Michael Chandler nearly made it a full decade in Bellator. He made his debut with the promotion in what was his fourth pro fight at Bellator 31 when he stopped Scott Stapp in 1:57 of the first round.
He went on to become the face of the franchise for Bellator, the promotion’s biggest name and a three-time champion.
All the while, even as he racked up victories and collected title belts, he was keeping a close eye on the UFC.
He became a free agent following a first-round KO of Benson Henderson at Bellator 243 on Aug. 7. And even though the smart business move was to court all offers, the 34-year-old Chandler knew where he wanted to end up.
On Thursday, that became a reality when Chandler signed a deal with the UFC, which announced he would serve as a back-up fighter for the lightweight title fight at UFC 254 between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje on Oct. 24 in Abu Dhabi.
Chandler has long been recognized among the world’s finest lightweights, and he’s believed he’s been the best. Now, he’ll get the chance to prove it. It’s something he never had the opportunity to do.
“I actually have never reached free agency status in any of my contracts in the past,” Chandler told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “This time, it seemed like the right time. I feel like I’m in peak physical shape. I feel like I’m making the right reads. I think I’m competing at the level of a champion, and not just the champion in my former organization but I think I’m the best lightweight in the world.
“You can only go through so many of those performances or feel so good in training camps before you’re like, ‘OK, maybe this is the time to go see what’s out there.’ We knew the interest would be high, though I didn’t necessarily know that it would be as high as it turned out. I knew within the first meeting with Hunter Campbell [the UFC’s chief business officer] and Dana [White, UFC president] that this is what I wanted. Now, here we are a few weeks later and I’m excited to go test myself against those guys in the UFC.”
He is in a strange situation, however, for what may — or may not — turn out to be his UFC debut. In case either Nurmagomedov or Gaethje gets injured, tests positive for COVID-19 or has trouble making weight, White wanted to have someone available to step in to save the main event.
Chandler will be that man. He’ll fly to Abu Dhabi and train and on the day before the fight, will make weight. But there’s a good possibility he won’t fight.
He said he was willing to fight either Tony Ferguson or Dustin Poirier, but it didn’t come to fruition.
“I’m willing to fight Ferguson or Poirier. I am,” he said. “But obviously, there are two sides to the coin when it comes to guys accepting fights. When it came to this opportunity [to serve as the back-up], well, life is about moments, memories and opportunities. I’ve had a ton of great moments and a ton of great memories in the last 11 years, and now I have this opportunity in front of me.
“When you talk about stepping into the cage with a guy who I think I can beat but who has thus far been unbeatable in Khabib, or talking about a guy in Justin Gaethje who proved for sure he’s the No. 1 contender in his last outing with Tony Ferguson, you take that opportunity. For me, it’s the right timing. It’s the perfect time to go to camp. I feel in the best shape I’ve ever been five weeks out. I’m just humbled by the opportunity.”
Know one thing for certain, though: Chandler won’t be awed or overcome by the moment. He’s a professional through and through and if he gets the call, he’ll perform at his best.
Whether that’s good enough to win remains to be seen, but elite athletes only ask for opportunities. That’s what Chandler saw in this deal.
“When you’re a guy who has been salivating and champing at the bit to get into the UFC, and looking at the UFC as the ultimate proving ground of mixed martial arts, when you’ve been doing it as long as I have, you jump at the first opportunity,” Chandler said. “I let Dana and Hunter know right away, I’m not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time. They know they’re not signing a 22-year-old kid who is just coming out of the local shows.
“I’m a salty veteran and I want to be thrown right into the mix. I asked for a top five guy right away. I’m either who I say I am or I’m not, so we’ll get to find out. Hopefully, that’s Oct. 24, but if not, somewhere down the line in 2020.”
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