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Michael Chandler isn’t the first former Bellator fighter — or even first former Bellator champion — to sign with the UFC, and you can be certain he won’t be the last.
Chandler’s decision to sign with the UFC, though, is vastly different than when Eddie Alvarez, Will Brooks or even Ben Askren made the leap.
Alvarez and Brooks were former Bellator lightweight champions and had a combined 3-1 record against Chandler in the organization. Askren, a former Bellator welterweight champion, had departed the organization and was in ONE FC when his contract was traded to the UFC for Demetrious Johnson’s.
Chandler, though, was to Bellator what Derek Jeter was to the Yankees. He was the face of the franchise, the one constant through all of the comings and goings, the guy you associated with Bellator in the good times and the bad.
Chandler to the UFC would be like Jeter in a Red Sox uniform or Ray Lewis in the Steelers’ black and gold.
Yet, if you knew Chandler at all, understood what makes him tick, it wouldn’t have been all that much of a shock on Sept. 17 when Chandler signed as a free agent with the UFC.
He was tired of being asked if he “trained UFC,” or being underrated despite his many victories.
Underneath the smiles and the pleasantries lies a vicious competitor. And as time ticked by and his 20s turned into his 30s, Chandler came to believe that if he ever wanted to be regarded as one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters in the world, he had to do it on the biggest stage, no matter how many significant wins he had in Bellator.
“I told Dana this in our conversation, every time I trained for one of the guys I stepped inside of the cage with, I wasn’t training to fight them; I was training to fight the No. 1 guy in the world,” Chandler said. “The No. 1 guy in the world has always been under the UFC banner. I was always training to beat that guy.”
It’s led him to Abu Dhabi where on Saturday at Etihad Arena, he’ll face Dan Hooker in the co-main event of UFC 257. A win over the No. 6 ranked Hooker would probably put Chandler into the UFC’s top five and he could wind up fighting for the UFC belt next.
So when the opportunity came, even though he had meant so much to Bellator and vice versa, he never had a doubt about what he’d do if a UFC contract offer came.
He was signing it, because he has long believed he was the best in the world. Being in the UFC was really the only way to conclusively prove that.
“These are the upper echelon, world-class guys I’ve wanted to compete against since Day 1,” Chandler said.
Those are the kinds of comments that gets White excited. His thought process is that a fighter should be ready to take on the best at any time and he has little time for fighters who look for tune-up fights or aren’t happy with the style of an opponent or how much time they’ve had to prepare.
Chandler is the guy White sees when he dreams about what he wants in a fighter.
“I love that,” he said of Chandler’s attitude. “He thinks he’s the best and he wants to prove it. That’s what this sport is all about, so I love it hearing him talk like that.”
Chandler served as a back-up at UFC 254 for the main event, which featured Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his title against Justin Gaethje. He made weight, but did not need to fight.
He said he heard the chirps from some of his peers since he got the opportunity to be the back-up, but reiterated several times that all he wanted to do once he signed with the promotion was to do whatever he was asked.
He said before he was given the back-up slot, he’d agreed to fights against Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson, which fell through. Now, he gets a big shot against Hooker, but said he’s willing to do what is necessary to prove himself.
“I didn’t come in and stomp my feet and slam my fist and start demanding things right away,” Chandler said. “I just said, ‘Hey, give me the best opportunity you can.’ They wanted to give me a top five guy right away. Dana wanted to throw me into that fire right away with a top five guy and that’s what they’ve worked to do since Day 1. They’ve held true to their word and here we are, fighting a top five guy in the co-main event of the biggest card of the year. I couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.”
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