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For Bellator's Michael Chandler, MMA free agency is the gift that keeps on giving

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When one looks down the list of talent in mixed martial arts to reach top-tier status without ever stepping foot inside the Octagon, it doesn't take long to see the name Michael Chandler. The current and two-time Bellator lightweight champion has reigned as one of Bellator's posterboys for nearly half-a-decade, carving a wide, unforgiving swathe across the 155-pound landscape since his 2011 breakout win against Eddie Alvarez.

Over that time, Chandler has emerged alongside WSOF champion Justin Gaethje as one of only two homegrown lightweights in the division to be consistently ranked among the world's best while never entertaining the call of the UFC.

But the fight game is a mercurial beast, and with Bellator continuing to emerge as a major player for talent under president Scott Coker, Chandler suddenly finds himself poised to be one of the greatest beneficiaries to the rise of free agency in MMA.

Whereas Chandler's first Bellator title run was comprised of solid but relatively unheralded foes like the Rick Hawns and David Rickels of the world, the 30-year-old All-American now finds himself flush with attractive options for his second championship reign, ranging from ex-UFC and Strikeforce champions at 155 pounds, to budding stars and respected veterans at 170 pounds. Such a freshly stacked cupboard presents Chandler with exactly the kind of opportunity he has craved for years -- the right mix of opponents to validate him as one of the best in the world -- and that road to glory begins on Saturday night at Bellator 165, when Chandler seeks to defend his belt against former UFC champion Benson Henderson.

"Benson's had a phenomenal career," Chandler told MMA Fighting. "Definitely, back in the day, he was the UFC champion, I was the Bellator champion. He was ranked No. 1, I was ranked No. 3 in the world, and it was kind of that ‘what if' match-up. What if these guys could fight? Now we finally get to see. He's continued to impress. He's continued to win. And great careers and great legacies can't be had without great opponents. I look at Benson Henderson like that.

"He's been champion of the WEC. He's been champion of the UFC. But I'll be damned if I'm going to step into that cage Saturday night and lose this belt."

Henderson was one of Bellator's prized pick-ups in early 2016, and for good reason. The 32-year-old put together a WEC and UFC résumé that rivaled any in the sport, defeating the likes of Frankie Edgar, Nate Diaz, and Gilbert Melendez over the course of a championship reign that matched UFC Hall of Famer B.J. Penn for the most successful in UFC lightweight history.

But it is no secret that Henderson has struggled to replicate that success under the Bellator umbrella. He first handily lost a welterweight title challenge to Andrey Koreshkov in his promotional debut, then escaped with an uncharacteristically listless win against Patricio Freire in his sophomore outing after "Pitbull" suffered a broken shin. And when it comes to the nature of those performances, Chandler has taken notice.

"I haven't been too impressed," Chandler said. "It's one of things. When you come in and you lose a fight, and then you have another fight where he wasn't necessarily doing that well and a guy breaks his leg, there's really not a ton to be impressed with. But like we've seen before, the man is a champion. The man is a professional. Just because he has a couple bad performances doesn't mean he's not still one of the best in the world, and so I have to prepare accordingly."

For Chandler, much of that preparation has been understanding how to not get sucked into Henderson's game. A methodical and relentless tactician, Henderson and head coach John Crouch have long been considered among MMA's most respected problem solvers. But Chandler has watched the two work from afar for years, and he is confident he knows how to crack through that plan of attack.

"Benson is a gameplan artist," Chandler said. "He gets his gameplan, he sticks to it, and he's focused on winning. I'm focused on dominating. I want to go out and I want to try to get the finish, so we'll see how the chips fall on Saturday night.

"If the Benson Henderson of late shows up, it could be a better night than I thought it was going to be. But I believe he's prepared. It's no secret that him and I have been watching each other fight for the last six, seven, eight years, so we're very familiar with each other, where those holes are, where those deficiencies are, and where those strengths are. So I'm excited to go out there and implement my gameplan, bite down on my mouthpiece, come out swinging like I always do, and I have full confidence that I'm going to go out there and get a dominant victory."

Considering the accolades Henderson brings with him into the cage, a win on Saturday night would unquestionably be the biggest for Chandler since his first breakthrough triumph against Alvarez. It would also open the floodgates to a slew of challenges that could further cement Chandler's place in the sport, and after spending the past five years slowly figuring out who he truly is as a martial artist, Chandler has come to understand exactly how important the names are on the other side of the cage.

"It's key. It's absolutely vital," Chandler said. "I didn't come into this sport to just fight and do well. I came into this sport to be great. I truly believe I was called to this sport to be put on a platform and reach new heights and reach people and do some great things, both athletically and in so many (other) aspects. In order to solidify my legacy, in order to continue to grow my brand, in order to continue to accomplish my mission, I need great opponents. That's what I've said in the past and now we're seeing a very interesting MMA landscape, with different guys coming over and guys leaving Bellator and going to the UFC.

"It's awesome to be right here in the middle of it, getting the opportunity to go out and fight Benson Henderson. Getting the opportunity to fight Josh Thomson -- he's next. Getting the opportunity to possibly go up to welterweight and fight a guy like Rory MacDonald, fight Paul Daley, fight these guys, fight these names. There's no doubt that there's going to keep on being more shuffling of the MMA promotion rosters, and it's great for me. The chips are falling great for me and I'm excited to be able to go out there and compete against a former world champion like Benson."