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Michael Chandler loves Bellator, but looming free agency is ‘business decision’

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Michael Chandler has spent almost his entire career with Bellator MMA. But with one fight remaining on his current deal, he’s about to enter free agency for the second time in the past few years, and at a very unusual time in the sport – and the world’s – history.

“The whole MMA landscape is changing,” Chandler told MMA Fighting. “The offers that would have been six weeks ago may be different now – either more money, or less money, or more favorable for me, or less favorable for me. We don’t know what this pandemic is doing to the books of these companies, to the futures of these companies, [to] the future of Bellator.”

When the former lightweight champion faced a similar decision in 2018, he explored all available options. But ultimately, he inked a new deal with the ViacomCBS-owned company. Now with free agency looming once again, Chandler has to decide: stay with Bellator, or pursue a new deal with an organization like the UFC.

Originally, Chandler was supposed to rematch Benson Henderson on June 6. But Bellator ultimately postponed that card due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Prior to that cancellation, he already knew his contract negotiations were probably going to be interrupted by the current state of affairs, where almost every major MMA promotion is shut down with the exemption of UFC events planned for May.

“I’ve been on record saying I’d be very happy if I’m a Bellator fighter for the rest of my career and I retire with Bellator and I continue to pour into the company that has poured into me,” Chandler said. “We’ve had a very good, symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship. But also at the same token, I’m a prize fighter who fights for his family, his wife and his son, and our future and our platform and what we can do together. I’ve got to make the best decision for me and my family. As of right now, Bellator has not come with an offer we have accepted. We’re kind of in that limbo where I’m going to train and do my job just like any other athlete who is coming up to the end of their contract.”

While Bellator has been his home for the last decade, Chandler rarely escapes an interview or an interaction with fans online where questions arise about potential matchups against lightweights from other organizations like the UFC.

With a high-impact style and a pedigree for fighting built from his college wrestling background, Chandler knows he could hang with anybody at 155 pounds, no matter the promotion.

“For me obviously, I’ve enjoyed my time with Bellator and all the big fights that I’ve had ,but of course, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get compared to these other people or fans don’t reach out on social and say ‘I’d love to see you fight this guy or that guy,’” Chandler said.

“Right now, Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is the No. 1 guy in the world, and rightly so – he’s undefeated. Then you’ve got Tony Ferguson right there nipping at his heels, and he’s on a 12-fight win streak, then you’ve got Justin Gaethje stepping in. The landscape of the entire world is a deep one at lightweight.”

Obviously the UFC boasts a very impressive roster at lightweight, but Bellator has shown a real willingness to pursue the top free agents in the sport. That said, Chandler’s decision on free agency won’t be based on the potential opponents.

“I know my decision has always been based on business,” Chandler said. “What’s the best business decision? What’s the smartest business decision? I think I am still in the beginning of my prime as a mixed martial arts athlete, only 10 years into the sport. I take care of myself better than anyone else in this entire sport. I guarantee I’m top-five in this sport as far as guys who take care of themselves.

“I’m going to be the Tom Brady of mixed martial arts. I’m going to be able to fight longer than most guys are able to. My body is going to last longer than most guys because of the way I live my life, the decisions that I make and how I treat myself. I know I still have another five or six years left in me, so I still have one more, two more, three more contracts left to sign in this career of mine. My best days are still out ahead of me. My best fights are still out ahead of me.”

Because of the last 10 years they’ve shared together, Chandler understands that Bellator might appear to have an inside track on re-signing him to a new deal rather than exploring options from other promotions.

He will never hide his love for Bellator and all the organization has done for him. But Chandler says his decision will ultimately come down to just one factor.

“You’re not allowed to let emotion come into it,” Chandler explained. “Yes, Bellator has a place in my heart. A very big place in my heart. And yes, Bellator is who they are because of the fights I’ve given them, and Michael Chandler is the household name because of the fights Bellator has given me and the promotion that Bellator has given me.

“So there’s a large place in my heart for Scott Coker and Rich Chou and Mike Kogan and Bellator. But we’re also not going to let the emotions of things interfere with business. I have to make a business decision.”

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