Jon Jones is gaining on his pound-for-pound contemporaries. | Photo: Sherdog.com
Recently, MMA's pound-for-pound universe has been defined by the presence of “the big two,” in the form of Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre. Their recent and ongoing dominance created records far more muscular than their contemporaries. However, heading into 2012, It looks like the sport is ready to add a new partner to the P4P firm.
With his second-round throttling of Lyoto Machida, 24-year-old Jon Jones capped off the most outstanding single year in MMA history. Jones ran over four top-10 fighters in 2011, including three former UFC champions. In doing so, Jones displayed a jaw-dropping level of offense in which he forced some of MMA’s sturdiest veterans to wilt and wither.
The drum continues to beat louder and louder for Jones to meet pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva, a dream fight that even Dana White met with public optimism recently. However, the first step of 2012 for Jon Jones will be determined on Jan. 28, when former champion Rashad Evans meets undefeated Phil Davis at the UFC on Fox 2 bill in Chicago.
December has also seen pound-for-pounder Gilbert Melendez defend his Strikeforce lightweight crown in dominant fashion over Jorge Masvidal, boxing circles around his challenger for 25 minutes. However, in spite of another dominant victory on his docket, Melendez’s circumstance isn’t thrilling MMA fans. “El Nino” figures to spend the near future in Strikeforce, dismaying those who thirst to see Melendez face the top lightweights in the UFC, and raising serious questions about how well the 29-year-old will be tested in his future fights.
The pound-for-pound top 10 isn’t ready to settle in for a winter’s nap quite yet, though. This list will see 2011 punctuated by an unlikely main event as P4P list staple Jon Fitch tangles with Johny Hendricks at UFC 141 Dec. 30.
1. Anderson Silva (31-4)
It seemed all but certain that the world’s top middleweight would have another go-round with his former challenger and perennial antagonist Chael Sonnen early next year, but another bout -- Silva’s struggle with a damaged rotator cuff -- has taken precedence. Sidelined until mid-2012, “The Spider” will lay in wait as Sonnen and Mark Munoz duke it out for No. 1 contendership, with eyes on making one of them his 15th Octagon victim. However, the real sorts of victims that most fans continue to call out for Silva to face are his pound-for-pound contemporaries: though a fight with GSP has taken a backseat recently, fan discussion around Silva battling 205-pound ruler Jon Jones are as popular as ever, especially with UFC President Dana White stating that Silva-Jones is a fight he'd love to see before the Brazilian great calls it a career.
2. Georges St. Pierre (22-2)
First, a knee injury took “GSP” out of his October title defense against Carlos Condit. Now, ACL surgery has wiped the welterweight division’s dominant ruler from a Feb. 4 meeting with former Strikeforce champ Nick Diaz. With the 30-year-old French Canadian potentially on the shelf until the third quarter of 2012, Diaz and Condit will vie for a UFC interim title, to be unified when St. Pierre is once again healthy. With such a hulking, accomplished record, no one is going to forget St. Pierre while he's on the shelf. However, the red-hot 170-pound division might have a new complexion and some new contenders when the UFC welterweight champ returns from injury.
3. Jon Jones (15-1)
Jones was at least “tested” in the way so many wanted to see at UFC 140 in Toronto. However, when the second round came against Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones flipped the switch and blew the former undefeated UFC champion out of the water, choking him unconscious with a brutal guillotine. The victory capped a 2011 campaign in which Jones set a new standard for single-year success in MMA, by not just beating, but ultimately dismantling Ryan Bader, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida. Jones is unlikely to keep that pace up in 2012, but the 205-pound ruler could be looking at fights with the likes of Rashad Evans, Dan Henderson and Phil Davis, so the coming year could cement Jones as an all-time great while barely in his mid-20’s.
4. Frankie Edgar (14-1-1)
Frankie Edgar is the leader of the pack in perhaps MMA's finest weight class. The Toms River, N.J., native's thrilling Oct. 8 fourth-round knockout of Gray Maynard was exactly the kind of signature performance the champ needed. If Edgar can hold onto the UFC strap, he may quickly carve out a very enviable résumé. Next on tap for Edgar is former WEC champion Ben Henderson come Feb. 26 in Saitama, Japan, in an early candidate for 2012's “Fight of the Year.” After that? Names like Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Nate Diaz, Joe Lauzon -- not to mention fellow pound-for-pounder and Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez -- could be on deck further down the line. Talk about a tough schedule.
5. Jose Aldo (20-1)
The top pupil from Rio de Janeiro’s star-making Nova Uniao camp passed his latest test with flying colors. Defending his UFC featherweight strap against former lightweight contender Kenny Florian, Aldo picked apart “KenFlo” from all angles, near and far, across five rounds in October. To date, it is Aldo's most significant win, having dominated the former two-time lightweight title challenger. But Aldo’s next challenge could prove the most rewarding and most dangerous yet: On Jan. 14, “Scarface” will compete in his home country for the first time in nearly five years when he takes on dominant and unbeaten Team Alpha Male wrestler Chad Mendes at UFC 142 in Rio.
6. Dan Henderson (29-8)
Dan Henderson has been consistently viewed as a multi-divisional standout throughout his nearly 15-year career, a reputation forged early by his 1999 Rings King of Kings tournament victory. However, more recently, Henderson has ripped off big wins from 185 right up to heavyweight, improbably re-emerging as a pound-for-pound stalwart at the age of 41. With his epic Nov. 19 win over fellow pound-for-pound entrant Mauricio Rua, Henderson is in line for some big fights in 2012 that could see him move up not just this list, but also the list of all-time greats.
7. Jon Fitch (23-3-1, 1 NC)
Fitch's Dec. 30 clash with two-time NCAA wrestling champion Johny Hendricks was already a high-stakes contest for him, who despite being the consensus second-best welterweight in the world, always seems to be a loss away from falling out of favor with the MMA universe. However, with the recent knee injury of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre -- the only man to defeat Fitch in his last 24 bouts -- the 170-pound division seems much more up-for-grabs. A win over Hendricks, a top-10 opponent in his own right, could propel Fitch into an interim title fight in 2012 and give him his long-sought second chance to hold UFC gold.
8. Dominick Cruz (19-1)
Zuffa’s 135-pound ace looked downright untouchable once again in his most recent title defense, a five-round unanimous decision over speedy flyweight Demetrious Johnson. Now, as if the pair hasn’t spent enough time together in the cage, Cruz and old foe Urijah Faber are set to serve as coaches on the 15th season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” While the date and location are currently unknown, at the conclusion of the series, Cruz and Faber will tangle in a rubber match for Cruz’s UFC bantamweight belt. Cruz has already cleaned out much of the still-developing 135-pound division, and Faber appears to be his best foil, especially after the “California Kid” savaged the man Cruz took the WEC title from, Brian Bowles, in November.
9. Gilbert Melendez (20-2)
“El Nino” proved why he’s the ruler of Strikeforce’s 155-pound roost on Dec. 17, and he barely had to use his powerful wrestling base to do so, picking apart dangerous challenger Jorge Masvidal in a 25-minute, all-standup affair. In the past 24 months, Melendez has taken out Masvidal, Shinya Aoki, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Josh Thomson, one of the finest resumés a lightweight could hope to build outside of the UFC. The 29-year-old Californian will remain outside the Octagon, too, as Zuffa brass recently announced that Strikeforce will continue on, likely with Melendez as its star attraction. The ongoing debate surrounding Melendez will continue to be whether or not his enormous talents are being squandered as a big fish in the little pond that is Strikeforce, especially with the UFC's lightweight division starting to hit its competitive stride.
10. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (20-6)
The former prince of Pride Fighting Championships has struggled to find his footing since entering the Octagon in September 2007, and those woes continued on Nov. 19. Rua was pummeled early and surged back late, but ultimately dropped a unanimous decision to ex-Strikeforce titleholder Dan Henderson in a brutal, back-and-forth five-rounder at UFC 139. Since winning the UFC light heavyweight belt from Lyoto Machida in April 2010, Rua is 1-2, a knockout of Forrest Griffin sandwiched between losses to Henderson and reigning champ Jon Jones.