The year 2010 showcased a wealth of fights and events for the mixed martial arts world to marvel over. “The Answer” Frankie Edgar (13-1) defeated one of the greatest lightweights of all time in “The Prodigy” BJ Penn (16-7-1). Boxing great “Lights Out” James Toney (0-1) stepped into the the cage to face UFC Hall of Famer “The Natural” Randy Couture (19-10) in what was intended to determine the superior combat sport, MMA or boxing. Couture pummeled Toney for nearly three minutes of pure fan delight before submitting him via Arm Triangle Choke. The MMA world was shaken and the heavyweight rankings sent into a state of disarray when the top ranked “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko (31-2) was handed his first legitimate loss via first round submission to Fabricio Werdum (14-4-1).
To follow up with the 2009 roster exchange agreement between the Strikeforce, DREAM, and M-1 Global MMA promotions, the UFC ended 2010 with the intake of the WEC organization. With all the memorable fights and events that have taken place in the last 12 months, 2011 is the year where prospects can become contenders, fighters inflicted with injury or tribulations return to fight their way to a title, and champions become legends.
Here are some of the top fighters to look out for in 2011.
“Bones” Jon Jones (11-1): When a fighter’s sole loss comes from a contentious disqualification in a bout he completely dominated, and is a standout in one of the most acclaimed training camps in mixed martial arts, the fast track to success is already in sight. Cue Jon Jones. The 23-year-old is only two years into his professional fighting career and is already jumping into the deep waters of the UFC. “Bones” had a breakout year in 2009 with his dominant victory over “The American Psycho” Stephan Bonnar (13-7), whom he controlled with superior wrestling and takedowns. Jones carried out a highlight reel worthy suplex that ended up being the most memorable moment of the fight. At UFC 100 in July 2009, Jones utilized unorthodox striking to keep “Irish” Jake O’Brien (13-3) at bay before hitting him with a spinning back elbow and finishing with a Guillotine Choke submission. The Greg Jackson protege though closed out 2009 with his only loss to “The Hammer” Matt Hamill (9-2). Although Jones controlled Hamill for the duration of the bout, he was disqualified due to the use of illegal downward-angled elbows. Many argue that Hamill was unable to continue due to a shoulder injury he sustained during the fight prior to the illegal elbows. Yet with instant replay being utilized for the first time in Nevada, Hamill’s inability to continue was credited to the elbows he received from Jones, thus giving him a bittersweet win and Jones a heartbreaking defeat.
With a pair of fights though in 2010, Jones had left his mark indefinitely in the UFC’s light heavyweight division against highly respected veterans of the sport “The Truth” Brandon Vera (11-5) and “The Janitor” Vladmir Matyushenko (25-5). “Bones” made quick work of the MMA veterans, discarding them both via first round TKO. He was able to topple Vera by controlling him on the ground and landing elbows – ultimately breaking Vera’s orbital bone and sidelining him for the rest of the year. Matyushenko fell victim by getting caught in a Salaverry, or Crucifx, position short of two minutes into the first stanza and was flooded with elbows until the referee stepped in to save him. Jon Jones’ going through the light heavyweight division contenders with relative ease in combination with the obvious strides he makes with every performance is clearly indicative that “Bones” will only become a more prevalent force in the 205lbs. division in the year to come.
“Darth” Ryan Bader (12-0): To train under former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion and Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion “Minotauro” Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-6-1) in itself gives Ryan Bader an advantage over his competition. Bader’s journey in MMA originated with a wrestling base however he has grown to become a full and well rounded martial artist with evidence shown in his tenure in Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter. Bader won his way into the house and the right to train under Nogueira by submitting “Kingsbu” Kyle Kingsbury (10-2) with an Arm Triangle. His first fight in the televised tournament ended with him knocking out now UFC middleweight “Filthy” Tom Lawlor (7-3) in the opening round. Bader would then go on to defeat “Fire” Eliot Marshall (9-2) by Unanimous Decision in the semi-finals, then knock out Jiu-Jitsu ace “Pezao” Vinicius Magalhaes (6-6) early in the first round of the finals to become the Season 8 winner.
Bader’s success continued in 2009 with Unanimous Decision victories over Greco-Roman wrestler “The Fury” Carmelo Marrero (13-3) and BJJ black belt “Ravishing Red” Eric Schafer (12-6-2). But it was in 2010 that “Darth” was ranked among the elite in the light heavyweight division. At UFC 110, Bader secured one of his most highlighted victories to date by knocking out former UFC Light Heavyweight contender “The Dean of Mean” Keith Jardine (14-9-1) with one punch following a flying knee in the third round. His most recent victory stems from defeating his former Ultimate Fighter coach’s equally dangerous twin brother “Little Nog” Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (18-4) by decision through well timed combinations and a controlling wrestling game that negated any offense.
At UFC 126 “Darth” will face off against fellow newcomer to the 205lbs. elite, Jon Jones. The upcoming fight acts as the platform to launch these young guns onto the higher rungs of the light heavyweight ladder. Both have impeccable striking and wrestling to challenge one another and both come from formidable camps. Bader trains with former Arizona State alum “The Doberman” CB Dollaway (11-2) and “A-Train” Aaron Simpson (6-2) while Jones hails from Greg Jackson’s camp along with “The Carpenter” Clay Guida (27-11) and “Suga” Rashad Evans (15-1-1). While a title shot may not be quite in grasp so soon, a convincing performance from either fighter can have them set to face any top level fighter in the UFC – be it “Rampage” Quinton Jackson (29-8), Forrest Griffin (17-6), or even “The Spider” Anderson Silva (27-4) should he ascend the weight classes again. Expect fireworks come fight night between Jones and Bader at UFC 126.
Nate Diaz (12-6): The kid from Stockton, California though young, has lived a full career in the mixed martial arts game. Why would he be someone to look out for in 2011? Since the former The Ultimate Fighter 5 winner made the transition from lightweight to welterweight, Diaz has been on a roll in his division. After a Split Decision loss at the beginning of this year to now #1 lightweight contender “The Bully” Gray Maynard (10-0), Diaz made the move to the UFC’s welterweight decision with the claim that by having to cut less weight, he can provide better performances. Since then he has made true to that claim by gaining a TKO victory over Rory Markham (16-6) at a catchweight bout at 177 lbs. at UFC 111 and most recently a submission victory over well-seasoned veteran “The Irish Hand Grenade” Marcus Davis (17-7) at UFC 118. Diaz’s superior boxing had set the premise to both victories with the infamous Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu sealing the deal. With more strings of stellar victories such as those he has amassed already, Diaz could possibly see himself in title contention soon and gaining the same level of success as his brother “El Diablo” Nick Diaz (22-8) already has achieved in Strikeforce.
Diaz’s next fight is against “The Stun-gun” Dong Hyun Kim (10-4-2) at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day. Kim’s judo game has been the demise of many fighters however Diaz’s lankiness possesses lethal Jiu-Jitsu with fighters such as Marcus Davis, “The Young Assassin” Melvin Guillard (25-8-2), and “Batman” Kurt Pellegrino (16-5) falling victim. Coupled with an unorthodox yet effective form of striking, Diaz is more than capable to get through Kim and head to the welterweight contender slots.
“MAK” Mike Kyle (14-8-1): Mike Kyle can say he has been one of the busiest men in mixed martial arts. After a No Contest heavyweight bout with “The Diesel” Travis Wiuff (60-14) in February for King of the Cage (KOTC), Kyle returned to the light heavyweight division and went on to secure two more impressive victories over Jon Murphy (5-5) and “Kryptonite” Tony Lopez (20-5), gaining the KOTC Light Heavyweight Championship in the process. Kyle continued on to win a submission victory at Strikeforce: Challengers 9 over Ghanaian fighter Abongo Humphrey (6-2) and finished his tenure in the light heavyweight division by winning the Australian based promotion Xtreme MMA’s light heavyweight belt via third round TKO of Steve Oliver (0-2) this past November. To round the year off, Kyle agreed to step back up as a heavyweight on short notice to challenge the behemoth “Bigfoot” Antonio Silva (14-2). Despite a technical knockout loss in the second round, Kyle put on a stellar performance against the Strikeforce heavyweight, dropping Silva with his strikes and controlling him throughout the first round. In the second round, Silva was able to turn the tables on Kyle, implementing his Jiu-Jitsu to gain a dominant position and rain strikes down upon him. Even with the loss, this fight benefited Kyle by not only getting him more exposure to the ever growing mixed martial arts fan base, but more respect as well due to his willingness to step up a weight class to combat a dangerous fighter in Silva at only a week’s notice.
While it is unsure what Kyle’s next move is, his best bet is to stay in the light heavyweight brackets where his size and strength give him an advantage. With Strikeforce always looking to take in fresh talent, Kyle can find much opportunity for achievement should he choose to continue fighting for the organization. Kyle alone holds the only decisive victory over current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion, “Feijao” Rafael Cavalcante (2-1). This alone can provide enough motivation to draw him to sign with the organization and work his way to a title shot. Kyle presents dangerous striking which makes for a fight that can cause hardcore MMA fans to gawk in awe and draw the casual observer in to see the onslaught he can dish out. Match him with Strikeforce’s stable of fighters such as “King Mo” Muhammed Lawal (7-1), “The Dream Catcher” Gegard Mousasi (24-3-1), or even “Hendo” Dan Henderson (26-8) and fans will see him set off sparks in the light heavyweight division.
Chael Sonnen (24-11-1): Why would Chael Sonnen be on this list? Could it have been that at UFC 109 he ground out “The Great” Nate Marquardt (30-10-2) to a Unanimous Decision victory? Sure. Could it be because he single-handedly built a name as one of the most hated people, or depending on how one viewed it, the most prolific trash talker in the sport? Possibly. How about because Sonnen has been the closest fighter in the UFC’s middleweight division to defeating Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva? Exactly. The months of trash talking preceding the Anderson Silva bout on just about any topic imaginable coming from Sonnen has been enough to truly make him the most interesting man in the world. Sorry Dos Equis, it seems the UFC has the real deal. However where most people fail to back up their words, Sonnen met and exceeded them. In a rare feat, the world saw Sonnen control Silva at UFC 117 in a manner not many had expected, Sonnen was able to beat Silva in the striking aspect, the champion’s forte, the few moments the fight was standing. It was Sonnen’s main pedigree in wrestling that allowed him to keep Silva on his back for five rounds before getting caught in a Triangle-Armbar submission combination. Though the loss was heartbreaking to Sonnen, he gained a lot respect from the mixed martial arts community and the champion for the fight he put on and left many fans calling for an immediate rematch.
Sonnen recently was found under fire from the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) due to high levels of testosterone found in his drug screening after his fight with Anderson Silva. Due to such allegations, Sonnen was suspended for a year, losing his chances for a rematch against the middleweight champion. However just earlier this month, Sonnen appealed the CSAC’s ruling and was found not guilty on these charges due to treatment he must undergo for the condition of Hypogonadism, a condition where the gonads have decreased function and produce less hormones, most notably testosterone. Sonnen was found guilty of failing to properly disclose this information to the commission prior to the fight. Sonnen’s appeal was considered a victory by having his suspension lifted from September 2011 to March 2011. Free now to fight earlier in the new year, Sonnen’s next opponent has not been mentioned but with recent talks of “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva (34-10-1) looking for a big name fight and “The Count” Michael Bisping (20-3) being free after his battle with Jorge Rivera (18-7), expect him to start 2011 where he left off in 2010.
Thiago Silva (15-2): The UFC’s light heavyweight division is easily one of the thickest collections of elite-level fighters in any organization, yet the return of Thiago Silva to the Octagon is truly one of a kind. Despite being a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Silva’s preferred method of dismantling opponents stems from his vicious Muay Thai striking and boxing. Silva made his UFC debut in 2007 earning a TKO win over “The Sandman” James Irvin (15-8). For the years to follow, Silva made short work of rather difficult competition with “Gorilla” Tomasz Drwal (17-4), “The Assassin” Houston Alexander (11-6), and Antonio Mendes (2-6) all falling victim to Silva’s flashflood of violence. Silva’s career came to a crossroads early in 2009 after suffering a loss on his record for the first time in his career and being knocked out by former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, “The Dragon” Lyoto Machida (16-2). Showing his resiliency, he would return in stunning fashion knocking out Keith Jardine later that year only a minute-and-a half into the first round. In 2010, Silva would engage in his only match with Jardine’s training partner, “Suga” Rashad Evans. Despite losing a decision unanimously due to his inability to counter Evans’ wrestling, Silva seemed to have come close to putting another knockout victory under his belt by landing devastating punches on Evans in the final round. Reports would later indicate Silva had suffered herniated discs in his back prior to the bout, showing the valiancy of Silva’s fighting spirit. He had planned to welcome “The Barbarian” Tim Boetsch (12-4) back to the UFC at UFC 117 however another back injury prevented Silva from fighting.
Silva makes his long awaited return on New Year’s Day 2011 at UFC 125 versus Brandon Vera. As one of the faces of American Top Team, Silva’s game plan most likely will revolve primarily around his technical yet aggressive striking to match the high caliber Muay Thai of Brandon Vera. Being the passionate fighter he is, Silva’s plan for 2011 does not just include working his way to a title but avenging what he considers his most devastating loss from Machida. Should Silva make an example of the always dangerous Vera, expect the UFC light heavyweight division to get a very rude awakening.
“Showtime” Anthony Pettis (13-1): Be it through MTV’s The World of Jenks showing his knockout victory over “Last Call” Danny Castillo (9-3) or the acrobatic kick he landed on “Smooth” Ben Henderson (11-2) at WEC’s finale card that has easily gained a viral following on the internet, Anthony Pettis has not only become the last WEC champion but is already a household name. Pettis’ nickname “Showtime” is fitting and accurately describes what his fights provide. In the final match of the WEC organization just last week, Pettis engaged in a five round, Fight of the Year candidate with Ben Henderson. While it seemed each man was able to contend with the other throughout the fight, Pettis gained the upper hand as the fight went on into the championship rounds, taking Henderson’s back multiple times, threatening with submissions, escaping a few rather troublesome positions on the ground, outstriking him on the feet, and landing one of the sport’s most memorable highlights: a flying headkick in which Pettis scaled the cage and bounced off, landing a kick accurately on Henderson’s chin. Though unable to finish him, Pettis secured the victory and the WEC Lightweight Championship by Unanimous Decision. At only 23-years-old with decisive victories over former The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 alum “The Assassin” Alexander Karalexis (10-5) and renowned wrestler Shane Roller (8-3), both by Triangle Choke, Pettis is setting his own trail ablaze to glory.
Thanks to the recent merger of the UFC and WEC, Pettis’ next opponent will come in the form of the victor between UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 125. Pettis, the WEC Lightweight Champion, and whomever steps away the UFC Lightweight Champ will face off to unify the titles to determine one undisputed champion. Regardless of who he should square off against, Pettis in his young career has demonstrated that he is already a well rounded fighter presenting danger in both grappling and striking. Pettis’ ability to successfully implement Tae Kwon Do kicks and his willingness to gamble high risks for high reward makes him a dangerous opponent already in the UFC. With a plethora of new challengers ahead, Pettis will have more than enough opportunities to gain more experience to fully mold himself into one of the greatest lightweights in 2011.
Eddie Alvarez (19-2): Few would argue that Eddie Alvarez is the face of Bellator since being crowned the organization’s first lightweight champion. Alvarez started a storied career earning the BodogFIGHT welterweight title by making short work of current UFC lightweight Aaron Riley (29-21-1) in 2006. In 2008, Alvarez would continue to find success in the popular Japanese promotion, DREAM, advancing into the semi-finals of their Lightweight Grandprix tournament before having to step out of the finals due to an eye injury. In 2009 for the beginning of the Bellator Fighting Championships, Alvarez showed that his methods of winning grew beyond striking when he submitted his opponents in each stage of the Lightweight Tournament with a second round Rear Naked Choke on high level Judoka Toby Imada (27-15) to secure the title.
However, if Alvarez had not already made a name for himself at this point, he surely had by the end of 2010. Billed as a lightweight superfight, Alvarez was pitted against UFC veteran and submission specialist “The Dentist” Josh Neer (28-10-1). Alvarez demonstrated a phenomenal skill set using a combination of his wrestling and striking to overwhelm Neer. In the end, it was Alvarez’s ground-and-pound that caused Neer to give up his back in the second round, leading Alvarez to secure a technical submission victory by a Rear Naked Choke. The feather in Alvarez’s cap that year and his career in general came in his war with “El Matador” Roger Huerta (21-5-1) at Bellator 33. Though the fight went back and forth, many took notice that Alvarez was dealing serious damage to Huerta through crisp leg kicks and constant pressure. Huerta ultimately lost the fight due to doctor stoppage at the end of the second round.
Alvarez was rumored to fight Strikeforce Lightweight Champion “El Nino” Gilbert Melendez (18-2), but due to organizational disputes it seems the fight is “dead” as Melendez puts it. With an exclusive contract to Bellator, Alvarez will have to resort to fighting a tournament winner or hope that another high profile lightweight is pulled into the promotion to be billed as a superfight. Alvarez’s only criticism is that he is not fighting enough high-level fighters. However until he is picked up by Strikeforce or the UFC, he will only be put against those who earn the way to challenge him. For Bellator’s sake to gain more recognition, they will have to go leaps and bounds to bring big name fighters which in turn will benefit Alvarez in 2011.
“Jacare” Ronaldo Souza (12-2): The man most commonly known as “Jacare”, Portuguese for “crocodile”, has put the Strikeforce middleweight division in a state of emergency. Souza earned his nickname due to the reputation that he is merciless with his submissions, guaranteeing if he grabs an open limb, the fight is over. Souza holds a notable Unanimous Decision victory over “Mayhem” Jason Miller (23-6) at DREAM 4 and made his Strikeforce debut against well-decorated veteran “The Law” Matt Lindland (22-8). Though the majority of his victories came from submission prior to the bout, Souza showed improvement in his striking against Lindland before locking an Arm-Triangle submission to earn the win. In May 2010, Souza found himself against a submission wizard such as himself in Joey Villaseñor (27-8). Souza established himself as the dominant fighter between the two early in the first round applying constant pressure to Villaseñor, putting him agaimst the cage and achieving advantageous ground positions. Even as his performance slowed as the match went on, Souza still managed to apply his Jiu-Jitsu to control Villaseñor and threaten to end the fight multiple times with strikes and various submission attempts. He was rewarded the decision victory unanimously. Souza would cap off 2010 with another Unanimous Decision victory over U.S. Army Soldier Tim Kennedy (13-3) for the vacant Strikeforce middleweight title.
The upcoming year has Souza set to battle the always dangerous “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (18-6) who is coming off a frightening KO victory over Matt Lindland at Strikeforce: St. Louis earlier this month. Though both fighters are well rounded, each fighter’s strengths play into the other’s weaknesses with Souza specializing in submissions and Lawler in one-punch power striking. Should Souza get past his biggest test to date in Lawler, possible talks of him having a rematch with Jason Miller for the third time could come to fruition as there will be no challenges left for him in the Strikeforce middleweight ranks.
“Junior” Jose Aldo (17-1): There comes with each new wave of fighters breaking into the big leagues of MMA one who seems to stand out from the rest despite lacking size, strength, speed, or physicality that is spread amongst the many. The fighter in this case is the explosive Jose Aldo. Even in 2004 at the start of Aldo’s career in his native Brazil, Aldo made a name for himself earning seven consecutive victories with none surpassing the first round be it through (technical) knockout or submission. Aldo received mainstream exposure to the American fan base upon signing with the WEC in 2008 defeating “Pequeno” Alexandre Nogueria (13-5-2) and The Ultimate Fighter 12 winner Jonathan Brookins (12-2), both by TKO. After three more consecutive victories over Rolando Perez (4-4-1), “Mad Dog” Chris Mickle (31-17-2), and Cub Swanson (15-4), once again by KO’s, Aldo faced his stiffest competition in 2009 against the versatile veteran “MTB” Mike Brown (20-6) for the WEC Featherweight Championship. Aldo would upset the champion in the second round by attaining the back mount and unleashing a barrage of punches until the referee was forced to step in to stop the fight. That fight alone not only earned Aldo the title but also “Knockout of the Night” and the admiration of thousands of fans.
Aldo’s first title defense in 2010 came against former champion “The California Kid” Urijah Faber (24-4). Despite being the villain fighting in Faber’s hometown of Sacramento, California, Aldo was able to effectively neutralize Faber with leg kicks, eventually dropping him to the canvas at will. However, with what many believe to be what was a sign of respect for the fighter and his home, Aldo would only continue to fight for dominance as opposed to the KO victory he could have easily earned. Aldo maintained control by pinning Faber in a Salaverry position in the final moments of the fourth round and not engaging for most of the fifth. This was Aldo’s first victory by way of decision. Aldo’s final fight in 2010 was against heavy-handed Armenian Judoka “The Anvil” Manvel Gamburyan (11-6). Regardless of the size and strength deficit he suffered, Aldo picked Gamburyan apart in the stand-up game and finished the fight via knockout in the second round.
Aldo was recently crowned the new UFC Featherweight Champion after the WEC/UFC merger and was slated to fight “The Fluke” Josh Grispi (14-1) at UFC 125. Unfortunately, a neck injury sustained during training would sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. What makes Aldo a fighter to look out for is because of what the recent merger between the WEC and UFC can do for him. Short of Grispi who was deemed the last number one contender for the featherweight title, Aldo has virtually cleaned out his division. Thanks to the merger, he will be given the opportunity to challenge more fighters who could be or are willing to drop down from the lightweight class to featherweight such as Nam Phan (16-8) or even current UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar. Likewise, Aldo can choose to step up to lightweight and stake his claim by combating the threats that lie in Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, or even lightweight contender “KenFlo” Kenny Florian (13-5). If one was to follow one fighter on this list in 2011, Aldo would be that one. With the streak he has been on since he started, 2011 could be the year where Aldo places himself as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world.