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Inspired by Dominick Cruz's comeback, Michael Chandler looks to right the ship

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Esther Lin

SAN DIEGO - The MGM Grand Garden Arena wasn't the only rowdy place when Dominick Cruz steamrolled Takeya Mizugaki at UFC 178.

Cruz's Alliance MMA teammate, Michael Chandler, was making noise that could be heard all over his neighborhood in San Diego's North Park district.

"I was heading up to my strength and conditioning coach's house to watch the main card," Chandler said at the recent Bellator 131 media day. "But it was at the end of the prelims and I was at my house, because  it was a 20-minute drive and I didn't want to miss out getting stuck in traffic. So it was me and my cat hanging out."

Chandler and his cat saw the former UFC bantamweight champion, who never actually lost his belt in the cage, return with a vengeance and purge three years' frustration in the process.

"Dominick started raining punches and I just jumped up and getting teary-eyed, screaming at the top of my lungs like a little girl, my cat bolts across the room, I didn't see him for a day, he bolted across the room and hid under the bed or something. I've never been around someone who loves the sport like Dominick Cruz and knows more about the sport. To see him come back, and not just come back, but come back and dominate, was great."

Chandler hopes to feed off his teammate's momentum when he returns to action on Nov. 15, as he'll meet Will Brooks in a rematch for the Bellator lightweight title. While he took pains to make clear he doesn't consider his recent troubles on the same level as Cruz, fact is, Chandler has hit some stumbling blocks over the past year.

Twice in the past year, Chandler has gone five rounds in tightly contested Bellator lightweight title fights, first against Eddie Alvarez, and then against Brooks. Twice, despite getting the vast majority of media scores in his favor against Alvarez and a similar majority calling the latter a draw, Chandler was on the wrong end of contentious split decisions.

Whether or not the decisions were fair, Chandler, who trained through an injury in the leadup to the Brooks fight, used the aftermath to take stock of his career approach.

"It was a tough hit to take when my body wasn't performing the way it needed to be," Chandler said. "So where I'm at now, the changes I've made with training and recovery and all that has just helped me so much. I feel like I almost cheated myself and my fans and my family and friends  by fighting the way I fought in May."

What Chandler sees now is basically a clean slate: He no longer has to think about rival Alvarez, who's gone to the UFC; he's in the co-feature bout in his adopted San Diego hometown; he has an immediate opportunity to avenge is loss to Brooks; and it's a new day in Bellator, too, with Scott Coker in and the old tournament format out.

"It was a self-limiting kind of thing for Bellator," Chandler said of Bellator's previous format. "It had a great purpose, but I fell victim to it numerous times. When Dave Jansen and I were supposed to fight, and then Dave Jansen tears his ACL, when there's not a guy ready to step up and take the fight because the only one who could fight me was Dave Rickels, I had to wait and extra 7-8 weeks and that takes you off. When you're training, you're ready to go, you show up and you fight. I had it happen with Alvarez twice, I had it happen to me with Dave Jansen. The Alvarez didn't have much to do with the tournament format, but Dave Jansen, it was a tough thing because you're training, you're on schedule, you're training to do the right things. you do those things, and you want to show up on that day and fight, and can't because of an arbitrary rule."

But that's in the past, and Brooks is on his radar.

"I don't want to disrespect Will Brooks in anyway because Will Brooks had a great night on May 17, showed up, had nothing to lose, had a smile on his face, and won a close split decision," Chandler said. "But the guy that he was fighting didn't have a training camp, didn't have normal training like I should have had. But it's exciting, it's exciting to see a comeback story, love a redemption story, and people want to see how I respond to these past two fights. People still believe in me, the company still believes in me, a lot of the media still believe in me, it's a great feeling and I've got a new sense of purpose in this sport."

Which brings us back to Cruz. Ask Chandler about the much-anticipated fight with current bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, and, even conceding that he has a rooting interest in the bout, you can't help but notice the MMA fan in Chandler come out.

"It's exciting," Chandler said. "You can always imitate, but you can't duplicate. You can take little things from each guy's kind of style, but [Dillashaw's] footwork will never be as good as Dominick Cruz's is. That's just ,he's been working on his footwork since day one. T.J. is a great champion, he's a tough dude, wrestler, I have a soft spot in his heart for every wrestler. I know he works hard and trains with those guys up at Team Alpha Male. They all seem like good dudes and they train hard but it's gonna be a clash of two titans. Two people who believe they own the strap, Dominick never lost it in the ring. It's such an exciting matchup."