For years, Michael Chandler was the unofficial face of Bellator MMA.
Even as he enjoyed multiple reigns as the California-based promotion’s lightweight champ, he couldn’t help but consider what it might be like to square off against the UFC’s best at 155 pounds. On Saturday, Chandler showed what he could do in front what was likely a massive pay-per-view audience, as he defeated Top 10 lightweight Dan Hooker via first-round technical knockout in the UFC 257 co-main event.
“I spent 12 years outside of this company thinking about this possibility, thinking about these matchups, thinking about fighting the best guys in the world. Now I’m here,” Chandler said. “I’m going to be ranked inside the Top 5 now, that might knock Conor out of No. 4, maybe put me on No. 3 or 4… I have no idea where the rankings are going to go, doesn’t really matter. Anybody can get a title shot as long as they are in the Top 5, Top 10 actually, so… Just feeling great.
“Pure elation, tons of hard work ever since I was 14 years old, wrestling in Missouri all the way to becoming All-American, fighting outside the UFC and now winning my first fight in the UFC, getting a spectacular knockout… Just trying to be remarkable.”
Chandler delivered a message against Hooker at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. The former University of Missouri wrestler closed the distance quickly and floored his opponent with a left hook before forcing the stoppage with follow-up blows on the canvas 2:30 into Round 1. Hooker never had a chance to get out of first gear.
“We have a very simple but pressure-filled kickboxing style down in Florida led by Henri Hooft. Very technical. He could teach us a thousand techniques but mainly he just keeps it simple, keeps it absolutely simple,” Chandler said. “I know guys are going to evade me. I know guys are going to get on their back foot, on their bicycle, because they’ve seen the power of my hands, they’ve seen my highlights. Just because I haven’t been in the UFC, doesn’t mean they haven’t seen my power on the internet.
“Dan Hooker said the same thing. He took this fight without watching a lot of film on me, started watching films and realized ‘Ok, this guy is a force to be reckoned with’, put himself on his bicycle and I knew it was just a matter of time. We train it all the time. I knew that step over right hand, left hook was going to land – it’s landed on taller guys before – he does evade, he takes for granted his long reach. I just had to get inside, clip him with it, put him out.”
Fighting on a Conor McGregor event figures to only boost Chandler’s stock that much more.
“When guys come into the UFC for the first time, they usually have a rough first time on the big stage. He didn’t,” UFC president Dana White said of Chandler. “It almost seemed like Hooker froze in that first round and Chandler was just all over him and put on an incredible performance. When you get the platform we had tonight, you make the most of it. And that kid did.”
Chandler has earned numerous significant victories under the Bellator MMA banner, from Benson Henderson to Patricky Freire to Eddie Alvarez, but he can’t think of any moment in his career that tops his latest triumph.
“It’s got to be No. 1,” he said. “I’ve had some more spectacular, more awesome, more cool-looking ones, but to do it on this stage, co-main event of this card in Abu Dhabi, debut in the UFC, a week where everybody wants to see something spectacular, something remarkable… you’ve got to put that at No. 1.”
At the moment, it appears highly unlikely that Khabib Nurmagomedov will come back to defend his lightweight crown one more time. If the 155-pond belt is vacated, Chandler appears to have put himself on the short list of top contenders. Already, however, Dustin Poirier has said he isn’t interested in an immediate showdown with the impressive newcomer.
Chandler himself isn’t making any demands just yet.
“I don’t deserve to necessarily be calling any shots right now. I have one win in the UFC, albeit it was over a top opponent — first-round knockout,” he said. “You just had Dustin finish Conor, we have Khabib not quite sure if he is coming back… I’m not here to call shots. I’m here to capture I’m here to capture that UFC gold … I’m just excited about what’s next.”