It's been a rapid ascent to the top for Michael Chandler, who had barely been training in mixed martial arts for two years when he defeated Eddie Alvarez to capture the Bellator lightweight championship. It was a rise he credits mostly to his time at Xtreme Couture, the Las Vegas-based camp that has spawned many stars. But after nearly three years spent in the gambling capital of the world, Chandler has taken a risk of his own. It's rare for a champion to leave a camp; it's rarer still for someone unbeaten to move on, but it's a change he's decided to make.
Chandler has recently taken his perfect record to San Diego, where he has begun training with Alliance MMA, the home of UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, as well as notables including Phil Davis, Alexander Gustafsson and Brandon Vera.
The move came about two months ago, and while Chandler told MMA Fighting that it was a difficult decision to make, it's so far proven to be the right one.
"It’s just a really healthy atmosphere," said Chandler, who is awaiting a title defense against Rick Hawn. "I compare it to a college wrestling atmosphere. Everyone shows up, looks at the coach and the coach says, 'We’re doing this,' and the guys say let's do it. It's just a cool team atmosphere where everyone has respect and listens to the coaches.
"Obviously they have really good striking there," he continued. "You look at Cruz's striking, Ross Pearson's boxing, Jeremy Stephens' knockout power, Brandon Vera and the list goes on. It's a great situation for striking and Eric Del Fierro is a great striking coach. It's cool to have a lot of strikers there. I worked a ton on my hands on straight boxing with [Xtreme Couture's] Gil Martinez, but I plan on trying to get as well-rounded as I can be, so I want to add knees and kicks and elbows, and all kinds of unconventional stuff, and rounding out my game. That's the biggest thing, to add new strikes to my game."
Ironically, the seeds for his move were at least indirectly planted by his old coach, Martinez.
The most recent edition of The Ultimate Fighter featured Cruz coaching against rival Urijah Faber. The show taped in Las Vegas, and Cruz moved most of his Alliance team there for the duration of the show's filming. Martinez, who is friendly with Del Fierro, told Chandler that it might be a good idea to train with the group while they were in town. In turned into a regular thing and Chandler worked with them for the majority of his most recent camp.
After Cruz and company wrapped up taping and returned back home, Chandler knew he wanted to at least visit San Diego and make a test run with the group on their home turf. He stayed in Del Fierro's house for two weeks and decided it was the right situation for him.
Chandler (10-0) says he left Xtreme Couture on good terms and hopes to work with both Martinez and grappling coach Neil Melanson again. He also gives them full credit for building his skills up so quickly. But MMA is about evolution, and moving to Alliance is the move that he feels will best position him to best prepare for upcoming challenge.
"I'll always say that Gil got my hands to where they were up to that Alvarez fight," he said. "He's still my friend and I'll go to him for advice. And when it came to my training partners, I told each I was heading out and I was making a tough decision but it was one I had to make. I told them all if they call me and need me for something, I'm there for them. The fight game is crazy sometimes. It's one of those things where it's kind of the natural progression of your career. It's one of those things where I'll look back in a couple years and either say it was a great decision or it wasn't a great decision. Right now it feels right, and it's felt right ever since I was in Vegas and felt like I wanted to move to San Diego and join the team. So it's working out great right now."