Michael Chandler is not done. Not by a long shot.
The potent grappler may have transformed from underground prospect to Top-10 talent in just three years, but the Bellator lightweight king says he still has plenty to accomplish, despite already wearing championship gold.
“You’ve got to stay grounded. What I’ve accomplished so far is nothing compared to what I want to accomplish as far as wins and putting on great performances for the fans,” Chandler recently said during a media conference call. “Being relatively young in the sport, I just try to stay humble and hungry. I’m healthy, and I’m going to try to continue to get better and continue to prove to myself that I have a ton more potential than I’ve already shown. I haven’t slowed down since I started out in this sport, and I don’t plan on slowing down now.”
Chandler will put that attitude to the test tonight when he faces Rick Hawn in the main event of Bellator 85, which takes place at the UCI Bren Center in Irvine, Calif., and airs live on Spike TV. A 2004 Olympic judoka, Hawn has found his place as a lightweight, dropping down from 170 pounds to win Bellator’s Season 6 tournament at 155 pounds. Possessing a heavy right hand and excellent takedown defense, Hawn could prove to be Chandler’s stiffest test to date -- a possibility the champion finds appealing.
“One of the best things about this fight is the opportunity to fight a competitor like Rick Hawn, a guy who has proved himself and is getting a lot of respect in the MMA world,” said Chandler. “I don’t focus on how I would like to get the finish. I just focus on the game plan I’ve gone over with my coaches, and if a finish comes, then it comes. If not, you’re going to see a five-round war, and I think the fans would love that. It’s going to be an exciting fight from bell-to-bell, no matter what.”
Chandler returns to the cage having fought just once in the past 14 months. After wresting the title from Eddie Alvarez in a “Fight of the Year” nominee in 2011, the hard-hitting wrestler was booked against retiring veteran Akihiro Gono in a non-title bout this past May. Chandler wasted no time in finishing the respected Japanese talent, earning a technical knockout win in just 56 seconds. Despite that one-sided victory coming more than eight months ago, the champion says he has nevertheless managed to stay sharp during his layoff.
“I’ve done a lot of training and made the move down to Alliance [MMA] and done a lot of [public relations] to try to get my name out there as much as possible,” said Chandler. “I really feel like I’ve grown a ton as a fighter and gotten a ton better. As long as I’m performing at a high level, and I go out there and put on a great show, I’m going to get that momentum back.”
As if the pressure of putting his title on the line for the first time wasn’t enough, Chandler must also deal with his status as Bellator’s first headliner on Spike TV. In spite of this, the champion says he feels no extra pressure heading into his showdown with Hawn.
“I think we should all feel an obligation as fighters, whether we’re the first fight on the card or the main event, to always go out there and put on a great show and be prepared to fight five hard rounds at an exciting pace and look for a finish at all times,” said Chandler. “I don’t feel any extra obligation or added pressure. I’ve had that burning desire to go out there and put on an exciting fight ever since I had my first fight in front of 45 people.”
His confrontation with Hawn now just hours away, Chandler hopes this bout will serve as the first of several Bellator appearances in 2013. Whereas last year proved largely uneventful for the 26-year-old, Chandler says he would like to fight actively in the coming months.
“This new deal with Spike is exciting, because there is already going to be another tournament champion crowned here soon,” said Chandler. “I’ve definitely expressed to Bjorn [Rebney] wholeheartedly that I want to fight three to four times this year.”