‘Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.’
~ William Shakespeare
If there was ever a definition of greatness in MMA, UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones may have surpassed that in 2011.
It’s for that reason he is the clear choice for MMAWeekly.com‘s 2011 Fighter of the Year award.
At only 23 years of age to start the year, Jones was already ahead of the curve for achievements as 2011 opened.
Jones absolutely mauled both Brandon Vera and Vladdy Matyushenko in 2010 to bring his UFC record to 5-1, with the loss coming by way of disqualification in a fight with Matt Hamill that he was dominating.
Kicking off the year, Jones took on fellow young gun and former Ultimate Fighter winner Ryan Bader at UFC 126, to see who would be the 205-pound fighter most likely to succeed for the rest of the year.
Like virtually every fight before it, Jones was masterful in his performance as he picked Bader apart and finished him by guillotine choke in the second round.
It was that moment when UFC president Dana White entered the cage and informed Jones that his then training partner Rashad Evans was injured and out of his upcoming title fight. White asked Jones to step in and face champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128 just over a month later.
The New York native gladly accepted and went right back into training camp to prepare for his title fight.
Some would argue that being thrust into a title fight on that kind of notice could be too much, too soon, but it was anything but that for Jon Jones.
Taking on one of the most veteran and dangerous fighters in the sport in Shogun, Jones once again showed off a strategic and accurate dismantling, this time over a legend in the sport.
When the fight was over, Jones was as calm and composed as he was when the fight started, while Rua looked like he had just gone 10 rounds with a pitbull and had one arm tied behind his back the whole time. Oh yeah, and just as a side note to the work that Jones did in the cage, he also managed to stop and subdue a thief outside the cage just hours before his fight at UFC 128.
For his next challenge, Jones was matched up with former UFC light heavyweight champion and perennial bad boy Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. This was a test of not only his physical attributes, but for the first time, Jones had to deal with an opponent that would put his mental toughness to the test as well.
Rampage is known for his trash talk and ability to get in any opponent’s head, and he didn’t change that approach for Jones either. The crafty Memphis native dropped one-liner after one-liner, and said that Jones was getting cocky and had way too much praise dropped on his head for how little he had actually done in the sport so far.
All that mattered to Jones, however, was facing Rampage in the Octagon, and if there was any mismatch in the talking game prior to the fight, there was definitely a mismatch in the cage on fight night.
With surgical precision, Jones once again picked an icon apart, blasting Jackson any time he wanted with punches and kicks, and eventually put the former Pride fighter on the mat. Like a mercy rule in football, Jones locked on a rear naked choke to stop the carnage.
Three fights down with two title fights already in the books, Jones could have stopped fighting at that point and already had a phenomenal year, but he wasn’t done yet.
With the UFC in need of a main event for their shwo in Toronto on Dec. 10, they once again called on Jones to save the day. He stepped up to face former champion Lyoto Machida on the UFC 140 fight card. It’s almost unheard of in this day and age of MMA for a champion to fight more than twice a year, much less three times with a fourth non-title fight happening that year as well, but that’s exactly what Jones was about to do.
Machida’s awkward karate style had been a nightmare for so many past opponents, and in the opening minutes of his fight with Jones, it looked like maybe he had the puzzle figured out.
Not so fast. The puzzle got figured out alright, but it was Jones who put the pieces in place and finished off Machida in the second round to win his fourth fight in 2011.
After bludgeoning Machida with a nasty elbow to open a cut on the Brazilian’s face, Jones then locked on a suffocating standing guillotine choke to put his opponent away. As Machida crashed to the mat after being put away, Jones walked across the cage with the type of championship swagger only a great fighter can truly have.
Following the fight, despite his words of respect towards Machida and the accomplishments he had in 2011, Jones was once again accused of being cocky or arrogant to a fault. People try to call him fake or a fraud when he’s smiling on the microphone, because they just can’t believe that Jones, or anyone for that matter, is really just a good guy.
His coach, Greg Jackson, would argue with anyone on that point and says that people picking on Jones for his personality have to grab onto that because no one has been able to find a flaw in his fight game.
“There’s nothing really phony or fake about Jon Jones, as much as people want there to be. You can’t really attack his fighting, he’s rolling through everybody. So the only thing you can really attack is his character. But if people knew him in real life, they’d know he’s really the sweetest, nicest guy,” Jackson told MMAWeekly Radio.
“People are desperate to find some hole with this guy. People don’t like to have a guy that’s a genius combat striker and also a good guy. You can have one, but you can’t have the other. They’re looking hard for a hole in his game.”
Thus far no one has found that hole, and if Jones continues to improve and stay dedicated to his training, they may never find one.
Jon Jones’ 2011 is arguable the greatest single year in MMA history, and at 24, the future still has a lot to show from the talented young fighter. He may go down one day as the greatest fighter to ever compete in MMA, but there’s no doubt that 2011 belonged to Jon Jones and no one can take that away from him.
Honorable Mention: Dan Henderson and Anderson Silva
It’s pretty crazy to think that Dan Henderson won the Strikeforce light heavyweight title by defeating Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, knocked out former heavyweight king and the man considered by many to be the greatest fighter ever in Fedor Emelianenko, and capped off his year with what some people call the best fight ever, against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and he’s still not Fighter of the Year.
Henderson definitely deserves credit however for his incredible run in 2011, and if not for Jon Jones, he’d be a virtual lock for the award.
Also, lest we forget about the man who has probably most defined greatness over the last few years, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva also went 2-0 in 2011 with two astonishing performances.
Silva bested countryman Vitor Belfort with a front kick that somehow thrust B-movie star Steven Seagal back into the spotlight, as well as his stifling performance over Yushin Okami to defeat the last person to technically hold a win over him.
It’s hard to deny that if Anderson Silva can keep this streak alive through his eventual retirement that we may call him the greatest fighter ever, and that’s surely a trophy even better than Fighter of the Year.