When Michael Chandler upset Eddie Alvarez last November, no one stopped to ask where exactly he'd come from, as if it was perfectly normal to win four fights in eight months and cap off the dynamic run by finishing one of the world's best lightweights on just two years of professional experience.
It was as if Chandler had been dropped on the scene from the sky as an elite-level talent, and we'd all accepted it without any hint of wonder or disbelief.
Such things are not supposed to happen. When Jon Jones pulled off a similar trick in the UFC, winning the light-heavyweight title on three years' experience, he was widely hailed as a one-man revolution in MMA. If that is true, then Chandler is part of the uprising, even if his arrival in the sport was, like Jones', never a sure thing.
Or was it?
Ben Askren, who is a fellow Bellator champion and Chandler's wrestling teammate at the University of Missouri, says Chandler was a lock to be a great fighter.
"He's just mean and tough," said Askren, the promotion's welterweight champion. "He has all the intangibles you want in a top fighter. I knew he'd be successful. I just didn't know it would be this fast."
Chandler had previously shown the ability to take a small opportunity and run with it. At UM, he had tried out as a walk-on during his freshman year and eventually captured the starting job. By the time he was a senior, he had become an All-American at 157 pounds.
But while teammates like Tyron Woodley and Askren where dabbling in MMA, Chandler never gave the sport a second thought.
For a time, he wasn't just oblivious to MMA; he didn't even like it. At the time, a roommate of his would rent tapes and DVDs, and Chandler would avoid watching when they were playing on the television. His dedication to wrestling was so complete that he couldn't even bring himself to consider spending time with another sport.
"When I came to college, I was just in love with the sport of wrestling," he told MMA Fighting. "I didn't want to do anything else. I didn't date girls. I didn't go out. I didn't do anything besides wrestle. I just completely surrounded myself with nothing but the wrestling room and guys who loved the wrestling room as much as I did."
That approach paid off, as Chandler was a four-time NCAA qualifier and was one of only 18 athletes to finish a UM career with at least 100 wins. But by his senior year, he began to realize that there had to be something past wrestling.
Around the same time, Woodley had begun competing as an amateur mixed martial artist, and doing some of his training at UM.
"I held mitts for him, even though I had no idea how to hold mitts," he said. "And we'd roll around and he'd say, 'this is an armbar,' and 'this is a triangle choke,' etc., and that really opened my mind. I thought it was kind of cool."
Askren started his fight career shortly afterward, and Chandler soon decided that maybe he, too, should give it a go. After his first pro fight, he was signed to Strikeforce. After two wins there, he signed with Bellator, where he began to show an advanced game beyond his experience level.
The speed of his success came as a surprise even to him, even if he never lacked for confidence.
By the time he faced Alvarez, he was 8-0, but there was no hiding the fact that a jump from Patricky Pitbull to Alvarez was a major leap. Alvarez was a consensus top five lightweight, and rumors were beginning to swirl that he would soon be leaving for the UFC, where he could found out how he would fare against the few remaining names ranked above him.
"It was one of those things where it was like 'Fake it 'til you make it,'" Chandler said. "I wasn't supposed to beat Alvarez on paper. I wasn't supposed to beat Pitbull either. But you have to go out and lay it on line. You have to perform like you train and like you see yourself. I saw myself as a champion. It's not that I'm cocky or arrogant, but that I believe I was put in this sport for a reason. This was another stepping stone to get to where I want to be."
After a pitched, back-and-forth battle, Chandler drilled Alvarez with an overhand right in the fourth round, earned full mount and choked out Alvarez. It was not only one of the most surprising outcomes of the year, and also earned "Fight of the Year" contention.
Since then, Chandler has re-watched the bout a few times, swallowing up all of the lessons he could glean from overcoming adversity.
For now, it appears that a rematch between the two seems unlikely. Alvarez has just one fight remaining on his contract and seems bound to test free agency soon afterward. But Chandler doesn't see a second fight between them as a necessity, noting that there was no controversy in the first. ("It was one man vs. another, and one gave up and accepted the loss," he said.)
Next, he has former Olympic judoka Rick Hawn queued up for his first title defense. Beyond that, the season seven Bellator lightweight tournament boasts a strong field of eight fighters with a combined record of 141-30-1, all hoping to challenge for the belt.
In preparation, Chandler recently moved from Las Vegas to San Diego, moving his camp to Alliance MMA where he says the main draw was the atmosphere. Not the mild temperate of the the California city, but the agreeable conditions of the training camp. With no hint of irony, he likens it to a wrestling room. In the same type of place where he fell in love with combat sports, Chandler is falling in love all over again.
"I see myself as a champ, a guy who makes the right decisions and is working his butt off to be No. 1 in the world," he said. "For, me, the rankings don't matter. It's me vs. another man in the cage. There are 1,000 ways to win and 1,000 ways to lose. There are no reasons for me to listen to the naysayers or even the people who are pumping me up. I'm only three years into this sport. I just want to get better."
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