Michael Chandler is a man on a mission.
The former wrestling standout from Missouri University entered Bellator's Season 4 lightweight tournament as an unknown amongst a field of veterans and the weight class's most talented field to date.
In an impressive run, Chandler not only claimed the tournament title, but submitted Eddie Alvarez to become the Bellator lightweight champion in a "Fight of the Year"-caliber performance. While his story of going from dark horse to champion was one of 2011's best, it was simply the next step in a greater plan.
In his first title defense he made short work of Akihiro Gono by dispatching the veteran in impressive fashion. It is his goal to become the world's best 155-pound fighter and while his young career has been impressive thus far, Chandler believes he's just scratched the surface on his true potential.
"Beating Eddie Alvarez was a statement but there are going to be bigger statements around the corner," Chandler told Bleacher Report. "Obviously, beating Alvarez was the first step to getting my name out there. Now people now know who I am and see, at least in some part, that I'm the real deal. I have to continue to make statements every time I step into the cage.
"I believe I did a good job of that by going in and putting away Gono in less than a minute, but I want to go in every single fight and put on a dominant performance. I want to put on a good show for the fans and there are definitely more statements to come. That's the game plan because every time I step in the cage it is violent and fun to watch."
Chandler's path through the MMA landscape has been accelerated in every sense of the word.
Before he could get comfortable wearing the prospect tag in the sport, he was already a champion. Following his victory over Alvarez, Chandler's name began to appear on top 10 lists across the sport. While the sudden rush of recognition and fruits of fame can be somewhat difficult to handle, Chandler has appreciated the rise but his focus on personal growth has never wavered.
"I've been in this sport a little over three years now," Chandler said. "It's cool to be someone who people actually know now. When people talk about the lightweight division they will probably mention my name a little bit. Whether they believe I don't deserve to be up there or I do, they are at least going to mention me. November 18, the day before I fought Eddie, no one would have ever mentioned my name when talking about the best of the lightweight division.
"There are a lot of people who don't believe I deserve to be recognized as one of the top-10 best and I don't necessarily disagree with them. I want to continue to perform at a high level. I want to continue to show people I'm here to stay and that I'm only going to get better. I'm trying to be the best lightweight fighter in the world. That's my main objective. I just have to keep my head up, keep training and enjoy this awesome ride that I'm on."
"The one word that sums up this journey thus far is 'growth.' You and I talked before the first round of the tournament before I fought Marcin Held. He was a tough prospect who had only lost one fight. I told you I was going to win and went out and did it. Since then I've had the opportunity in a 13-month period to get six fights under my belt. It's not just time that goes by, it's time in the cage that matters. Going out there against Held and being put in a bad situation, proving to myself I can keep calm, and still coming back to win after almost getting my leg ripped off was a learning experience. Then going through a three-round war with [Lloyd] Woodard and another three-round war with Patricky [Freire] were more lessons.
"Being in a bad situation against Alvarez not only proved something to the world, but also to myself. From my days in wrestling I knew I could do it. I knew I deserved it but hadn't truly proved it to myself until the third round of that Alvarez fight when 99 percent of the people watching it thought I was about to go down and get finished. But, I proved to myself I can be in a bad situation and still have what it takes to bounce back.
"Next, I came out against Gono and got a real quick finish over a seasoned veteran. Those are all things I can be proud of. I don't spend a lot of time patting myself on the back and telling myself I'm the man, but those little victories inside the victories make the difference to me personally. I've only been in the sport for three years and it has all been a growing process for me mentally, physically and spiritually as well. It's been awesome."
For Chandler to continue his rise towards being recognized as one of the world's best lightweights, he understands it is going to take facing a certain caliber of competition. With the majority of top 155-pound fighters currently competing under the Zuffa banner, Chandler isn't blind to the situation. As one of Bellator's brightest stars, he puts full confidence in the organization's ability to produce to level of competition he is going to need in order to accomplish his goals.
"If you look at Bellator now compared to a year ago you'll see a difference," Chandler said. "If you look at Bellator six months from now there are going to be some big changes coming up and big things going down. There is the move to Spike and all kinds of cool things. I obviously don't have to say anything about Viacom because people know how huge of a corporation they are and the type of money they posses. I believe Bellator is going to have the opportunity to go out and snag some great talent.
"That's what I want and I've talked to Bjorn Rebney about that. I think out of anybody in this organization I'm talking to Bjorn more than anyone else, telling him that I want to fight the best in the world. I can't be known as the best fighter in the world if I don't fight the best guys in the world. I believe in my training, my training partners and my coaches. I believe I'm going in the right direction to become the best lightweight fighter in the world but without me proving it, then it doesn't mean anything."
Chandler is eager to face tough competition and that is what he will get when he squares off with Season 6 tournament winner Rick Hawn. He plans on bringing the same mixture of intensity and forward pressure all the while unveiling the improvements he has made since moving his training to Alliance MMA in San Diego. While the exact date is yet to be determined, Chandler is excited to show the world his continued progression.
"I work hard at every aspect of my game," Chandler said. "I'm an entire year older than I was during the Alvarez fight and I was only able to showcase about 56 seconds of what I bring to the table in the Gono fight. Honestly, I followed him around for about 20 seconds and then threw about 15 punches. I don't believe I've really been able to show anything this entire year so far. I'm excited, man. This move has been really good for me and I'm excited to show the world I'm a more well-rounded fighter.
"I'm always going to come forward. I'm going to keep people guessing and in this fight with Hawn, I will definitely look like a different fighter. My striking is better. I have more take downs and submissions. I'm better in every aspect. People can expect me to come out with a fire under my butt, moving forward and putting pressure on Rick Hawn.
"I don't have a bad thing to say about Hawn. He's a good guy and the way he carries himself is admirable. He's very professional and he's an Olympian for my country. Anyone who has represented my country in the Olympics, it doesn't matter which sport, I have a ton of respect for them. I'm excited to get in there, put on a great show for the fans and come out of there with the win. Hopefully, it will be some time this fall or if it has to be in January, then we'll get to it then."