5. MICHAEL CHANDLER
Former NCAA Division I wrestler Michael Chandler went from undefeated prospect to titleholder in 2011.
In March, he entered Bellator’s lightweight tournament and turned heads by submitting Polish submission specialist Marcin Held with an arm-triangle choke. One month later, Chandler handed Lloyd Woodard the sole loss of his career to secure his place in the finals.
At Bellator 44 in May, Chandler won a unanimous decision over Brazilian knockout artist Patricky (Pitbull) Freire to claim the tournament crown and earn a shot at lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez.
Six months later he made the most of his opportunity, submitting Alvarez in one of the best fights of the year to capture his first world title.
Chandler’s bread and butter has always been his wrestling, but in 2011 he really began to get comfortable with his striking and let his hands go. He has the work ethic and athleticism to become one of the best lightweights in MMA.
4. BENSON HENDERSON
Before joining the UFC roster, former WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson was flying under the radar. He had just lost his title in December and was mostly known to casual fans as the guy getting smacked in the face by Anthony Pettis’ ‘Showtime’ kick.
But Henderson was a man on a mission. He was determined to prove the WEC lightweights could compete with their UFC counterparts and make his stake for the UFC belt.
In April, he shut down Toronto’s Mark Bocek en route to a unanimous decision at UFC 129. Less than four months later, he battered perennial contender Jim Miller to leap ahead in the rankings.
On the undercard of the UFC’s Fox debut, Henderson shut out Clay Guida in one of the most exciting fights of the year to become the No. 1 contender.
Henderson is now set to challenge lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in Saitama, Japan.
3. NICK DIAZ
Love him or hate him, Nick Diaz is arguably the most exciting fighter in MMA today.
The former Strikeforce welterweight champion fought three times in 2011 and each bout resulted in fireworks.
In January he walked through Evangelista (Cyborg) Santos’ hardest shots like they were love taps from an adorable kitten before securing the stunning submission victory.
Less than three months later, he went toe-to-toe with British striker Paul Daley in one of the wildest fights of the year. Diaz survived an early scare before turning the tables and putting Daley away with punches as the first round came to a close. The bout only further proved that Diaz is one of the most dangerous strikers in the sport.
Finally, Diaz’s octagon return saw him put a vicious beating on former UFC welterweight and lightweight champion B.J. Penn at UFC 137.
With Georges St. Pierre on the sidelines, Diaz is set to meet Carlos Condit for the interim welterweight championship at UFC 143 Feb. 4.
2. DAN HENDERSON
At 41 years of age, Dan Henderson is proving to be MMA’s Benjamin Button — he’s practically reverse aging.
Considering all his previous accomplishments, it’s crazy to think 2011 may have been the best year of his career.
In March, Henderson captured yet another world title when he knocked out Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion Rafael (Feijao) Cavalcante. But the MMA legend never had the opportunity to defend his belt.
His next outing saw him move up to heavyweight where he delivered a brutal knockout to Fedor Emelianenko. The win not only further solidified his place in MMA history, but made Henderson one of only a few fighters to KO top competitors in three different weight classes.
There’s punching power and then there’s Dan Henderson’s punching power.
The former PRIDE champion put an exclamation point on 2011 by edging Mauricio (Shogun) Rua in one of the greatest fights in MMA history.
1. JON JONES
An easy choice for the top spot, Jon Jones had arguably the best year for a fighter in UFC history — and he’s not even in his prime yet.
The 24-year-old sensation dispatched hot prospect Ryan Bader in a one-sided affair, dethroned Mauricio (Shogun) Rua to capture the light-heavyweight belt, submitted former champ Quinton (Rampage) Jackson in his first defence and then choked out former titleholder Lyoto Machida to cap things off.
Not only did he finish all four of his opponents in 2011, he made it look easy, only struggling in the opening round against Machida.
Jones’ combination of unorthodox technique, freakish athleticism and composure makes it hard to believe anyone can knock him off the top spot. With all he’s achieved this year, it’s scary to think what 2012 may have in store for the UFC light-heavyweight champion.