It was 1992 and the five year old stared across the mat at his opponent while he adjusted his headgear. He listened to the last-minute words of wisdom from his coach as he took his first step toward the center of the mat to stand ready. This would be his first Freestyle wrestling match, and he was prepared to battle. He could feel the adrenaline pumping in his body and hear the rush of blood in his ears as the whistle blew.
Fast forward to 2012, and that five year old is now the reigning Bellator Lightweight World Champion. Some call him a beast, but he prefers his given name of Michael Chandler Jr. The NCAA All-American has had an amazing rise to the top, and is now arguably one of the top 10 lightweight mixed martial artists in the world.
The seeds that were planted in him more than 20 years ago have born fruit in rather spectacular fashion. Chandler has sometimes been referred to as MMA’s best kept secret. His amazing skill, though showcased well at Bellator, has yet to hit mainstream enough that the casual MMA fan can recognize his name or his face. But times, they are a changin’, and fans will soon remember his name.
Chandler credited his wrestling background for much of his current day success. He indicated that his ability to prepare for fights, especially those booked on short notice, came from the way he trained as a wrestler. "You really don't even think about needing time off or needing to rest. You just train, train, train," he said.
His journey is similar to that of many young MMA fighters. His collegiate wrestling pedigree shows impressive teammates who made the transition to fighting, giving Chandler a bird’s eye view of the path. These teammates include such names as Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren. Meeting and working out with long-time veteran Yves Edwards before graduating college had a definite impact. “It was kind of a no-brainer to at least give it a shot. Now, giving it a shot has turned into my full-blown career,” said Chandler.
Edwards was impressed with Chandler’s skill as well. “When I hear guys like Chandler say that I had some type of influence in him pursuing MMA, I feel blown away,” said Edwards. His admiration for Chandler’s growth was apparent. “I met him during his freshman or sophomore year, and now to see him do what he has, it's amazing. I don't know how everyone doesn't have him ranked in their top five. When he comes to the UFC he will be champion,” he added.
Giving it a shot proved to be a very smart move for Chandler, who skipped the amateur process entirely and started out as a professional in his very first fight. This, too, seemed to be a wise decision for the young grappler.
Chandler spent much of the beginning of his career at Xtreme Couture, training six days per week to stay fit and learn his craft. Many believe that Chandler has a great deal of potential, and his dedication to training demonstrates his determination to achieve that potential.
Chandler’s former grappling coach, Neil Melanson, recalled his experiences with Chandler with fondness. “Michael Chandler is a hotdog. I love that son of a gun, but in a Viking to Viking sort of way. He is sitting on a mountain of talent and ability,” Melanson effused. “But most of all, The ‘Enchanting’ Chandler has got a work ethic few can match, with the exception of The Natural, Randy Couture. There is no limit to how good this kid can be,” He added, referring to Chandler as a “Top Game Master.”
Chandler’s quest to be the best is highlighted by his work with his coaches. “That one-on-one time is really when you can soak up the most technique and kind of learn the most,” said Chandler. “Then you try it all out when you’re sparring and grappling and doing all that kind of stuff.”
Although young in his career, Chandler approaches his training with a very mature strategic mentality that includes giving 150 percent at all times, even when it would be easier not to. He admitted that he feels compelled to do so. “I think it’s just the fact that I really don’t have a choice. I was put on this earth to do something, and I have the opportunity to do something great,” indicated Chandler. “If I’m not doing everything I can every single day to become the best I can possibly be, then I’m sacrificing what God has given me and the blessings that I’ve been blessed with,” he said.
This kind of dedication does not go undetected, and was noticed by Couture. "Mike Chandler epitomizes the collegiate wrestler making the transition to MMA in both work ethic and technical mindset,” thinks Couture. “He has amazing physical gifts and talent. That is a very impressive and dangerous combination! On top of that, he's one of the nicest people I've met in the sport. Watch out for this kid.”
Chandler was equally impressed with Couture’s longevity and contributions to MMA. “Randy is a legend in the sport and he always will be. He’s a great man and a great ambassador of the sport,” he said. When he spoke of the future, Chandler didn’t believe that he would fight into his late 40s as Couture did, but expected to have a meaningful career. “I’m hungry, and I know I can do this for a good eight to ten years.”
Gil Martinez, Chandler’s former striking coach, also recognized his prodigious talent and potential for greatness. Having trained him prior to his championship fight, Martinez says that “from the first day I started working with Mike, I knew that this kid was gonna be something very special. I knew he would become world champion sooner or later, so when he won, it was not a surprise to me.”
Echoing the sentiment of many others, Martinez went on to say, “I know this is just the beginning. His work ethic is one of the best I’ve ever seen and he’s one of the most humble, down to earth, respectful people I know.” Chandler’s integrity and commitment evoked a response of admiration from Martinez. “I can’t say enough about his character. He has all the skill and talent to beat any fighter out there, and with his drive and desire he will accomplish all his dreams and goals.”
The fight that really put Chandler on the map was the championship bout against then Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, Bellator’s poster boy for explosiveness and resilience. The technique and dogged determination exhibited during this fight were nothing short of inspired. In fact, many thought that the Alvarez vs. Chandler fight should have been the 2011 Fight of the Year, though it fell short and lost out to another great fight on the same night: Hendo vs. Shogun.
Chandler felt honored to be compared to such great fighters. “I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘It’s the greatest fight I’ve ever seen,’” said Chandler. “For us to be put in the same category, the same conversation as two obviously big, big names in our sport is really good for us and it’s really good for Bellator,” he said.
Though his wrestling skills are not in doubt, it was his striking that positioned Chandler to essentially defeat Alvarez with his own weapon. “He’s been widely known as one of the greatest strikers in MMA today, so it’s pretty cool to beat Eddie at his own game,” professed Chandler. He attributed much of his striking improvement to the work he did with Martinez, with a focus on adding to his arsenal of weapons.
Chandler surprised everyone with a flurry of strikes in the opening moments of the first round that titillated the crowd and put Alvarez on guard. Chandler later put an exclamation point on the fight with a huge right hand followed by vicious ground and pound, culminating in a rear naked choke 3:06 minutes into the fourth round.
Although Chandler was considered the underdog going into the Alvarez fight, he doesn’t mind being underestimated. “I know how good I am and how hard I train. It’s okay if people underestimate me because I haven’t necessarily proved a ton,” Chandler expressed with humility. “You can’t expect everyone to think you’re the world beater right when you get into this sport. You’ve got to prove it. I’m not even close to where I’m going to be,” he added.
Being successful in this takes more than just physical prowess. The mental aspects are much more important than many are aware. Chandler knows that the psychological challenges of training and fighting cannot be ignored. “Every day is a constant mental battle,” mused Chandler.
He reflected on the challenge of shrugging off a poor performance in training, or being on the receiving end from a particularly talented opponent or partner, to stay focused and on task. “You have to continually practice being positive and realizing that this is all a marathon, not a sprint,” he asserted. Picking yourself up after multiple failures and continuing on until you reach success takes gumption. Chandler thought the key was to never give up or quit trying.
Another mental challenge was picking up and moving to another state and making a new life at a new gym with new training partners and new coaches. Chandler did it twice; first to Las Vegas to join Xtreme Couture, and again to San Diego to join Alliance. Chandler was fortunate to find a home at each place.
Eric Del Fierro, head coach at Alliance, was happy to welcome Chandler into the fold. He spoke very highly of both Chandler’s progress and his potential.
“Michael Chandler has been a great addition to our team. He is a huge talent that is still learning, getting better every day. He did his last camp with us and both fighter and coaches seem to work well together so he decided to make the move to San Diego. It’s an honor to work with him.
“He has no fight booked as of yet, but I can’t wait to see him fight again. This kid is hungry and is looking forward to competing. I think Mike has done amazing in his career and the scary thing is he is nowhere near his potential or anywhere near peaking. There are some very talented fighters in Bellator and I for one can’t wait to see him defend this title!”
Remaining motivated through all the changes and the rigors of training can be an onerous task. Fighters must sometimes dig deeper than others to continue to train when they really don’t feel like it, or when their bodies are a bit worse for wear. Chandler’s driving force during those times is his profound sense of responsibility.
“That’s my duty,” claimed Chandler. “It’s kind of what I take to heart, and when I do have these thoughts where I want to quit or not work out, I just get that sense of guilt that I’m not doing everything I possibly can to capitalize on the blessings that I’ve been given,” he declared. Chandler pulls his motivation from deep inside.
Chandler uses that internal compass to stay driven while awaiting new fights. With Bellator’s tournament format, Chandler will only defend the belt after each tournament, with a few non-title bouts sprinkled in. Many contend that fighters face ring rust or cage corrosion with long periods of time between fights. Chandler was not concerned with this effect.
“I just have faith that I’m going to be able to go out there and I’m going to perform great no matter what, I really can’t worry about it until it happens, if it happens,” he mentions.
He maintains that the best way to avoid being hampered by ring rust is to “…stay in the gym, stay active, stay healthy, stay focused, and hope for the best.” The ambitious lightweight champion proved that he had the right formula at his most recent fight against Akihiro Gono at Bellator 67 in Ontario Canada on May 4, 2012. The veteran Gono entered the cage with a 32-17-7 record and suffered a first round defeat at Chandler’s hands. Chandler’s striking was impressive as he enthralled the crowd with the 56-second dismantling of Gono.
Chandler’s optimistic outlook carried over to other areas as well, particularly when it related to youth. When asked what advice he would give to youth who are interested in a future in MMA, work ethic and a positive attitude were key components of his blueprint for success.
“Always work your hardest and make the right decisions, because we all know what the right decisions are,” he states. He also felt it was crucial that they have a background in wrestling. He believed wrestling was the most essential foundational skill a young person could have if they want to be successful in MMA. “Wrestle in middle school, wrestle in high school, wrestle in college, and then start fighting,” he advised.
Although Chandler is a professional to his core and his priority is being in a constant state of preparation for entering the cage, he also took some time to share some of his personal life. Michael’s hobbies involve outdoor fun, such as fishing, hunting, boating, and other activities he can engage in with family and close friends. He indicated that he was an avid camper and that he took every opportunity to balance personal and professional pursuits.
This year ushered in his first thrilling experience with boar hunting. He also considers certain types of physical activity to be his hobbies, though most would categorize them more as training. Mountain biking, hiking, long runs, and the gym were all on his list of “fun stuff” to do.
Michael also spends time listening to music and relaxing at home. Although his taste in music is somewhat eclectic, he prefers the teasing twang of country music to any other genre. Anyone riding in a vehicle that Michael has recently driven will probably find the radio tuned to a station that plays George Strait, Garth Brooks, and Kenney Chesney, whom he referred to as the “legends of country.” His favorite contemporary artists are the Eli Young Band and Jason Aldean, with a little Taylor Swift thrown in for good measure and pleasing aesthetics.
Another pastime that Michael enjoys is watching movies. Although he can be found at the movie theater checking out a new release, he is just as likely to be curled up on the couch, wrapped in his Mizzou Snuggie, enjoying a romantic comedy and tweeting positive, inspirational messages to his followers.
Michael has been creeping into the consciousness of MMA fans, and has started to experience the recognition that is inherent in success. He has not allowed that to change him. “Every time it happens, I am humbled by the experience. It just shows how much I am amazingly blessed,” he stated with awe apparent in his voice.
In keeping with his positive attitude and lifestyle, Michael was proud of his tattoos. The world “Blessed” is across his left pectoral, and Isaiah 54:17 is inked on his right rib cage. He felt that this particular scripture - which begins “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…” - is definitely apropos to both his professional career and his personal life.
Michael indicated that his life is guided and directed by his faith, and that it was his blessings that allowed him to participate in MMA as a profession and afforded him the opportunity to enjoy his outdoor and other activities.
Although his primary focus is becoming the best lightweight fighter in the world and there is currently no significant other with whom he regularly snuggles, he knows what he finds attractive about a woman and what turns him off. Michael likes to live a healthy lifestyle, so any prospective female companion would have to be actively involved in fitness and keeping healthy.
He believes physical attractiveness is fine and dandy, but it’s what is inside that really counts. “There are so many beautiful girls out there, but they are a dime a dozen. You have to find one that’s got a bigger heart than you can imagine,” he murmured shyly. He’s drawn to women who are soft spoken and comport themselves with class. Michael admitted that women who smoke and curse are unattractive to him, no matter their physical attributes. “She can’t just be a female. She has to be an actual lady,” he said.
It became apparent that chivalry is not dead when Michael, who has been described as both a lover and a fighter, spoke of how a woman should be treated in response to an inquiry of whether there was anything that made him angry.
“Seeing a man be rude to a woman or hit a woman makes me mad. Women should be treated with kindness and taken care of,” he declared with conviction and admirable depth of character.
That character extended to more than just his treatment of women. When it comes to giving back, Michael puts his money where his mouth is. He has created a line of clothing that he named Blessed Threads. A portion of the proceeds from every sale goes to the charity Friends of Kids with Cancer.
With a positive personality, a sexy smile, a huge heart, and fabulous fists, Michael Chandler is definitely one to watch. Fans can follow him on Twitter @MikeChandlerMMA or check out his website at BlessedThreads.com