Michael Chandler hasn't been simply one of Bellator's champions, but one of their breakout stars as well. That isn't likely to change any time soon as the lightweight champion has re-signed with the organization. According to Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, the deal is an eight-fight, multi-year agreement.
"I've felt very strongly for the last year or more that I think we have the best lightweight in MMA in Bellator," Rebney told MMA Fighting. "His name is Michael Chandler. Look, Michael, both inside and outside the cage, represents this company and MMA in a great light. He had a long time left on his existing deal, but I just felt like, you know what, he's elevated himself to a completely new level. I'm to reward what he's done and make sure Mike is part of the Bellator family for a lot of years.
"It's eight-fight. It's multi-year. We've got a lot of big plans. What we're doing with Michael inside the cage and what you'll see kicking off a week from tonight is just the start of it. There's a lot of other pieces to the equation."
The deal has two emphases. First, keep Chandler as competitively active as possible, even every season if the possibility exists. "We want him fighting all the time," Rebney explained. "The best example of who Michael Chandler is and what he means to this organization is what he does inside that cage, which is really kind of Jordan-esque in terms of what he's accomplishing."
Chandler has his second title defense next week at Bellator 97 where he'll square off with season 8 lightweight tournament winner David Rickels at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M. Rebney maintains the goal is have Chandler defend his title again in the fall as well as the winter.
He first competed for Bellator in September of 2010 after a two-fight stint on the preliminary portion of Strikeforce cards. In May of 2011, he won the Bellator season 3 lightweight tournament, earning number-one contender status. He ultimately dethroned then-champion Eddie Alvarez in November of that year. Chandler last competed in January of this year at Bellator 85, choking out season 6 lightweight tournament winner and former judo Olympian Rick Hawn in the first round.
The champion's new contract allows for competitive and entertainment projects outside of fighting, e.g. a Metamoris invitation or coaching stint on Spike TV's Fight Master, but any decision to allow participation would be made piecemeal and in accordance with Chandler's competitive schedule.
The second aim of the deal is to incorporate the champion in heavy advertising rotation and Viacom-platform cross pollination. "I think you can look at kind of where we spent our advertising dollars last year. As we kicked off on Spike, Michael was really front and center on a lot of what we did from a print and television perspective," said Rebney.
"I think you will see a different evolution. Michael's in a unique spot in that he, from a brand building perspective and an establishment perspective, he is coming into his own right now," he continued. "We're already getting calls from people who have never called Bellator before that are part of the Viacom family, saying, 'Hey, how do we get him over here? What can we do with him?'"
Rebney is quick to note, however, that while Chandler's new contract takes advantage of exposure from various Viacom properties, this is "something unique on it's own" and not a facsimile of Quinton Jackson's arrangement. Rebney declined to name any specific campaigns Chandler would be a part of, but said to expect the champion's presence more forcefully on television and in print in the coming seasons. He also points to Chandler's previous points of exposure - "the national Dave and Busters advertising campaign, the Bellator app, red carpet appearances" - as a path forward "but now it's going to be taken to the next level."
Still, the deal is certain to have its fair share of critics. Many fans and members of the MMA community would suggest the next evolution in Chandler's development necessitated he compete with the world's best lightweights in the UFC. This deal squashes that possibility, at least for the foreseeable future. From the champion's perspective, however, he's gotten as far as he has because of who the organization has put in front of him and what they've done for him.
"I'm getting better every single day. I'm very happy with Bellator. Bellator is very happy with me. We've come to a long-term agreement. I think by me signing this agreement I am showing the faith [fans and critics] need to have in Bellator," Chandler said. "For me, I don't make the rankings. I don't really look at the rankings that much, but I'm ranked up there in the top 5, top 3. I've gotten that far and there's no doubt in my mind, if I just continue to put on great performances and put on dominant performances my ranking and my prowess is going to speak for itself."
Rebney suggests when it comes to facing Chandler, the onus is on challengers to face him in Bellator, not for Chandler to step into their territory. "If people want to fight the best lightweight in the world," Rebney said, "I would ask people to take a close, hard look at the situation and realize that he's fighting in Bellator."
There's also the uncomfortable issue of former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and his very public feud as well as stated dissatisfaction looming over all things Bellator. Some might wonder whether Alvarez's experience is a cautionary tale for all Bellator fighters, particularly standouts and champions. Chandler, however, isn't interested in getting involved. He claims he doesn't pretend to understand the dynamics of the relationship between Bellator and Alvarez or the merits of the case. Besides, he insists, he can only make decisions for himself based on his own interests.
"I don't know how Eddie has conducted himself with this company, so I can't speak to their relationship. I don't know what their relationship has been," Chandler says. "All I know is, I'm not trying to be the anti-anything. I'm just trying to be the one and only Michael Chandler. That's all I can really do. That's all I'm really worried about."
Ultimately, the Alliance MMA-product contends it isn't just the deal points that make sense for his career, but a sense of loyalty to a group he believes has positioned him to be where he is and potentially could go. If it isn't broke, Chandler believes, why try to fix it?
"Obviously they got me to where I am, widely being considered top 5, top 3 in the world right now," Chandler argued. "Everything is going well. We have a great relationship, a great working relationship. Everybody works hard and I love hard work because that's what I surround my life around. They've been working hard, especially with the new Viacom deal. The opportunities that we're going to have is great. I just want to continue to grow with them."