At its core, mixed martial arts is a game of variables; a tangled web of branching outcomes and probabilities where the phrase ‘anything is possible' is not just a cliché, but a stone-cold reality. Mighty champions are invincible right up until the second they aren't, and ultimately those moments arrive without warning.
Underdogs are a dangerous bunch in this sport. When one finds major success, the effects ripple throughout the community for weeks. So if David Rickels needed any more inspiration to dethrone Bellator's golden boy, lightweight champion Michael Chandler, it arrived on a silver platter the night he sat down to watch UFC 162.
"I was hyped when [Chris] Weidman knocked Anderson Silva out. I think the rest of the country was too," Rickels told MMAFighting.com. "But that's just the thing, I think people tend to forget that this is MMA, it's a fist fight. As much as you want to bet on one man or the other, anything can happen in a bout, especially with two very skilled athletes.
"The way I see it is, I train my ass off, [Chandler] trains his ass off -- or at least I hope he is, because I'm coming for him."
You may scoff at Rickels' bravado. After all, Chandler has looked near unbeatable since seizing the Bellator strap from Eddie Alvarez in 2011. But behind the grizzled beard of a middle aged man, lies a 24-year-old prospect who's done nothing but defy expectations since entering the sport four years ago.
The owner of a 14-1 record, including eight wins inside the Bellator cage, Rickels big opportunity came not from gift matchmaking or promotional gusto, but from old-fashioned hard work. After a contentious split decision loss dropped him out of Season 6's welterweight tournament, "The Caveman" cut down to lightweight and rolled through Season 8's bracket to little fanfare. Now he headlines the most stacked Bellator card in recent memory, yet despite his winning ways, Rickels is nowhere to be found on anyone's top-10 list, and he isn't quite sure why.
"I have no idea. I don't really care either," Rickels admitted. "This is something I've earned, so earning this opportunity and just working my ass off for it, they can only ignore me for so long. Bellator have always been great to me, but I'm not the guy at the VMA awards being pretty as s--t. I'm not like the ‘pretty face guy.' Bellator is like, ‘Man, we can't show his ugly mug on TV.'
"The way that I picture it is just that this is my opportunity to punch this guy who gets to go to the VMA awards. I get to punch this guy in the face and elbow him."
While Rickels makes light of it, Chandler's increased profile has only expedited his ascent up the rankings. An undefeated champion, the solution to Chandler's puzzle has thus far eluded every man he's faced, often to violent consequences. Nonetheless, Rickels believes he brings something new to the table.
"[Rick] Hawn, his problem was that he thought he'd be able to grapple with Chandler. Okay, he figured that out, it didn't work very good," Rickels explained. "[Akihiro] Gono, I don't know about all that. But Eddie Alvarez, I think Eddie not knowing who Chandler was and Chandler being super hungry coming in, obviously that guy was down to scrap. Eddie may've looked past him a little bit, but that just goes to show the kind of fights that are to be expected out of Chandler.
"I watched that fight quite a few times, man, and that's the kind of fight that I want. I really hope that we get a chance to trade blows and go after each other. The last thing I want is to just end up on my back for five rounds."
If anything, you can't say Rickels isn't hungry. The way he sees it, his skills don't translate through accolades. What makes him such a tough out is something a bit unquantifiable.
"It doesn't really matter who's across the cage from me," said Rickels. "I'm just a fighter, man. I'm not some collegiate wrestler badass or some f--king world kickboxer. I just scrap, and I'm pretty good at it.
"I don't see huge holes in his game. I just look to expose him during the fight, cut ‘em with an elbow, hit ‘em with a right hand, make something happen. I'm all about making it happen during the fight and finding a way," Rickels continued.
"I really like being the underdog and not known, not this and that, because I like to show people. I like people telling me I can't because it gives me an opportunity to show them I can and push myself."
Rickels is well aware the odds are stacked against him, but that's nothing new. To the eyes of many, he was never supposed to be here in the first place. Four years ago Rickels had no idea where life would take him. Now he has the chance to shock the world. Frankly, he really couldn't ask for anything more.
"Started at the bottom and now I'm here," Rickels concluded, evoking his inner Drake. "It's been a really wild, surreal ride. I got into Bellator and I was so ecstatic and happy about that. Getting to this, to where I am now, has just been crazy, man. I live in the moment, I don't look too far in the future or too far behind, and I'm just floored to have been able to do some awesome things in this sport already. I love that I'm young, because it means I'll have a lot more exciting fights, a lot more fans to build, a lot more KO's to dish out.
"I'm just trying to push myself to the next level, get myself ready for a 5x5, and hopefully dethrone a champion July 31st."