Michael Chandler can only play the hand he was dealt.
The former Bellator MMA lightweight champion will lock horns with short-notice replacement Brandon Girtz in the Bellator 197 main event on Friday at the Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri. Chandler was originally booked opposite Brent Primus, the man who dethroned him some 10 months ago, in a rematch for the 155-pound crown.
A longtime cornerstone for Bellator, Chandler has compiled a stellar 14-4 record with the organization while appearing in more title bouts (nine) than any fighter in its history. The 31-year-old Hard Knocks 365 representative last competed at Bellator 192 on Jan. 20, when he pistol whipped Goiti Yamauchi to a unanimous decision across three rounds. Scores were 30-26, 30-26 and 30-25. Wins over Marcin Held, Rick Hawn and former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders Benson Henderson and Eddie Alvarez buoy the Chandler resume. He was an NCAA All-American at the University of Missouri, where he captained the wrestling team for three seasons.
Girtz, 33, put an end to a career-worst three fight losing streak in December, when he cut down Luke Jelcic with punches in less than two minutes. He has delivered 11 of his 15 professional victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Girtz was an NCAA All-American wrestler and placed seventh nationally at Minnesota State University, a Division II institution in Mankato, Minnesota.
The Chandler-Girtz headliner is but one reason to watch Bellator 197. Here are four more:
Those who feel A.J. McKee has been treated with kid gloves can soon rest easy, as the undefeated Team Bodyshop prospect collides with Justin Lawrence in the co-main event. McKee, 23, pushed his record to 10-0 in November, when he choked SBG Ireland export Brian Moore unconscious at Bellator 197. He has spent his entire 10-fight career under the Bellator banner, slowly but surely rising through the ranks at 145 pounds. Lawrence represents a significant hurdle. The former Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion was a quarterfinalist on Season 15 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and has the wind of a two-fight winning streak at his back. A Pacific, Missouri, native, Lawrence has not been finished in nearly five years.
Logan Storley could not have envisioned a better start to his mixed martial arts career. The undefeated Hard Knocks 365 representative has rattled off seven consecutive victories since his August 2015 debut -- a run of success that includes six finishes, five of them inside one round. Storley, a four-time NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Minnesota, last fought at Bellator 186 on Nov. 3, when he went the distance for the first time in a unanimous decision over Matt Secor. In his path stands Joaquin Buckley. Having cut his teeth in the Shamrock Fighting Championships organization before arriving in Bellator two years ago, the 23-year-old has posted back-to-back wins against Justin Patterson and Vinicius de Jesus.
Runs in the Family
Kevin Ferguson Jr., the son of the late “Kimbo Slice,” has begun to build momentum as he barrels toward his catchweight clash with Devon Brock at 160 pounds. Ferguson, 26, rebounded from a submission loss to Aaron Hamilton in his November 2016 pro debut with consecutive finishes against Darryal Griffin and Fred Freeman, the first by technical knockout, the second by rear-naked choke by submission. “Baby Slice” operates out of the Team Bodyshop camp, where he trains under former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee. The 22-year-old Brock burst on the MMA scene in January, when he took a unanimous decision from Khonry Gracie at The Forum in Inglewood, California.
Return of ‘The Gremlin’
Almost three full years have passed since Josh Sampo laced up the gloves. “The Gremlin” returns from his sabbatical to duke it out with Dominic Mazzotta in a bantamweight scrap on the undercard. Sampo last fought at UFC 187 on May 23, 2015, when he wound up on the wrong side of a unanimous decision against Justin Scoggins and suffered his third straight loss. The 33-year-old started his career 11-2 and captured the Championship Fighting Alliance flyweight title before signing with the UFC. Sampo was a three-time NAIA All-American wrestler at Lindenwood University. In 15 professional appearances, Mazzotta, 30, has lost only to the aforementioned McKee and onetime UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.