Michael Chandler lost his title back in June, in a fight everyone expected him to win. Yet he didn’t sit around dwelling over Brent Primus leaving Manhattan with his Bellator lightweight belt, nor of getting an immediate rematch. He got back to the gym. He began contemplating marquee fights at welterweight with names like Paul Daley and Rory MacDonald. He re-swore himself to exemplary violence in the cage, à la his former dance partner Eddie Alvarez over in the UFC. He signed a bout agreement to fight Goiti Yamauchi in January, a perfect opponent to showcase his personal vow.
And with each day he got a little closer to meeting a little guy down in Dallas, whom he didn’t know until October had been waiting for him. That little guy was Hap Whitaker, the baby that Chandler and his wife Brie adopted just before Halloween. It was a year-long process to become “active” in the adoption pool, yet just minutes after that activation he found himself getting blindsided in the best possible way.
“For us, once we got through all the paperwork, and the background checks, and the criminal background checks, and the financial background checks, and the medical background checks and all the fingerprinting…once we finally got all that done, we got an email that said, ‘Congratulations, you’re now active’ — and then six minutes later, we got a phone call,” Chandler says. “She goes, ‘Hi, my name is Courtney, I’ll be your consultant moving forward — and by the way, there’s a child down in Dallas who we think matches your preferences perfectly, and you match the mother’s preferences perfectly.’”
It was as sudden and exhilarating as Chandler’s knockout of Patricky Pitbull, yet this time it was Chandler picking his jaw off the floor. Adopting a child isn’t usually that easy. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“We didn’t even get over the reaction of settling into the idea of, holy cow, we’re now active, we’re now allowed to adopt…it was all of a sudden six minutes go by and we get that phone call.”
The first thing Chandler did was try and make sense of everything, to wrap his head around the idea of sudden fatherhood, and find out more about the little guy in question.
“He’s a little bit older than we’d wanted,” Chandler says. “We wanted a newborn to six months. It’s just funny how you have your preferences and you have your plans and then all of a sudden God just says, nope. He was nine months old. They sent us his picture, and as soon as I saw it I got this feeling inside of me, and I started tearing up. I was just like: ‘That’s my son.’
“And I thought, we’re going to move heaven and earth to make it happen.”
The very next day the baby’s birth mom saw Chandler’s profile, in which he classified himself as a professional athlete. The day after that he and Brie were on the phone with the birth mom, and two days after that they were down in Dallas to meet her.
“She ended up being a beautiful soul, just an amazing young girl,” he says. “She’s only 17 years old.”
Chandler and his wife — who recently built a house in Nashville — had been contemplating adoption for years. Chandler says he had to warm to the idea originally, but Brie had wanted to adopt a child since she was a teenager back in Columbia, Missouri. Though she’s able to have children of her own — and Chandler says they plan to have children in the next couple of years — she never got over her early encounters with orphan children who wanted so badly for somebody to take them home.
“[Brie] used to volunteer at a place called ‘Granny’s House,’ which is somewhat similar to a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program,” Chandler says. “She would be taking care of a young boy or a young girl, and go on little lunch dates with them or take them to the park, or the movies or whatever it was, and numerous times they’d say, ‘Can I go home with you? Will you be my mommy?’
“I think it really broke her heart, and she vowed to one day adopt. Now here we are 15 years later with our son, and he’s the greatest blessing ever.”
The Chandlers spent two-and-a-half weeks in Dallas, going through the ICPC (Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children) protocol, which is an approval process between the state where the baby was born and the state they are going to live. Once all that paperwork had gone through, and the approvals had been met, Chandler and Brie drove back to Tennessee with a baby seat in the back, marveling at Hap Whitaker. They were immediately in love with him (and you can see why). For Thanksgiving, they took Hap to St. Louis to introduce him to the extended family, and then Columbia where Chandler wrestled at college.
And it was from a legendary figure within that wrestling program that baby Hap got his name.
“He’s actually named after an old Mizzou wrestling coach named Hap Whitney,” Chandler says. “He was a four-time state champion in Missouri, and he’s a guy that I know personally. He’s an old-timer, tons of wisdom, lives in Columbia. He used to come to all of our all of our wrestling matches, all of our banquets, all that stuff. And there’s actually an award called the ‘Hap Whitney Award,’ and I won that award twice in college.”
They changed Whitney to Whitaker, not solely because Whitaker was more of a boy’s name, but because of a random encounter with a local fellow in Franklin, Tennessee and some French toast.
“We met a man named Mike Whitaker during one of our first trips to Nashville, and he overheard us talking about the French toast at a restaurant that we didn’t end up ordering,” he says. “He wanted to make sure we tried it, so he shared his French toast.
“People don’t just share French toast! We ended up talking to this man for two-and-a-half hours, and I’m still in contact with him. But we thought, Whitaker’s a cool name — so we just went Hap Whitaker Chandler.”
If there’s a downside to Chandler’s holiday whirlwind, it’s that he has a fight coming up on Jan. 20, and he trains with Henri Hooft in Florida. He has been going back and forth on weekends between Florida and Nashville, but it’s been tough to take leave of Hap just as he’s getting to know him to train during the week. Each time he goes away he says it’s bittersweet.
He wants to spend all his time with Hap and Brie, but then again, he’s itching to get back in the cage. Chandler hasn’t fought since that loss to Primus, and — heading into the clash with Yamauchi — he sounds like a man who wants to make up for lost time.
“I just want it to be dominant, man,” he says. “I only fought one time in the calendar year of 2017, so I want to be used more in 2018. I want to be put into a cage, and I want to continue to get big fights. I’ve been asking for big fights for awhile. I’ve been asking for fights at welterweight, and fights at lightweight, though there aren’t a ton of lightweight fights out there.
“But Yamauchi stepped up and said yes to a fight when other people said no. He’s also a more dangerous, more well-rounded and tougher opponent than anybody else in he lightweight division. This is the two best guys in the Bellator lightweight division going at it on January 20.”
Chandler feels like a natural when it comes to being a doting father. But the cage is where he feels right at home. He’s the kind of dad that says very undad-like things. Hap has found himself a very unique father.
“I know there’s a man out there saying he’s the most violent man in the UFC,” he says, referring to Alvarez. “Well, I’m the most violent man in MMA. That’s what I bring to the table, and that’s what I’ve been doing since day one. Every single time I step into the cage it’s fast-paced, it’s hard-hitting, it’s a crazy, on the edge of your seat type of fight. So I want to be the most violent man in MMA, and in 2018, and I’m going to be.”
In the meantime, it’ll be a memorable holiday season for the Chandlers. Christmas came early, and Chandler’s fight with Yamauchi doubles as the lead-up to something big. The chance to bounce back from the Primus fight, and kick off 2018 with a bang? Sure, but there’s also Hap’s first birthday, which falls three days later on January 23. All of it brings a smile to Michael Chandler’s face.
The fallen champ? Hardly. For Chandler — the new father, and the old fighter — ‘tis the season for blessings.