Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks hasn't seen his family since last Thanksgiving. Of course, back then, he wasn't Bellator lightweight champion. A lot has changed for the burgeoning talent and as he heads home for the holidays as the organization's undisputed lightweight champion, he realizes this past year has been one long, strange, but fulfilling journey.
"It's crazy. I didn't really think of it like that, but yeah, it's true. It's been a huge change of events for me in this past year," Brooks told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I think I have to credit that to being patient, being willing to sacrifice that time with being my family back in Illinois and making the decision to move out here to Florida and train at American Top Team. I've made a lot of sacrifices this past year, year and a half. It's worth it. It really brought me to where I am today. I'm happy I made the decisions I made."
Few would dispute that. Brooks only fought twice since then, but they've been the two most pivotal fights of his career. More importantly, they took place at a time of divisional and organizational upheaval. Eddie Alvarez left, Bellator changed leadership, the organization itself dropped tournaments. Through it all, though, Brooks managed to beat Bellator standout Michael Chandler on two occasions to claim first the interim title and more recently, the undisputed one at Bellator 131 earlier this month.
Finally, Brooks says, he's getting the recognition and respect he thinks his achievements deserve. That's true as much for media as it is the fans.
"Once we were actually out there for the [Bellator 131] event and the week leading up to it, all the media stuff and everything like that, I felt a little bit more appreciated. I felt a little bit more love while I was out there. The fans were showing me a little bit more love, especially after the fight.
"It's just one of those things," he continues. "You work so hard in the gym. You put the time in, you sacrifice and you kinda wanted to be rewarded sometimes. It one of those type of deals where I was like frustrated and tired from training and working so hard. I was like, 'When is this ever going to pay off?'
"Finally I feel like I'm exactly where I need to be."
That place isn't just atop the division, but in the forefront of an organization that's reinventing itself into something more fan friendly and commercially viable. When asked about those changes, Brooks is effusive with praise.
"I'm excited about it, man," he says. "I'm really impressed by the work that they put in, the way they were so passionate with this previous show, everything all the way down to the details. Just small things. They were making sure all the fighters were comfortable. If we needed anything during the week, all we had to do was reach out and let somebody know and they got it solved for us. It just seemed a lot more focused on the fighters more than just the show. I think that really showed the night of the fights. The production was cool, the walkouts were cool. I think the walkouts were similar to the PRIDE days and the Strikeforce days and things like that. It was a huge change. It was really cool to be a part of it."
Brooks isn't just pleased because the show itself was largely received well, but because his performance was one of the event's highlights. Still, it came somewhat oddly. A right hook from Brooks at the end of a scramble connected with Chandler, promoting a bizarre reaction where the former University of Missouri wrestler tried to wave off the fight only to not realize he'd done so once the bout was halted.
Brooks still has no idea what to make of it.
"I don't know," Brooks confesses. "I'm still not clear on what happened, man. All I know is when we got up from the ground, I just threw the right hand. I was throwing it just to be active, you know? I felt like he was going to rush me. I just let the right hand rip and I saw him back up. I saw him waving his hands and I'm thinking, 'Man, what's going on?' I thought I fouled him. I thought I poked him in the eye or something. I thought I did something.
"Once I saw him look off into the crowd, I was like, 'Wait a minute. I think he's just out on his feet.' I just jumped on him. I didn't want to give him the chance to recover or maybe give him the chance to reach out and grab me or anything. 'You know what? I'm confused right now, but I'm just going to jump on it and let the ref figure it out after'. That's what I did."
It worked and not only silenced critics, but quelled his own internal rage. Brooks says he was angry for much of the last year. He claims Bellator (under previous leadership) didn't treat him as well as they should have, nor did many in the MMA community offer honest assessments of what he felt were obvious improvements. As a result, he was often outwardly bitter, something he now recognizes and aims to not let happen to him again.
"I've said it before. I'm still getting used to a lot of this," he notes. "When I got into this sport, I expected to do well, but I didn't realize what all came with doing well, what all the media attention, how you have to watch certain things that you say where I have to be understanding I am a very emotional guy. I express my opinions and I put them out there and I don't edit myself. I started realizing this is something I have to work on being the position I'm in now, I can't allow myself to be so emotional. I have to maybe censor or slow it down a little bit, re-think things.
"I'm starting to learn that more and more. It comes along with the process of not just getting better as a fighter, but getting better as a person. I think I'm doing a better job with that and recognizing it a little bit better."
As for what's next, he's taking a bit of a step back. He was injured going into the second Chandler fight and hurt his rib during the course of that bout. He's on the mend now and ultimately expects to be fine, but wants some time to decompress.
Yet, he's heading into 2015 with a bold assessment of where he is now as a lightweight in MMA: a member of the top 10.
"I think so," Brooks says when asked if he deserves to be ranked there. "I think I've still got some work to do. I still gotta prove myself. I still gotta continue to build on what I've done right now, but if I had to step back and be a fan, I'd say, yeah, man. Deep down in my bones, I believe I can beat anybody in the lightweight division: Bellator, UFC or World Series of Fighting. Anybody. I can beat them. I genuinely believe that all the way down to my core. I just have to keep working to get better.
"I think people are seeing that," he explains. "They're seeing that I'm getting better every single fight, not just as a fighter, but as a person. I think I'm putting it on display that I'm not just top 10 the fighter, but top 10 a person. I'm doing the best I can."