Voters Guide For Fighter's Only FOTY 2011

I was trying to decide who to vote for for Fighter of the Year for the 2011 MMA Awards on Fighter's Only, so I did a little research before making my decision. For those of you trying to decide, I prepared a little voter's guide for this category. Hope it helps.

There are five fighters competing for the honor of being named Fighter of the Year for 2011 at the Fighter's Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards. They are, in no particular order: Nick Diaz, Dominick Cruz, Jon Jones, Dan Henderson, and Anderson Silva. The question is, among these amazing fighters, who set themselves apart as the best fighter of 2011? I've taken a number of subjective factors into consideration for purposes of comparison:

a) Quality of opponent (i.e., rank, recent history, etc...)
b) Significance of the fights (i.e., title fight, contender, etc...)
c) Type of Win (i.e., stoppage, unanimous decision, split decision, etc...)

While all of the named fighters are unquestionably top tier fighters, only one can be- Fighter of the Year.

Nick Diaz:

Diaz has fought 3 times this year, and began the year as the Strikeforce Welterweight Champion. He began the year considered a Top Ten Fighter and his ranking has only increased. To Diaz's credit, he stopped 2 out of 3 of his opponents this year, earning a submission victory over Evangelista Santos and knocking out Paul Daley. His third fight was a hard fought decision victory over B.J. Penn. Not much weight can be given to Diaz's win over Santos, because Santos simply can't be considered a top tier opponent. Despite a well earned reputation as a dangerous striker, Santos has no wins in 2011 and has been stopped twice, and is 2 and 3 since 2009 against mid-level opposition. Daley represents a higher level of opposition, and was considered by many rankings to be in the top 10 at the time of their fight. Daley had only 2 losses in his last 5 fights and both were against top 10 opponents, the other being Tyron Woodley. Diaz showed great heart in overcoming a near KO to come back and finish Daley in the 1st round. Diaz's biggest win of 2011 was over B.J. Penn, when he dominated Penn over 3 rounds in his UFC debut. Penn was coming off of two impressive fights at welterweight, having knocked out former champion Matt Hughes and then fought number 2 welterweight Jon Fitch to a draw. A dominant win over Penn certainly cemented Diaz's place near the top of the welterwight division.

Ultimately, Diaz cost himself Fighter of the Year through his out of the cage behavior. Had he been victorious over George St. Pierre (although due to injury it wouldn't have happened anyway), and won both the UFC Welterweight Title and taken the #1 spot at welterweight, it would certainly have been the year of Nick Diaz.

Dominick Cruz:

UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz began this year at the number one spot in his division, and he'll end it there as well. Cruz may have faced some of the stiffest competition of all of the fighters up for this award, and that, combined with his style, explains why he didn't finish any of his fights in 2011. Cruz has faced only top-tier fighters since December of 2010 and only those in the top 5 of his weight class. Cruz delivered a dominating performance against Scott Jorgenson toward the end of last year. Jorgenson is an impressive opponent and had not lost since 2009 despite facing quality top 10 opponents such as Brad Picket and Takeya Mizugaki. Cruz's defenses didn't get any easier as 2011 saw him face and conquer Uriah Faber and Demetrious Johnson, both considered top 5 bantamweights. While Faber's fall from the heavens of his featherweight run has tarnished his image, he still holds recent wins against Eddie Wineland and Mizugaki, and his recent destruction of Brian Bowles demonstrated how tough he still is. Cruz's win over Demetrious Johnson showed that he was capable of defeating someone who was as fast or faster than he is, albeit a bit smaller. Johnson had recently defeated Miguel Torres to earn his shot at Cruz.

As stated above, Cruz may have faced the toughest competition of the bunch, however there is something to be said for finishing fights to show that you are, not just at the top of the heap, but way ahead of the pack.

Jon Jones:

Jon Jones began the year as an up and coming light heavyweight prospect, ranked by most somewhere around the edge of the top ten. He finished the year as the consensus ranked #1 and UFC Light Heveayweight Champion. This was a dominant year for Jones. Of his three fights in 2011, Jones faced all top tier fighters coming off wins, and finished all of his fights. Jone's began his year with a submission stoppage of Ryan Bader. This was Bader's 1st loss of his career, and came when he was full of confidence, fresh from a win over top tier LHW, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Some rankings had Bader in the top 5 at that point and some pundits saw him vying for a title shot. Fate would have it that following that win, the shot at the title landed in Jone's lap as a result of an injury to Rashad Evans. Jones rose to that occasion as well, stopping Mauricio Rua, who had recently won the strap by being the first to knock out Lyoto Machida, for the title. Some questioned Rua's performance follwing an injury. Quentin Jackson was Jone's final opponent for 2011, and Jones continued his theme of dominating top tier opponents. Jones became the first man since 2005 to finish Jackson, who admittedly may have lost some of his shine (as well as muscle mass) in the course of his recent victories. Many questioned whether Jackson had ever returned to form after a hiatus from fighting to film the A-Team, and since that time he lost to Rashad Evans, won a questionable decision over Machida, and won a tepid boxing match over Matt Hamill, a mid-level fighter. Nonetheless, most pundits still place Jackson squarely in the top 10, and Jone's victory was decisive.

It's hard to argue minutia when faced with a year full of top tier battles and unquestionably dominating performances. On top of that, a rise to #1 in the rankings, winning a major championship, and successfully defending it, all via stoppages, make this a dream year for Jon Jones.

Anderson Silva:

Like Cruz, Silva began the year as consensus #1 in his weight class and he'll finish the year in the same position. Silva fought twice this year and finished both opponents. Despite dominating performances, it's tough to give great weight to Silva's victory of Vitor Belfort. Belfort is a tough fighter, but it's difficult to justify a top 10 ranking at Middleweight, since he had not been fighting recently at that weight. Thus, it was difficult to gauge how he would perform as a middleweight. In addition, Vitor had not fought since September of 2009, which is a very long lay-off for a fighter to be able to immediately return to top form. Since that fight, Vitor's only win has been over Yoshihiro Akyama, who hasn't won a fight in the Octagon since a questionable 2009 decision against Alan Belcher. Silva's big win of 2011 came against Yushin Okami, mostly because Okami has beaten almost all of the opponent's put in front of him in the UFC and holds a controversial win over Silva. Okami really earned this fight with recent wins over Chael Sonnen and Nathan Marquardt. Okami's only other relevant win was over recent contender Mark Munoz, however, Munoz didn't really have his breakthrough in the Octagon until later in 2010, and wasn't generally ranked int he top 10 at the time of their fight. Nonetheless, Silva didn't just defeat Okami, he made him look out of place and way over-matched. He put on the kind of performance that a dominate champion should.

Silva is the number 1 fighter in his division and has been now for years, holds the UFC Middleweight World Title, and finished both of his opponents. Still, the Belfort fight should not be given much weight due to the many problems surrounding it, thus leaving his year to be mainly judged on his victory over Okami.

Dan Henderson:

Dan Henderson started out the year outside of the top 10 in the light heavyweight division, but right on the outer end of it in the middleweight division. He fought 3 times in 2011, including a fight for the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Title. Of those three fights, Henderson stopped two of his opponents and went to a decision in his third. This is certainly a notable year for Henderson. Each of the fights this year could be written as individual chapters in the book of his legacy. He won another major championship in his victory over Rafael Cavalcante, who had recently won the belt by defeating previously undefeated Muhammed Lawal. Henderson stopped Cavalcante by knocking him out. Henderson followed up that championship performance with another knockout win, this time over heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko. This fight, as exciting as it was, and as good as it appeared on paper, should not be given too much weight. Emelianenko is hardly performing at the level that his name and legacy suggest. Until recently, he had not had a win since 2009 and was finished in his two previous fights leading up to the Henderson bout. The only point of interest was that Henderson was the first man smaller than Emelianenko to defeat him, and for that Henderson deserves some credit. Henderson's final match of 2011 (by order of the NAC), was his incredible 5-round war against top ranked, Mauricio Rua. Henderson wasn't able to get the stoppage, but came close, and showed tons of heart in winning this fight. Rua, a recent champion and coming off a knockout win over Forrest Griffith, marked Henderson's toughest competition of the year, and he performed brilliantly.

Dan Henderson will likely fight for a major UFC title in 2012, but it will be tough for him to top his performances from this year: a title win, a bout with a legend, and one of the greatest fights of all time.

2011 was a great year for all of the fighters nominated in this category. Of the 5, Dan Henderson and Jon Jones stand out as having the best claim to this year being there year. Regardless of what comes in their futures, 2011 will always mark a year of important wins and legacy defining moments. I give the overall nod to Jones based on his level of competition, 3 out of 3 stoppages, a UFC championship win and defense, and becoming the number 1 fighter in his division. If Jones is blessed enough with good health and longevity to have a career as long as Henderson's, this year will be remembered as the year it all began.