Michael Chandler not long ago was regarded as one of the best lightweights in the world and hailed by many as the top 155-pound fighter competing outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He was the reigning Bellator MMA champion and had taken out much of the top-flight opposition available to him. Then disaster struck.
Chandler had conquered the likes of Marcin Held, Patricky Freire, Akihiro Gono and Eddie Alvarez while capturing the Bellator lightweight championship and successfully defending it twice. He was 12-0 and had all the traits of a budding superstar. However, Chandler lost the title to Alvarez in an electrifying Bellator 106 rematch and then dropped back-to-back bouts against American Top Team’s Will Brooks, the second by technical knockout.
Suddenly, Chandler was on a three-fight losing streak and had morphed into just another former champion. While it was undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow, he focused on refining his craft. Chandler tinkered with his standup and sharpened his grappling, and within a year of his second loss to Brooks, the Missouri native choked out Derek Campos and knocked David Rickels cold.
From there, he faced Freire in a rematch for the vacant lightweight championship and finished “Pitbull” with a sensational first-round knockout. One of his deadly right hands did the damage, as the onetime NCAA All-American wrestler reclaimed the throne. In his first assignment as champion, Chandler will meet Benson Henderson in the Bellator 165 main event on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
“I’ve trained my tail off,” Chandler said during a pre-fight media call. “I’ve gone through some of the toughest hardships that anyone can go through in this sport: Losing three fights in a row, coming back and believing that, no matter what, my next big breakthrough is right around the corner. I never once thought about quitting, where I think a lot of people in that situation would. Where I’ve been and where I am now, I’m confident and I’m excited to just go out there and put it all on the line against one of the best in the world and one of the biggest names in the sport.”
A former World Extreme Cagefighting and UFC champion, Henderson remains one of MMA’s most accomplished fighters, with wins over Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar (twice) and Donald Cerrone (twice). “Smooth” has stumbled of late -- he has lost three times in his past six outings -- but his setbacks have come against Cerrone, former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and onetime Bellator welterweight titleholder Andrey Koreshkov. The opportunity could not be more ideal for Chandler, who can cement his place as one of the sport’s premier lightweights with a victory over Henderson.
“Every opponent is important,” he said. “Every single time we fight, we’re putting ourselves, our livelihood, our records and our reputation on the line. It just so happens for me [that] I get an opportunity to fight a guy who’s been a champion and has done some great things in the sport, but luckily, it’s the right time for me and the wrong time for him. I’m extremely excited to go out there and make a statement with this fight. He’s definitely a great, willing opponent, but I’m excited to go out there and get the finish.”
Chandler admits he has long desired a fight with Henderson, but there was a time when it was thought to be unlikely if not impossible. Henderson was entrenched in the UFC, and Chandler had become a cornerstone for Bellator. However, when Henderson elected to sign with Bellator as a free agent, the situation changed.
“Benson’s had a phenomenal career,” Chandler said. “Back in the day, he was the UFC champion and I was the Bellator champion. He was ranked number one and I was ranked number three in the world, and it was always that ‘What if?’ matchup: ‘What if these two guys could fight?’ And now we finally get to see. He’s continued to impress. He’s continued to win. Great careers and great legacies can’t be had without great opponents. I look at Benson Henderson as exactly that, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to step into that cage on Saturday night and lose this belt.”