With the trilogy between UFC champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard finally in the past, the lightweight division is now primed for an unpredictable and exciting year in 2012. In February, Edgar will defend his title against former WEC champion Benson Henderson.
The next year could also see Gilbert Melendez and Michael Chandler emerge as stars, as Melendez could make the move from Strikeforce to the UFC, and Chandler recently dethroned Eddie Alvarez as Bellator champion.
Heading into the final month of 2011, let's take a look at how the top lightweights in MMA stack up in terms of rankings.
These rankings are the combined effort of some of Bleacher Report MMA's best writers, as we continue to try and provide you with the best content on the web.
After defeating Eddie Alvarez in one of the most exciting fights of 2011, Michael Chandler has replaced the former Bellator champion in many pundits' top lightweight rankings. Chandler earned his shot at Alvarez by defeating Patricky Freire to win a Bellator lightweight tournament.
The 25-year-old Chandler is undefeated in nine professional fights and will now await the winner of Bellator's next lightweight tournament for his first title defense as Bellator lightweight champion.
Since losing to kickboxer Yuichiro Nagashima in a Dream special-rules match this past New Year's Eve, many have questioned whether or not Shinya Aoki deserves mention among elite lightweights.
Aoki has rebounded with three straight victories in 2011, though, and the Japanese fighter also holds submission victories over the likes of Eddie Alvarez, Joachim Hansen and Tatsuya Kawajiri. Later this month, Aoki will look to defend his Dream lightweight title against Satoru Kitaoka.
After defeating Benson Henderson to become the final WEC lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis has had a year of bad luck in 2011.
By defeating Henderson, Pettis was promised a UFC title fight. However, Pettis decided to take another fight when it was announced UFC champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard would have an immediate rematch after a draw in January 2011.
Pettis eventually squandered his promised title shot by losing to Clay Guida. Then, Pettis looked less than spectacular in a split-decision victory over Jeremy Stephens. Still, Pettis is continuing to improve and will likely be a lightweight contender for quite some time.
While Benson Henderson has done enough to earn a title shot since joining the UFC, Donald Cerrone may be the most-improved former WEC fighter to have made the move to the UFC.
Since losing to Henderson in April 2010, Cerrone has picked up seven straight wins and will attempt to pick up his eighth against Nate Diaz later this month. If Cerrone is able to defeat Diaz, it would be his fifth victory in his first year competing inside the Octagon.
Seven straight victories pushed Jim Miller within a win or two of a lightweight title shot earlier this year. However, a loss to former WEC champion Benson Henderson will force Miller to get started on a new winning streak.
In January, Miller will look to rebound against another fallen contender in Melvin Guillard. The winner of that bout at UFC on FX 1 will likely be right back in the mix for a 155-pound title fight.
Like Jim Miller, Clay Guida's run at a lightweight title shot was spoiled by Benson Henderson.
In November, Guida's four-fight winning streak came to an end after he came up on the losing end of a closely-contested bout with Henderson. The loss further cemented Guida as the ideal gatekeeper in the 155-pound division.
A loss to Anthony Pettis and a missed opportunity at a UFC title shot could have sent Benson Henderson's career into a downward spiral.
However, Henderson has come back as an even better fighter since joining the UFC. Three straight hard-fought wins were enough to put Henderson back in position to compete against UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 144. Henderson's excellent wrestling and conditioning could be the formula to dethrone Edgar.
With Eddie Alvarez's recent loss, Gilbert Melendez is now unarguably the most talented lightweight competing outside of the UFC.
Recently, it looked like that might change, as rumors circled that Melendez would be joining the UFC. However, Melendez will remain under the Strikeforce banner, where he is set to defend his belt against Jorge Masvidal later this month.
For the second straight fight, Gray Maynard looked to have Frankie Edgar finished in the first round of a title fight. However, Edgar rallied back to even his three-fight series with Maynard and defend his lightweight belt.
Although Maynard and Edgar remain even with one win against the other, Maynard has failed to take the title from Edgar on two consecutive occasions. In order for Maynard to get another shot at becoming champion, he may need to hope for another fighter to dethrone Edgar.
With title defenses against fighters like B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard, Frankie Edgar is already well on his way to becoming the greatest lightweight in MMA history.
A win over Ben Henderson, a former WEC champion, in February would further add to Edgar's growing legacy. After retaining his title in back-to-back comeback performances, Edgar could do with a more dominant victory this time, though.
View all Bleacher Report MMA Rankings for December 2011