When former Bellator champion Michael Chandler re-signed with the promotion recently, there were many people happy to hear the news, but just as many groans. A large number of fight fans had hoped that Chandler, who is widely considered as the best lightweight outside of the UFC, would sign with MMA’s worldwide leader.
Even though it had been reported that Chandler had entered free agency—not quite true, since he never reached his non-exclusive window—a deal with the UFC never came close. Not after Bellator executives reached into their corporate pockets with an offer that pays him, he says, “double or triple” what the average top 10 fighters in the UFC make. After that, he says, re-signing with Bellator became an easy decision.
“I’m self-aware enough to understand that the fans who say, ‘Man, I wish you went to the UFC to fight this guy or that guy, six months after I retire, maybe they’re going to buy my book or see my documentary, but they’re still going to be moving on to the next big thing,” Chandler told MMA Fighting. “That’s how the sports world is. You don’t really see many basketball players taking deals to win championships. They generally don’t make moves to win championships; they do it for the money. So why can’t mixed martial artists do it for the money? Because we’re too dumb? Because we’re too close to the neanderthals of 1993 when the sport first started? I think that’s what needs to be said. Everyone needs to wake up and start realizing their worth, but most don’t. If they want to scrape at the bottom of the barrel, maybe 10 years from now someone will be telling their kid, ‘Man, your dad was a tough fighter.’ That’s nice, but I’d rather be on a yacht somewhere.”
When Chandler reached the end of his contract after his last fight, he approached free agency with an open mind. If the UFC had blown him away with a lucrative offer, he likely would have politely thanked the Bellator brass for their fruitful business relationship and moved on. But even as he entered the exclusive negotiating window with his bosses, he looked at the UFC lightweight landscape and saw a logjam. With Khabib Nurmagomedov at the top, Tony Ferguson making a valid claim for a title shot and Conor McGregor looming over it all, he realized the UFC might not need him in a way that would cause them to open their checkbook and write out the many zeroes he wanted to see.
He didn’t always think like this. Chandler says his outlook has changed over time, and was solidified by becoming a father nearly a year ago. He and his wife Brie adopted a son, Hap, who is now 19 months old. Chandler has also put down his roots in Nashville, where he recently opened a gym, Training Camp.
It’s been a family experience that has offered him a whole new lens with which to look at life. While people around him buzzed about possible matchups with the McGregors and Nurmagomedovs of the world, Chandler focused on his No. 1 commitment as a husband and dad.
“When I first started fighting, it was all about me,” he said. “My goals and my vision for my career. Now, I’m painting a picture that my son will get to look at one day. I’m the star of this movie that is this career. He’s going to get to watch it through the lens of other people, of social media, of what people say about me. So I take everything a lot more seriously now.”
His success has already stood on its own. With an 18-4 career record and wins over notables including former UFC champs Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson among others, Chandler will look to add to that resume. With the ink still drying on his new contract, he has some ready-made rivals upon his return. He could fight current champ Brent Primus when Primus gets healthy, although Chandler expects the champ to be stripped due to over 400 days of inactivity. “It’s an embarrassment to the sport,” Chandler said. “I don’t think I’ll end up fighting him. I think he’s afraid to fight in general.”
Another possibility is Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, who recently made news when he claimed Chandler stayed in Bellator avoid the UFC’s U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug tester.
“It’s a completely unfounded statement,” Chandler said. “I’ve fought in front of the toughest athletic commissions, testing-wise, from California multiple times to New York and New Jersey. Anyone who follows me on Instagram can see how I eat, how I workout, the intensity with which I train, and the integrity with which I operate and it can’t be in question. But it doesn’t faze me. Certain people are going to talk, but Patricio won’t step into the cage with me, because he’s a coward and a loudmouth.”
He’s also hoping Bellator brings Alvarez back into the fold for a rubber match. In the end though, Chandler doesn’t much care who his next fights are against. He doesn’t even necessarily care if the championship is involved, although he sees that as inevitable in time. He’s a “prizefighter, not a belt fighter.”
A more meaningful personal goal is expanding the Chandler brood. In doing so, Chandler expects to have his outlook further validated. The career is now mostly a tool for his future. While that may take some of the romanticism out of the sport, it shows a pragmatism that is often absent in its athletes, who rarely negotiate for their true worth.
Chandler has done so, and sees halcyon days ahead. As a young man, he saw his 35th birthday as an exit target, but now at 32, he says he feels great and believes he can continue to excel past that, perhaps to around 37 or 38. As such, he doesn’t expect this contract to be his last. It’s shorter and more lucrative than standard contracts we hear about, he says. He’s made his commitment and now he’s ready to earn his checks.
“I think making the most money possible is the No. 1 thing, and I’m not afraid to admit that,” he said. “I guess what else is there? When you get older and you see the fruits of your labor, how you can take care of your family and the life you can afford them; when you see the investments you can make and how you can set your family up for the future, what else is there? This is not a non-profit venture. I didn’t go into charity work; I went into prizefighting. So I want to make as much money as I can, but I want to have as much fun as I can, and impact as many people as I can. I’ve poured my heart and soul into every second of fighting. I’ve been a model employee, and I think my career can be used as a how-to manual of a guy who gets to the top, falls from grace and builds himself back up. I’ve been a phenomenal employee, and when you’re a phenomenal employee, you get taken care of.”