ON MAY 11, 2019, Michael Chandler was warming up in a locker room inside Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, when he suddenly had a vision of his wife, Brie, sitting by herself on the edge of the bed in their Chicago hotel room. And for reasons he couldn’t explain at the time, he started to cry.
Chandler, who was the Bellator MMA lightweight champion at the time, immediately stopped warming up and called his wife. He told Brie that he loved her and that whatever happened in his title fight that night against Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, everything would be fine. He told her not to worry.
“It’s pretty crazy, man. I get really emotional thinking about it because I believe I knew I was going to lose that fight,” Chandler told ESPN. “I told her, ‘I just want you to know that no matter what happens, God’s got us, the best is yet to come and we have to be at peace in the midst of anything that happens tonight.'”
Chandler never said a word about losing, but Brie picked it up. She didn’t understand it any more than he did, but whatever Chandler was feeling in that moment, she did, too.
“Usually, he’ll make a quick call and say, ‘I love you. We’re going to take care of this and go off on a trip after,'” Brie said. “And he still said some of that, but I heard it in his voice that something was off. And I never would have said this to him, but I knew it, too. I was like, ‘Tonight is not your night. It’s not gonna happen.’
“During that fight, the emotions were the same. I’m always stressed. But when it ended the way it did, I just went back to that conversation, and I was at peace.”
Chandler suffered the worst loss of his career that night. He lost his Bellator title via knockout in a fight that lasted just 61 seconds, waved off after Freire dropped him with a clean right hand.
For years, Chandler had been viewed as a big fish in the small pond that was Bellator’s 155-pound division. He was a three-time champ with multiple title defenses, but because he couldn’t face the highly ranked lightweights of the UFC, his potential was capped. He probably would never reach a No. 1 divisional ranking.
After losing such a high-profile bout against Freire, and in the manner in which he did, Chandler’s stock took a hit. In the days and weeks that followed, he didn’t understand why, before one of the biggest fights of his career, something had told him he was about to lose and that he needed to be at peace with it.
But as Chandler, who left Bellator and signed with the UFC in September, prepares to face Charles Oliveira for the vacant lightweight title in the main event of UFC 262 on Saturday in Houston, he and his wife have arrived at some sense of closure about that night. Because the simple fact is, losing that fight might have actually helped the overall direction of Chandler’s career.
Within his last Bellator contract, there was language that might have extended Chandler’s time with the company had he been a champion when the deal ended. That’s common in MMA contracts.
“We didn’t understand it until now … but if he had held the title at the end of his contract, he probably would have had to defend it, and he wouldn’t have gotten the same opportunities he’s had so far with the UFC,” Brie said.
When Chandler reflects back on that loss now, he sums up his feelings in the form of a question.
“There are times you don’t realize why bad things are happening to you,” he said. “But if something good comes from it, was it really a bad thing?”
NONE OF THIS is to suggest Chandler regrets his time with Bellator. Just the opposite. Chandler is forever grateful to the promotion.
The Missouri native signed exclusively with Bellator before his fourth pro fight in 2010, and he made 23 appearances in the promotion in the span of a decade. Over that time, Chandler, 35, re-signed with Bellator on four occasions — a clear indication of a healthy relationship.
Even if it wasn’t always exactly where he wanted to be.
“Look, he got taken care of really well,” Chandler’s manager, Dave Martin, said. “The matchmakers were very good to work with, and they paid him handsomely. We were fired up to sign with [Bellator president] Scott Coker when he came to the company in 2014 and was looking to add new talent.
“But every time ink met paper on those new deals, there was this sense of … ‘Ugh.’ There really was. And I knew that. I knew he wanted to test himself in the UFC.”
Chandler’s Bellator run was not without ebbs and flows. After signing with the promotion in 2010, he exploded onto the MMA scene by winning his first five bouts and earning a title shot against then-champion Eddie Alvarez. And when Chandler won that fight in November 2011, he was something of a phenom.
“I’ll never forget, one of the MMA rankings called me ‘New Kid on the Block,'” Chandler said. “I was the new face who had just beat Eddie. By my ninth pro fight, my name was on a short list of the top guys, and I wanted to fight the UFC names on that list. But I was under contract with Bellator and being taken care of.”
In 2013, Chandler hit the first — and really only — rough patch of his career, when he dropped three title fights in a row — one to Alvarez and two to Will Brooks. Even then, Chandler’s confidence never dipped, and the feeling while watching him was that he’d likely get back on track.
From 2015 to 2020, things clicked. Chandler won nine of 11 bouts in Bellator, and his only losses came to Freire in 2019 and Brent Primus in 2017, when he suffered a freak ankle injury in the opening round. Within this time frame, Chandler and Brie adopted their son, Hap, and Chandler linked up with his current coaching staff of Henri Hooft and Kami Barzini. Every aspect of his life was secure, his skill set was where he wanted it and the results were showing.
With every win, Chandler’s desire to face his lightweight counterparts in the UFC grew.
“The last two contracts I signed, so essentially the last four years, I felt I was the best lightweight in the world,” Chandler said. “And I still signed those contracts because I was happy with them, and it didn’t feel like the right time given the landscape of what was happening in the UFC.”
“Every time ink met paper on those new [Bellator] deals, there was this sense of … ‘Ugh.’ There really was. And I knew that. I knew he wanted to test himself in the UFC.”
Michael Chandler’s manager, Dave Martin
Four years ago, Conor McGregor was the UFC lightweight champ, but he never defended the belt and ultimately was stripped of the title because of inactivity. Khabib Nurmagomedov succeeded McGregor and was more active, fighting the top contenders, but that didn’t leave a clear path to the title for Chandler, if he had chosen to make the jump sooner.
So he stayed where he was, and expectations grew.
“All those times I stepped in against guys where, if I didn’t beat them in the first round, it felt like a loss to a lot of people, that wasn’t a fun position,” he said.
Midway through 2020, the stars finally aligned for Chandler to make a move. He’d repeatedly negotiated very short contracts with Bellator, so the potential of free agency would come every two years. When negotiations came up last year, Bellator’s offer fell short of what he wanted. And in the UFC, the lightweight division was moving. The UFC champion, Nurmagomedov, was steadily clearing out his list of contenders.
If Chandler jumped now, the table was set for him to make a big splash. Immediately.
ON JAN. 23, Brie was at home in Nashville when she received a call from her husband, who had just knocked out Dan Hooker in the first round of his UFC debut in the promotion’s “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It was the most excited she’d ever heard him following a win.
“He called me pretty much when he walked to the back [of the arena], and I could hear it in his voice how proud of himself he was — as he should have been,” Brie said. “He was grateful that he took a chance and went to the UFC. He was grateful for the magnitude of it.
“But I think it also confirmed what he’d known for so long: that he could compete at that level and that he could be top 5 and the best in the world. He always knew it, but that finally confirmed it.”
Since Chandler signed with the UFC last September, it’s been nothing short of a whirlwind. He flew to Fight Island one month after signing with the promotion to serve as a potential backup in a title fight between Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. He was linked to potential matchups against Gaethje, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson, before ultimately fighting Hooker in his UFC debut, in the co-main event of a UFC 257 pay-per-view headlined by McGregor.
After knocking out Hooker in the first round, Chandler agreed to a quick turnaround against Oliveira in February, but Oliveira wanted more time to prepare, so the fight failed to materialize. It’s all led to this weekend, when he’ll face Oliveira for the UFC championship in just his second Octagon appearance.
“It’s been a meteoric rise,” Chandler said. “And even though I was confident in my skills, I’m not 100 percent sure I would have been ready for this a couple years ago. Sometimes the longer road — and truthfully, the road that goes against your moral compass — is the one you have to take. I never believed I deserved to be underutilized and underappreciated, because I believe God put me on this earth to be seen by the masses and to have my skills on the biggest platform.
“But I needed to practice patience day in and day out for all those years, and flex a lot of humility knowing that I was probably the best guy on the planet. But I had to forgo that opportunity because I needed to grow as a human being first and make sure that when that opportunity came, I would be 100 percent prepared for it. And that’s where I am now.”
Looking back on his career and his story within MMA, there’s a memory Chandler has that makes him laugh as he looks back on it. And it’s not even a specific memory of one individual moment, because this moment happened, by Chandler’s estimate, “over 100 times.”
“I was top 5 in the world, Bellator champion, and I’d be walking through a Las Vegas casino during a fight week with UFC lightweight Gray Maynard or UFC light heavyweight Ryan Bader, and a couple of fans would come up and say, ‘Hey man, can you take a picture of me with Gray Maynard?'” Chandler said.
“And I would say yes, put my head down, and take a really good picture. And they’d turn and say, ‘Thanks. Do you fight?’
“And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m actually a champion in Bellator.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, no way, man! That’s so cool.’
“And I share that not as some sob story, but I do believe those moments when I could take a picture of a fan with Gray, who I’d just trained with that day and maybe gotten the better of, and with a subtle smile in my heart say, ‘It’s OK,’ — those are the moments I will cherish when there is a No. 1 next to my name.”
If Chandler does win a UFC title on Saturday — more than 10 years after he won a title in Bellator and became the “New Kid on the Block” in the lightweight rankings — don’t expect him to bask in the satisfaction that he proved to the world he was always who he said he was.
“The crazy thing is, I’ve gotten to a point where I’ll enjoy the belt for a second, and then it’s right back to work,” Chandler said. “I believe that even after this are bigger things: a fight with Conor McGregor; defending the belt against Gaethje, Poirier or whoever it may be; some of the biggest fights of my career and some of the best performances of my career.”
Just like in May 2019, something is telling Chandler the best is yet to come.
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