Michael Chandler gambled on himself and it paid off in a big way.
The three-time lightweight champion entered the Bellator 243 main event fight with Benson Henderson knowing it would be the last fight on his current deal. With the pressure mounting throughout the build to the highly anticipated rematch nearly four years in the making, Chandler delivered with a first-round knockout.
A little over two minutes after the fight began, Chandler, one of the all-time faces of Bellator MMA, became the sport’s most sought after free agent.
“I didn’t sleep for 36 hours, almost (after the fight),” Chandler told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “My phone was just blowing up, blowing up, and blowing up with people calling. If I opened up my social media, it was like 1,000-plus, there was just so many mentions that it didn’t even have the actual number on there because it maxed out. You can’t get through them all and you’re like, ‘Holy cow, I’m just old Michael Chandler over here. What’s going on? Why is everybody talking about me so much?’
“I think it’s just this culmination of 10 years. People wanted to see me fight in the UFC in 2011 whenever I beat Eddie Alvarez and every time my contract comes up, people want to see me fight in the UFC. Now ONE FC is a huge player, Eddie Alvarez is over there. PFL is a huge player because they have an emerging organization because they have those million-dollar tournaments. Tons of options and I just couldn’t be happier.”
Days after the win, Chandler—who had been away from his wife and son for three months preparing for the fight—headed on vacation to spend time with those closest to him. After the event was over, you would be hard-pressed to find any kind of MMA programming not mentioning Chandler’s name and what his next move should be.
Whether the experts predicted “Iron” would remain in Bellator, head to the UFC for plenty of exciting dream matchups, compete overseas or domestically, he admits that his finger is on the proverbial pulse.
“It is (on the pulse),” Chandler explained. “My son doesn’t understand it yet, but he will someday understand that men work. I’ve taught him a couple of things so far: every young man falls, but every young man gets back up and every man has to work. Those are just a couple of things that I speak over him. You’re teaching him these things, so he understands that daddy has to work.
“My wife is the most supportive, most loving, most amazingly perfect person in the world for me. She is my human being. She is my better half, the reason I do what I do, and she understands that you ain’t gonna get me away from the computer. Of course I was gonna take this interview, of course I’m gonna be on my phone a little bit, of course we’re excited about the future.
“I’ve worked so hard for this and, I can honestly say if I was training for Dave Rickels, Brandon Girtz, or if I was training for Eddie Alvarez, Will Brooks, Benson Henderson, Patricky Pitbull, it didn’t matter who I was training for. I was training as if I was gonna step in the cage with Khabib, with Eddie again, with any of the top lightweights in the world. No stone unturned in my preparation, complete discipline, complete excitement about doing everything right.
“So I’m listening. The phone is on, it’s blowing up, and big things are happening in the next seven days I would say.”
After winning his first 12 professional fights, Chandler lost three straight between November 2013 to November 2014. Since then, the 34-year-old has won nine of his last 11 fights, which includes six finishes. The two losses in that stretch were to Brent Primus—where Chandler suffered an ankle injury that resulted in a first-round doctor’s stoppage in their Bellator NYC lightweight title fight—and a first-round TKO loss to Patricio Freire in May 2019.
Like most combat sports promotions, you don’t just fight and are suddenly free to speak with all parties. Chandler was asked to lay out how things work with his current status, while turning his attention to Bellator president Scott Coker for not locking him down sooner.
“There is an exclusive negotiation period. Ours is short, and you can also get it waved,” Chandler stated. “At this point, not that I’m not here to negotiate with Bellator, but as I’ve said before, I like the idea of going to ONE FC, finishing the trilogy with Eddie and fighting across the world. I love the idea of fighting all the top-10 guys in the UFC, I love the idea of staying with Bellator for the next 10 fights, getting a job behind the mic and being the most decorated Bellator fighter of all-time.
“But Scott Coker had the opportunity to sign me five months ago, six months ago, four months ago before this fight happened, and it didn’t happen. So there’s not a huge time that we need to sit here and negotiate, Scott. You had the opportunity, you let me go into free agency. You said I’m not 21 years old anymore but I just finished the best lightweight you have on the roster besides me. I don’t really understand why it needs to be any longer than right now. Let me see what I’m worth.
“What will ONE FC offer me? What will PFL, the UFC offer me? Maybe Dana thinks I suck. Maybe Chatri’s like, “Maybe that trilogy with Eddie sounds cool, but we don’t want to pay you that much.’ Maybe that’s the case. I doubt it, but let me go see what I’m worth.”
In fact, UFC president Dana White told reporters following UFC 252 that he “would love to meet with” Chandler to discuss his future. Most fans around the MMA community would love to see how one of the top stars in the history of the UFC’s rival promotion would fare inside the octagon against some of the very best 155ers on the planet.
Despite feeling somewhat disrespected by Bellator for not trying to lock him down, and having fought most of the promotion’s top guys already, Chandler still sees a lot of upside in continuing his career with the place he’s called home since September 2010.
“I think there’s a ton of meat on the Bellator bone,” Chandler explained. “Number one, I love fighting for them. I love fighting for Viacom. That’s number one and number two. Number three, they just signed a deal with CBS and Showtime so there’s all kinds of stuff that could be happening there. I wouldn’t be afraid to throw on some boxing gloves and get in a Showtime Boxing fight. They’re going to be doing co-promotions, just like with Bellator MMA and Bellator Kickboxing, don’t be surprised to see Canelo, or someone like that, Showtime Boxing, Michael Chandler co-headlining these different cards. So there’s a lot that could happen there.
“Speaking of co-promotion, I would love to go to RIZIN to win that belt. Represent Bellator, win that belt. I’d love the revenge against Patricio Pitbull. Do I think I beat him nine times out of 10? Absolutely. Do I think I zigged when I should’ve zagged? Did he catch me and the fight ended? Absolutely. Do I have enough faith in Bellator to know that Mike Kogan, Rich Chou, and Scott Coker will continue to sign more lightweights? I do think they are. Guys just need to become free agents. More guys need to bet on themselves.”
When asked if his gut was pulling him in a certain direction in terms of what promotion he could see himself signing with, Chandler said he plans on doing things by the book. When the grace period ends, and he, along with his management team, can begin having those conversations with all interested parties, he doesn’t plan on keeping fans waiting very long before he makes his decision and gets into another fight.
“All I know is that it sounds like it’s going to be a hard decision, but I always make the best one possible with the information that I have when the opportunity presents itself,” Chandler said. “It’s gonna be no different this time and I think in the next couple of months, I think we’ll know exactly where I’m gonna land and I want to fight by the end of 2020.”