On May 11, 2019, Michael Chandler was warming up in a locker room at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, when he suddenly had a vision of his wife, Brie, sitting alone on the edge of the bed in their Chicago hotel room. And for reasons he couldn’t explain at the time, he started crying.
Chandler, who was the Bellator MMA lightweight champion at the time, immediately stopped warming up and called his wife. He told Brie that he loved her and that whatever happened in his title fight that night against Patricio “Pitbull” Freire would be fine. He told her not to worry.
“It’s pretty crazy man. I think about it very emotionally because I think I knew I was going to lose this fight,” Chandler told ESPN. “I said to her, ‘I just want you to know that no matter what happens, God has us, the best is yet to come and we have to be at peace in the midst of everything that happens tonight.'”
Chandler never said a word about losing, but Brie recorded it. She didn’t understand it any more than he did, but whatever Chandler was feeling at that moment, she did too.
“He usually gives a quick phone call and says, ‘I love you. We’ll take care of it and then go on a trip,'” Brie said. “And he still said something about it, but I could hear it in his voice that something was wrong. And I would never have told him, but I knew it too. I thought, ‘Tonight is not your night. It is going to be not happen.’
“During this fight the feelings were the same. I’m always stressed. But when it ended like this, I just went back to that conversation and was at peace.”
Chandler suffered the worst career loss that night. He lost his Bellator title by knockout in a bout that lasted only 61 seconds and waved it off after Freire dropped him with a clean right hand.
For years, Chandler was viewed as the big fish in the little pond that was Bellator’s 155 pound division. He was a three-time champion with multiple defenses, but because he couldn’t face the UFC’s high-ranking lightweights, his potential was limited. He would probably never reach a # 1 division ranking.
After Chandler’s stock lost such a high profile fight to Freire and scored a hit the way he did it. In the days and weeks that followed, he did not understand why, before one of the greatest fights of his career, something had told him he was about to lose and that he had to be at peace with it.
But when Chandler, who left Bellator and signed with the UFC in September, was preparing to take on Charles Oliveira for the vacant lightweight title at UFC 262’s main event on Saturday in Houston, he and his wife felt a certain sense of closure Night. Because the simple fact is that losing that fight actually changed the general direction of Chandler’s career.
There was some language in his last Bellator deal that Chandler’s time with the company could have extended if he had been a champion at the time the deal was signed. This is common with MMA contracts.
“We didn’t get it until now … but if he had held the title at the end of his contract he probably would have had to defend it and he would not have gotten the same chances that he had before the UFC,” said Brie.
Now when Chandler ponders this loss, he sums up his feelings in the form of a question.
“There are times when you don’t know why bad things are happening to you,” he said. “But if something good comes out of it, was it really a bad thing?”
NOTHING OF THIS is supposed to suggest Chandler regrets his time with Bellator. Just the opposite. Chandler is forever grateful for the promotion.
The native Missouri-American signed an exclusive to Bellator prior to his fourth professional fight in 2010 and made 23 PhD appearances within a decade. During this time, the 35-year-old Chandler signed four more times with Bellator – a clear indication of a healthy relationship.
Even if it wasn’t always exactly where he wanted to be.
“You see, he was really well looked after,” said Chandler’s manager Dave Martin. “It was very good working with the matchmakers and they paid him well. We were cheered to sign with him.” [Bellator president] Scott Coker when he joined the company in 2014 looking for new talent.
“But every time ink hit paper on these new deals there was the feeling of … ‘Ugh’. It really was. And I knew that. I knew he wanted to test himself in the UFC.”
Chandler’s Bellator run was not without its ebb and flow. After signing the PhD in 2010, he exploded into the MMA scene by winning his first five bouts and scoring a title shot against then-champ Eddie Alvarez. And when Chandler won that fight in November 2011, it was something of a phenomenon.
“I’ll never forget one of the MMA leaderboards called me ‘New Kid on the Block’,” said Chandler. “I was the new face who’d just defeated Eddie. My name was on a short list of top guys at my ninth professional fight, and I wanted to fight the UFC names on that list. But I was under contract with Bellator and be taken care of. “
In 2013, Chandler hit the first – and truly the only – tough point in his career when he lost three title bouts in a row – one to Alvarez and two to Will Brooks. Even then, Chandler’s confidence never let up, and the feeling watching him was that he was likely to get back on track.
From 2015 to 2020 things clicked. Chandler won nine of eleven bouts at Bellator, and his only losses were to Freire in 2019 and Brent Primus in 2017 when he sustained an ankle injury in the opening round. During that period, Chandler and Brie adopted their son, Hap, and Chandler merged with his current coaching staff of Henri Hooft and Kami Barzini. Every aspect of his life was safe, his skills were where he wanted them, and the results were showing.
With every win, Chandler’s desire to face his easy counterparts in the UFC grew.
“The last two contracts I signed, essentially the last four years, made me feel like the best lightweight in the world,” said Chandler. “And I still signed those contracts because I was happy with them and it didn’t feel like the timing was right given the landscape the UFC was going on.”
“Every time ink on paper met this new one [Bellator] Business, there was the feeling of … “Ugh.” There really was. And I knew that. I knew he wanted to test himself in the UFC. ”
Michael Chandler’s manager Dave Martin
Four years ago, Conor McGregor was the UFC lightweight champion, but he never defended the belt and was eventually stripped of the title for inactivity. Taking over from McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been more active and fought against the top rivals, but that left Chandler no clear path to the title if he had decided to take the leap sooner.
So it stayed where it was and expectations grew.
“In all the times I’ve played against guys, it felt like a loss to a lot of people if I didn’t beat them in the first round. It wasn’t a fun position,” he said.
In mid-2020, the stars finally aligned for Chandler to take a step. He had repeatedly negotiated very short contracts with Bellator so that the potential of a freelance agency would emerge every two years. When negotiations began last year, Bellator’s offer fell short of what he wanted. And the lightweight construction department moved in the UFC. UFC champion Nurmagomedov steadily cleared his list of competitors.
If Chandler jumped now, the table would be set to cause a sensation. Right away.
ON JAN. 23, Brie was at home in Nashville when she received a call from her husband who had just killed Dan Hooker on the first round of his UFC debut on the Fight Island promotion in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It was the most excited she’d ever heard after a victory.
“He pretty much called me when he went back [of the arena]and I could hear it in his voice how proud he was of himself – how he should have been, “said Brie.” He was grateful for taking a chance and going to the UFC. He was grateful for the extent.
“But I think it also confirmed what he had known for so long: that he could compete at this level and that he could be top 5 and the best in the world. He always knew it, but that finally confirmed it. “
It’s been a whirlwind since Chandler signed with the UFC last September. He flew to Fight Island a month after signing the promotion to serve as potential support in a title fight between Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. He was linked to potential matchups against Gaethje, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson before battling Hooker on his UFC debut in the co-main event of a McGregor-led UFC 257 pay-per-view.
After knocking out Hooker in the first round, Chandler agreed to a quick turn against Oliveira in February, but Oliveira wanted more time to prepare so the fight didn’t materialize. It all led to this weekend when he will face Oliveira for the UFC Championship in his second Octagon appearance.
“It’s been a meteoric rise,” said Chandler. “And while I was convinced of my abilities, I’m not one hundred percent sure that I would have been ready to do this a few years ago. Sometimes the longer path – and frankly the path that goes against your moral compass – I never would have believed that I deserved not to be underutilized and underestimated because I believe that God brought me to this earth to be seen by the masses and to have my skills on the largest platform.
“But I had to be patient and humble every day all these years because I knew I was probably the best man on the planet. But I had to pass up this opportunity because I had to grow as a person. I am the first and make sure I’m 100 percent prepared when the opportunity arises. And there I am now. “
As he looks back on his career and history at MMA, there is one memory that makes Chandler laugh when he looks back. And it’s not even one Specific Remembering a single moment, because Chandler estimates that moment happened “over 100 times”.
“I was top 5 in the world, Bellator champion, and I was going to be walking around a Las Vegas casino for a week of fighting with UFC lightweight Gray Maynard or UFC light heavyweight Ryan Bader and a couple of fans came up and said, ‘Hey man, can you take a picture of me with Gray Maynard? ‘ “Said Chandler.
“And I would say yes, lower my head and get a really good picture. And they would turn around and say, ‘Thanks. Are you fighting?’
“And I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m actually a champion in Bellator.’ And they’d say, “Oh, no way, man! That is so cool.”
“And I don’t share this as a sob story, but I believe in those moments when I got a picture of a fan with Gray who I just trained that day and who might have gotten better, and with a subtle one Smile In my heart I say, “It’s okay” – these are the moments I will cherish when there is a number 1 next to my name. “
If Chandler wins a UFC title on Saturday – more than 10 years after winning a Bellator title and becoming the “New Kid on the Block” in the lightweight rankings – don’t expect him to bask in satisfaction He’s proved to the world that he was always who he said he was.
“The crazy thing is I’ve got to a point where I’ll enjoy the belt for a second and then I’ll be right back to work,” said Chandler. “I think there are bigger things after that too: a fight with Conor McGregor, defending the Belt against Gaethje, Poirier or whoever; some of the biggest fights of my career and some of the best performances of my career.”
Just like in May 2019, something Chandler says the best is yet to come.