2012 fighter of the year: Jon Jones

Jon Jones defended his UFC light heavyweight title in victories over Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Paul Abell/US Presswire

No fighter directly impacted the sport of mixed martial arts, or the promotion under which he competed, in 2012 more than UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

A handful of fighters might be able to argue that they had a better overall individual performance than Jones during the past 12 months -- Benson Henderson, Demetrious Johnson and Cain Velasquez immediately come to mind -- but none was more influential both inside and outside the cage.

Only Jones made a prefight decision that served his best interest -- despite possible repercussions from UFC officials. Jones’ refusals to defend his 205-pound title against former top middleweight contender Chael Sonnen on short notice directly led to the cancellation of UFC 151.

Never had a fighter put UFC in position to cancel an event, since it was purchased by Zuffa LLC in 2001. The decision made Jones a target of harsh criticism from UFC president Dana White, MMA fans and many fighters.

But the 25-year-old Jones never wavered in his position that protecting his brand was a top priority from a business standpoint. He stood firm and eventually returned to the cage at UFC 152 against former titleholder Vitor Belfort.

The criticism of Jones was short-lived, directly proving how much he is valued by the UFC -- personally and financially. Even pleading guilty to a DWI charge in May that led to his driver's license being revoked for six months could not slow Jones' rapidly rising value.

Jones retained his light heavyweight crown with a fourth-round submission of Belfort and maintained his position as arguably the most dominant champion in mixed martial arts. But Jones is more than a fast-rising corporate darling. He’s also a darn good fighter.

Before the UFC 151 standoff and his win over Belfort several weeks later, the champion garnered votes as the world’s No. 1 pound-for-pound mixed martial artist with a lopsided win over former light heavyweight champion and ex-training partner Rashad Evans.

Jones was the lone titleholder in 2012 to impressively defeat two former UFC champions who are still regarded as top-level competitors.

His domination at 205 pounds has led to growing enthusiasm for a mega-bout with middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who's currently the No. 1-ranked pound-for-pound fighter by ESPN.com.

Jones’ dominance in the cage against top-level opposition, combined with his strong principles and business savvy outside of it (he signed a marketing deal with sports apparel giant Nike) make him the 2012 fighter of the year.