Michael Chandler's Bellator lightweight title win put him on the map big time in 2011. | Photo: Biagio Musacchia
At the start of 2011, he was a hot prospect with an impressive collegiate wrestling pedigree and seemingly unlimited promise. By the end of the year, he was a world-ranked lightweight with major promotional gold strapped around his waist.
Michael Chandler, Sherdog.com’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” for 2011, won four fights in an eight-month span. He wiped out Polish prodigy Marcin Held and outpointed Lloyd Woodard and Patricky “Pitbull” Freire to win the Bellator Fighting Championships Season 4 lightweight tournament. His tear through the eight-man field resulted in a coveted title shot at champion Eddie Alvarez in November and set the stage for the fight that launched Chandler into a new stratosphere. None of the success came as a surprise to the man himself.
“Before the calendar year even started, I knew exactly how I wanted this year to go,” Chandler told Sherdog.com. “I knew I was going to be in the tournament, win it and face Eddie for the title.”
On Nov. 19 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., Chandler battled Alvarez for the lightweight crown at Bellator 58. What transpired was a leading contender for “Fight of the Year.” For four rounds, the two lightweights went at one another, each man equally unwilling to yield.
Chandler started strong, as he followed a textbook Superman punch with a salvo of blows that sent the champion to the ground. In typical fashion, the resilient Alvarez was not done; he returned to his feet and answered. The two men battled back and forth for the rest of the first round, but it was Chandler who fared better in the exchanges. He hurt Alvarez again late in the round. An upset was brewing.
The 5-foot-8 High Ridge, Mo., native entered the second frame looking to put his considerable wrestling skills on display, but Chandler failed to hold down Alvarez. Instead, champion and challenger exchanged wildly again, with Alvarez edging his foe and establishing a foothold in the match. The titleholder poured it on in round three, badly out-landing Chandler and forcing him to shoot out of pure desperation on more than one occasion. Chandler appeared out on his feet for much of the five-minute period, but the round proved to be a tipping point for the two lightweights.
“That was the first time I found myself in a pretty adverse situation,” Chandler told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Savage Dog Show” a little more than a week after the bout. “It was really just the first time I’d been hit that many times... It was really just hard to come back and, honestly, just get my bearings, trying to figure out where his next three punches were coming from.”
Chandler was in a dogfight with an established veteran, and he knew it. To his credit, the neophyte maintained his calm and his confidence.
“I knew I was going to survive,” he said. “Once I got back to the corner, [coach Gil Martinez] just had a way of letting me know everything’s going to be fine. I still had a chance.”
Somehow, Chandler emerged for the fourth round re-energized. After reestablishing his jab and wobbling Alvarez with a stout right hand, he followed with a well-timed shot. The champion lost his balance and Chandler began to pound and pass. In what can only be described as a last-ditch effort at self-preservation, Alvarez surrendered his back. Chandler, a honed Xtreme Couture standout, sank both hooks and flattened out his fading opponent. A deep rear-naked choke came next, and Alvarez tapped out almost immediately, 3:06 into the fourth frame.
For Chandler, it was further evidence that all his hard work had paid off.
An accomplished amateur wrestler, Chandler was a four-time NCAA qualifier at the University of Missouri. He has parlayed those skills into an unbeaten start to his professional MMA career. Chandler has now finished seven of his nine foes, two of them in less than a minute.
“It’s not just about this year,” he said. “It’s really all about the culmination of my college wrestling, the preparation of getting into my MMA career, being at Xtreme Couture for a full year and how great the decisions we have all made as a team were. I have a tremendous group of people in my life.”
Chandler does not plan to alter his approach as champion.
“I think I’ll always have the hunting mentality,” he said. “I know the work I put in and know I deserve this. This is where I see myself: next to impossible to beat. It’s about making the right decisions and just continuing to progress.”
Chandler, who will turn 26 in April, sees his climb to the Bellator lightweight summit as only the start of something special.
“I think 2012 will be even better; continue to exceed people’s expectations, continue to put on great fights, connect with the fans and just grow,” he said. “I’m here to stay and I have the potential to be the best in the world.”