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A long list of nemeses facilitated Michael Chandler’s rise through Bellator MMA and put him on the brink of reaching the mountaintop in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“Iron Mike” will face Charles Oliveira for the vacant lightweight title in the UFC 262 headliner on Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston. Operating out of the Henri Hooft-led Sanford MMA camp, the 35-year-old Chandler enters the cage with the wind of a three-fight winning streak in his sails. He last appeared at UFC 257, where he made a jaw-dropping organizational debut and took care of Dan Hooker with punches 2:30 into the first round of their Jan. 23 pairing. The High Ridge, Missouri, native has delivered 17 of his 22 professional wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
As Chandler makes final preparations ahead of his high-stakes confrontation with Oliveira, a look at some of the rivalries that have helped shape his remarkable career:
Not all rematches live up to expectations. Nearly two years after their first unforgettable encounter, Alvarez and Chandler made sure theirs did. Alvarez reclaimed the Bellator MMA lightweight championship in another scintillating encounter with “Iron Mike,” as he eked out a split decision over the previously unbeaten Alliance MMA standout in the Bellator 106 main event on Nov. 2, 2013 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California. All three cageside judges scored it 48-47: Steven Davis and Derek Cleary for Alvarez, Mike Beltran for Chandler. With that, “The Underground King” avenged his 2011 submission defeat to Chandler and evened their head-to-head series at 1-1. A stiff left jab and a commitment to lateral movement were key weapons in the Alvarez arsenal. He left Chandler with severe damage to his left eye, which was bleeding heavily and virtually swollen shut by fight’s end. Alvarez punctuated his victory with a superb fifth round. There, he ripped into Chandler with punches along the fence, moved to his back on the ground and nearly ended it with a rear-naked choke. Blood was everywhere. While Alvarez chipped away on the feet, Chandler utilized his wrestling. He delivered repeated takedowns against the Philadelphia native and threatened to finish him with a rear-naked choke inside the first round. Alvarez survived and forced the champion into deeper waters. Chandler was at his best in Round 4, where he struck for another takedown and tore into Alvarez with ground-and-pound. However, he failed to carry the momentum into the final five minutes and lost his grip on Bellator gold as a result.
American Top Team’s Brooks captured the interim Bellator lightweight championship with a narrow split decision over Chandler in the Bellator 120 co-main event on May 17, 2014 at the Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi. Judges Todd Anderson (48-46) and Rob Hinds (48-47) struck scorecards for “Ill Will,” while Larry Ingle saw it 48-47 for Chandler. Brooks staked his claim in the third and fourth rounds. In the third, he secured a takedown, moved to Chandler’s back more than once, fished for rear-naked chokes and punished him with heavy ground-and-pound from the mount. Brooks was also the superior fighter in the fourth frame, where he again transitioned to the Alliance MMA export’s back and piled up points with effective ground-and-pound. Chandler—who struck for takedowns in each of the first two rounds—closed with a flourish, as he staggered the Chicago native with a three-punch burst in Round 5, dove into top position and threatened with a mounted arm-triangle choke. However, it was not enough to bring him the desired victory. They faced one another a second time six months later at Bellator 131, where Brooks put away Chandler with fourth-round punches, nailed down the vacant lightweight championship and authored the definitive chapter in their rivalry on Nov. 15, 2014.
The Pitbull Brothers
Chandler reclaimed the Bellator MMA lightweight championship with a violent first-round knockout of Patricky Freire in the Bellator 157 co-feature on June 24, 2016 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. “Iron Mike” brought it to an emphatic close 2:14 into Round 1, capturing the title that was left vacant when Brooks departed for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It did not last long, as Chandler bailed on a few takedown attempts before settling in on his feet. The onetime NCAA All-American wrestler feinted a left jab and fired a right cross behind it, connecting square on the chin. The crushing blow sent an unconscious “Pitbull” crashing to the canvas, where no follow-up strikes were necessary. Talk of a potential superfight with featherweight champion Patricio Freire simmered soon after, but it took years to materialize. The younger “Pitbull” added the lightweight crown to his collection and avenged his brother’s defeat when dispatched Chandler with punches 61 seconds into the first round of their Bellator 221 headliner on May 11, 2019.
Chandler removed all doubt and needed less than half a round to do so. The three-time Bellator MMA lightweight champion took out Henderson with punches and moved to 2-0 in his head-to-head series with “Smooth” in the Bellator 243 headliner on Aug. 7, 2020 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Chandler drew the curtain 2:09 into Round 1. Henderson, who lost a split decision to the Sanford MMA star at Bellator 165 in 2016, rolled out of the gate with newfound aggression. He got Chandler’s attention with a pair of thudding body kicks, punched well in combination and scooted out of danger. Still, it all unraveled. Chandler switched stances, floored the MMA Lab cornerstone with a straight left and pounded away with right hands until referee Dan Miragliotta saw fit to intervene. A little more than a month later, Chandler signed with the UFC as a free agent.
“Iron Mike” made history in Hawaii. Chandler became the first-ever three-time Bellator MMA champion, as he reclaimed the lightweight crown with a lopsided unanimous decision over the previously unbeaten Brent Primus in the Bellator 212 main event on Dec. 14, 2018 at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu. The judges awarded the Henri Hooft protégé a clean sweep on the scorecards: 50-45, 50-45 and 50-45. Primus—who had beaten the Sanford MMA rep in June 2017—never seemed comfortable outside of a second-round exchange in which he advanced to the back and threatened to cinch a rear-naked choke. Chandler executed takedowns in the first, third, fourth and fifth rounds, maintained advantageous positions for minutes at a time and applied his ground-and-pound whenever possible. By the time it was over, there was little doubt regarding the outcome.
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