderson, but also remember Fedor vs. Kevin Randleman. Remember Minotauro vs. Bob Sapp. Remember Matt Hughes vs. Frank Trigg. Remember the greatness these legends gave us over the years, and be thankful for having had the chance to see them do what they do best.
Check back all week for more of 2011 in MMA History.