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.
If 2011 was marked by the fall of the old guard, it was also marked by the rise of the new guard - or at least, the singular face of that new guard in MMA. The man who embodies the idea of pushing the sport forward - of setting a new standard for what can be achieved in the confines of an MMA contest. Can there be any doubt who this is?
Jon Jones is the best fighter of 2011 - that much is obvious and shouldn't even be up for debate. The question some have asked is: Is Jon Jones's 2011 the best single year for any MMA fighter in history? I'd have to say it is.
Jones started the year as an exciting prospect who many fans had high hopes for in the future. He ended the year as the UFC Light Heavyweight champion, with two successful title defenses and, in just one year, now finds himself only two fights away from cleaning out the upper most ranks of the UFC's most notoriously stacked and competitive division. Along the way, he dominated elite names in ways we had never seen them beaten before - Lyoto Machida choked into unconsciousness by a nasty guillotine variation, Rampage Jackson made to look like an amateur on the feet, Mauricio Rua unable to mount any offense. Jones faced some of the very best the division had to offer, and he crushed them all.
As good as this year was for the young champion, we still end the year with questions about him. How will he deal with the heavy hands of Dan Henderson? Will he finally meet Rashad Evans and add the former teammate to his list of victims? Why was Lyoto able to find success against him? And the big question - just how dominant will this kid be?
That's what is so exciting about Jon Jones in 2011. It's not just what he has accomplished, but the sense of what he still can accomplish. He's extremely young, both in age and in his career, and shows improvements every fight. Today, he is the best 205 pounder in the world, the best 205 pounder since Chuck Liddell, and already in talks as one of the top 2 pound for pound fighters in the world. Just how high can he go?
Jon Jones today reminds me a lot of his sort-of teammate Georges St. Pierre a few years ago. Young, destructive, and the kind of fighter that looked ready to elevate the sport to new levels. St. Pierre's career took an interesting path where a shocking loss led to increasingly cautious and fan-displeasing performances, while at the same time becoming one of the sport's biggest stars and most dominant champions. GSP has indeed helped bring the sport to new levels of popularity, but he is no longer pushing the envelope of what is possible inside the cage. Is this the fate that awaits Jones? Will he meet his own Matt Serra? And if he does, how will he respond? What does the future hold for this young phenom?
I don't have those answers - no one does. But I can't wait to find out in 2012.
Check back all week for more of 2011 in MMA History.