In a sport with the sheer variety of outcomes that MMA has, there’s no specific formula for what makes a great fight. Instead, truly great matches are made when some or all of the elements of MMA come together in two fighters to make something that is both a highly competitive bout and a dramatic story told through action.
2011 served as a flagship year in the world’s largest MMA organization when it came to great fights. To put a bow on this passing age, below are the top ten greatest fights in the UFC for 2011.
10. Pat Barry versus Cheick Kongo
With a total run time of 2:39, the headlining clash between Barry and Kongo at UFC Live on Versus 4 was not the great epic that some of the other top fights of the year were. But, as brevity is the soul of wit, sometimes a single exchange can tell the best story.
A former K-1 competitor with great expectations he hadn’t quite lived up to, Barry was coming in to his fight against Kongo with something to prove. And, for most of the fight, it looked like he did. Just as it looked like Barry was about to usher Kongo to a permanent spot as a heavyweight gatekeeper, everyone’s favorite French superhero through a single counter punch off of shaky legs that brought him back from the dead. With just a few punches, all the major points of a great fight including excitement, back and forth action, and both men being in danger were met.
See the rest of the top ten of 2011 after the jump.
9. Diego Sanchez vs Martin Kampmann
What started out as a clinic by Kampmann quickly turned into a bloody brawl in the second frame. Though Sanchez was getting picked apart on the outside, a glancing blow cut Kampmann under his right eye. The smell of blood and a slight pause against the fence by Kampmann brought back the nightmare.
Sanchez began putting his man to the fence and swinging his way into a trademark dog fight. The result was a battle not of striking versus a takedown game, but one of wills. Kampmann won every second of the fight that he could keep to a contest of precision, while Sanchez won every second he could devolve the action into a battle of wills. While the final decision was controversial, the action in the cage was unarguably spectacular.
8. Leonard Garcia vs Chan Sung Jung 2
While the first bout between Garcia and the self-styled Korean Zombie was one of the most highly praised fights in MMA history, that brutal game of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots played with real people set the stage for a more technical and definitive second act.
The fast-ball slinging Garcia started this re-match a little more disciplined in his striking, which was somewhat sobering to a crowd expecting more cowboy punches. But soon the action picked up, which surprisingly favored Jung. The zombie still put his unshakeable chin on display against Garcia’s berserker punches. But with each second off the clock Jung proved to be just a little bit faster and a little bit more accurate. Then, when the bout hit the ground, Jung concluded two heart racing bouts with one of the only twister submission finishes logged in professional mixed martial arts.
7. Alex Caceres vs. Jimy Hettes
A lesser known bout for those who don’t watch the Facebook preliminary matches, Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres welcomed Jimy Hettes to the UFC in a bout that featured some of the most fast-paced scrambles and whacky submission chains ever performed. This bout contained the rare combination of grappling that is both highly technical and contains a lot of action. The tilt is a must see for all fans of high-end floor work.
6. Dominick Cruz vs. Demetrious Johnson
UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz has been one of the top performers in MMA in both skill and entertainment value. In his bout with Johnson, one of the few men at 135 pounds who can match Cruz’s speed and athleticism, all the best of what the champion has to offer a crowd was put on display.
On the round by round breakdown, Cruz was in control for the majority of the fight. But within each round was a tight race by Cruz to try and distance himself against the seemingly indomitable Johnson. Mighty Mouse never truly caved and forced Cruz to work for every point, which brought the full might of Cruz to bare. From his outside striking apparently learned on Mars to his propensity for using full suplexes against the cage, Cruz made his fight with Johnson into one of the foremost battles for fans who enjoy a spectacle.
Â 5. Edson Barboza vs. Anthony Njokuani
The undercard tilt between Njokuani and Barbosa was one of the only bouts in the history of MMA that combined a back and forth struggle with technical striking and elaborate kicking displays. Each time that Barbosa would begin to distance himself on the card, Njokuani would return fire with a series of strikes that brought him right back to life. Nearly every hit was both meaningful and technically perfect. The decision was ultimately tipped in Barbosa’s favor with a spinning wheel kick in the final seconds of the bout which, ironically, was a grazing blow unlike the more effective strikes that he could not seem to take the lead with.
Â 4. Clay Guida vs. Benson Henderson
In the UFC’s debut on Fox proper, the rest of the card had to take a back seat to a heavyweight title tilt between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. But fans watching on facebook just a few minutes earlier were privy to the real show stopper between Henderson and Guida. Their bout that November evening was one that showcased the best of both fighters. Each man’s energy was boundless in this fast-paced clash. Guida had showed marked improvement in his striking, actually landing some solid hits to cover his takedowns rather than just flailing wildly. But the stronger Henderson was able to consistently out-work the hardest working man in the division.
This fight did not once pause to catch its breath and neither will anyone watching it.
Â 3. Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber 2
Everything good that can be said about Cruz’s title fight against Demetrious Johnson goes double for his bantamweight rematch with The California Kid. But, while Johnson was playing catchup to a clearly superior Cruz, Faber traded the lead with the champion right up to the end of round five. Faber proved a true mixed martial artist in the cage that night, seamlessly blending tight striking combinations with lightening fast double and single leg shots. While Faber was demonstrating perfect MMA fundamentals, Cruz was also working every phase of the game simultaneously. Only Cruz was using unorthodox angles and less common wrestling maneuvers.
While Cruz versus Faber 2 only comes in at number three in 2011, it had the greatest level of variety and technical skill of the year. Die-hard purists would put the bout at number one and in another year it probably would have been. Luckily, Cruz versus Faber 3 is looming over the horizon. These men should just fight once a year because they always put on a show.
Â 2. Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua
The bout that Joe Rogan referred to as arguably the greatest fight of all time started with a dark cloud hanging over it. Henderson had momentum coming in with an upset win over Fedor Emelianenko. But his bout with Rua would be the first time in many years that Dangerous Dan would likely have to go for every second of a five rounder. At 41, there was a pervasive fear among fans that the Pride great was too old to rock and roll. On top of that, unsubstantiated reports were circling around that Rua was having trouble in camp. Those rumors seemed to carry some literal weight as Rua walked in to the octagon against Hendo visibly in the worst shape of his career.
Henderson perceived this weakness from Rua and pounced on it, soundly winning the first three rounds with greater levels of aggression and solid striking combinations. But, come round four, Henderson started to fade in a big way. The once great Dan of Steel could barely lift his arms to defend himself. The real drama of this bout came from the fact that Hendo was fighting an opponent more dangerous than Rua could ever be: time. While Rua carried around a beer belly, Henderson was weighed down by more than a decade of extra wear and tear. A competitor until the end, Henderson was able to hang on just long enough to win the decision off of his earlier success. Seeing Henderson’s corner have to carry him out of the cage after all his fire was spent proved to be a more iconic image than any seen in the actual fight.
Â 1. Frankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard 2 and 3
These two matches were put together because both tilts told one nine-round story that may have been the greatest in all of MMA. The elements of this quest to decide the UFC lightweight title transcend what makes a great fight and reach the level of moving human achievement. Frankie Edgar is one of the only fighters left at the top level of the game that fights at his walk around weight and, as such, was perpetually underestimated for most of his career. Every major bout at 155 was the one that Edgar was supposed to lose, move down a weight class, and start becoming a world-beater. But that loss never happened.
Against Maynard, the only man with a win over Edgar, the Jersey boy had to vindicate his weight class and defend his title against the largest and in-chargest of all lightweights. Maynard may be the biggest and was certainly viewed as the strongest in the division. And, with one solid blow to the chin early in round one, it looked like reality finally came crashing down on Frankie Edgar. The champion took one of the most tremendous beatings in all of MMA in the first frame of the fight, leaving the audience shocked that he was still standing.
Even more shocked when he won round two.
The back and forth battle was held between Edgar’s in and out of the pocket combinations, along with a categorical refusal to accept defeat, and Maynard’s superior power and reach. Every second on the clock that Edgar tried to wrest the fight back from his opponent was one Maynard could use to knock him out. The battle was fought to a bloody draw, leaving that overarching question unanswered. Could inner fire really beat a larger, equally skilled opponent? Could all the martial arts platitudes spouted in training actually be true?
In Edgar versus Maynard 3, they did it again. The fight played out almost exactly as the first one did. Maynard was the constant finishing threat while Edgar fought desperately against the tide of an opponent too big and too strong for him.
In round four, Edgar knocked the tide out cold. A beautiful uppercut closed all questions and settled all bets. Maynard is a great fighter and a good guy, making it unfortunate that he had to play the villain in this scenario. But, what Frankie Edgar did in these fights wasn’t just exciting, it was moving.