After 2011, no one will ever again accuse Jon Jones
of dreaming too big or overreaching his record-breaking wingspan. Jones started the year as a hot prospect in a February matchup against fellow upstart Ryan Bader
. At the time, Jones said that he always kept one eye on the champion. In a sport where fighters routinely espouse the concept of tunnel vision towards their next opponent, the fighter's candid admission caused a bit of backlash from a small group who accused him of an arrogant mindset. After Jones won convincingly and earned a championship fight against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
, another admission came. This one that Jones had been signing autographs with "Champion 2011" under his name.
While Jones explained that he was simply trying to will his goal into existence, some fans shook their heads and condemned him for hubris. But like Bader, Rua proved hardly an obstacle for Jones in attaining his long-held dream.
His performance against Rua was nothing more than a revelation. From the fight's opening bell until the time referee Herb Dean pulled Jones off Rua at 2:37 of the third round, Jones thoroughly dominated the action in a way that was so complete, it bordered on fantastical.
It was a destruction that was startling in its efficiency and thoroughness. According to FightMetric
, Jones out-struck Rua 102-11. He connected on 72 percent of his strikes. He was 3-for-3 in takedowns. He knocked Rua down once.
For years, Shogun had been one of the top two or three light-heavyweights in the world. Before the fight, Rua admitted that Jones' autograph signings had struck him as disrespectful. He was healthy and motivated, yet Jones obliterated him. By the end, Rua was crumpled against the fence and beaten, an old warrior dazed by the sport's latest model.
Judging from Jones' recent past, it was no fluke.
Against Bader, he was nearly as powerful, tapping him out with a second-round guillotine choke in February. That bout had been touted as a matchup of two of the sport's fastest-rising light-heavyweights, yet by the time it was over, Jones left no doubt that he was light years ahead of Bader. Most surprising to some is the way he out-wrestled Bader, a former NCAA wrestling All-American. Though Jones' rise through the ranks has been well documented, few realized just how good his skills in the area were. On the feet, he flashed increasing power, and his finishing instincts have proven to be among the best in the sport.
Within a few months, Jones had gone from promising prospect to awe-inspiring champion, from rising star to in a league of his own. At 23 years, 243 days old, he also earned another history-making designation as the youngest title-holder in UFC history.
Away from the cage, he helped MMA's image with a series of charismatic appearances on television, including a guest-starring spot on The Tonight Show. He also signed a contract with K-Swiss. And if that wasn't enough, on the afternoon of his his title win, he helped thwart a robbery in Paterson, New Jersey. For his crimefighting antics, ongoing efforts to raise the sport's profile, and most importantly for his history-making win, Jon Jones is the best fighter of the first half of 2011.
2. Nick Diaz
Usually when a UFC
welterweight makes a list like this, it's Georges St-Pierre
. But in this instance, it's GSP's next opponent, the Californian Diaz, who is 2-0 in 2011. In January, he defended his Strikeforce
welterweight championship with a win over Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos via submission. He followed that up in April with an impressive TKO win over British striker Paul Daley
. Not long afterward, Diaz managed to convince Zuffa ownership to let him out of his Strikeforce
deal and face GSP. That's a productive stretch of time.
3. Brian Stann
The former U.S. Marine is 2-0, starting the year off with a knockout of Chris Leben
on New Year's Day, then following that up with a TKO of Jorge Santiago
130. With the wins, Stann managed to wedge himself into the short list of future contenders for the UFC middleweight title.
4. Patricio Pitbull
Few appreciate the grind necessary to win a Bellator
season tournament, but Freire marched through three fights in 64 days to earn a rematch against Joe Warren
scheduled for July 23. From March 19 to May 21, Freire stopped Georgi Karakhanyan and Wilson Reis with punches, then earned a unanimous decision over Daniel Straus to punch his ticket to a championship fight.
5. Melvin Guillard
Few fighters in the world are fighting with the confidence Guillard has exhibited over his last few fights. In January, the UFC lightweight faced the highly touted Evan Dunham
, but easily outstruck him en route to a first-round TKO. Just days ago at UFC 132
, he followed it up with another first-round knockout, this time against Shane Roller
. The victory gives Guillard wins in five straight fights and eight of his last nine overall.