Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler.
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
If you’re Michael Chandler, you live by those words.
“I don’t know who said it, but it’s one of my favorite quotes ever,” Chandler said. “I first heard it from my pastor back in St. Louis. It’s all about the goal at hand. It’s so easy to get focused on problems with your girlfriend, or to read the blogs saying you shouldn’t be in the top 10, or you’re the best in the world, or that you only fight bums. You can get caught up in so many things that aren’t the main thing. It’s about making the right decisions, about saying yes to what you need to say yes to and no to what you need to say no to.”
If you’re a Bellator executive, you’re pretty happy to have those words in your life right about now. And when they’re coming from your lightweight champion, they probably hit your cortex like an Elizabethan couplet.
Because that sort of stability is just what the doctor ordered for the promotion on the eve of this Saturday’s Bellator 106, the most important, most chaotic card in the promotion’s history. You could say it’s been a bit of a circus sideshow there lately, the kind where there’s a woman eating broken light bulbs and a hairless dude is hammering nails into his ears. It all hit a new level of curiosity late last week when the aging Tito Ortiz injured his neck and pulled out of his show-topping novelty fight with the aging Quinton Jackson.
Hours later, Bellator had canceled its first-ever pay-per-view event and moved the whole thing to Spike.
Good thing Bellator had a plug-and-play insurance policy they could insert directly into the empty spotlight. Chandler (12-0) is probably the best fighter in all of Bellator. He may be the best lightweight in the world. But it’s more than that. The 27-year-old is poised beyond his years and understands that particular set of skills—work hard, fight exciting fights, chew with your mouth closed, keep sight of the main thing—that make a star in MMA.
That’s why Chandler is Bellator’s main thing, and not just vice versa, this week.
“When I heard the news, I talked it out with my manager, then I shrugged my shoulders and went back to work,” Chandler said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “It’s the same night, same place, same opponent, same cage. It doesn’t change anything.”
It sure changed a few things for fans. A card that was formerly a paid event is now on free cable, and the bout many believed to be the card’s best contest from day one—Chandler’s rematch with former champ Eddie Alvarez—is now at the forefront.
If you don’t know, back in 2011 Chandler upset Alvarez by submission to cap a bloody, back-and-forth, four-round thriller, a fight so good it received nods for best fight of the year in any promotion.
Adding to the aforementioned carnival atmosphere around Bellator 106 is the fact that this rematch also is a return to the cage for Alvarez, after he sat sidelined for a year because of legal wrangling over his Bellator contract.
Yet another reason why it’s good to have Chandler, seemingly a willing company man on top of a promotional champion. A Missouri kid who fits the self-made mold, Chandler walked on to the University of Missouri wrestling team, eventually achieving All-American status through sweat and listening to his coaches. He entered pro MMA similarly unheralded, underdogging his way through a grueling Bellator tournament to get that first shot at Alvarez, a boxing standout from Philly who at the time was on a seven-fight win streak.
In their first fight, at the end of the third round, Alvarez appeared fully recovered from an early onslaught. He was punishing Chandler, sprawling on his takedowns and appearing poised to cruise to a decision.
The fourth round, as we know now, departed from the narrative. Chandler found the energy he needed, landed one of his cinderblock right hands, followed a stunned Alvarez to the mat and locked on a fight-ending rear-naked choke.
“At the end of the third, I went into autopilot and just tried to stay calm and survive the round,” Chandler said. “I didn’t do such a good job staying calm, but I did survive. In the fourth I came out and beat him to the center and landed the first punch.”
Chandler predicts he’ll be the first to punch again on Saturday night. He’s looking, as always, for the finish, only faster this time. He’s improved in all areas, he says. His hands are faster. Fight fans will see for themselves (and now for free) on Saturday. Regardless, they can be confident the main event will feature someone for whom that moment is the main thing.
“My goal is to win and to finish fights quickly,” Chandler said. “You don’t hope to go up and hit a single. You go up and hope to hit a home run. That’s what I always try to do in there.”
Scott Harris is a writer for Bleacher Report MMA. For more MMA interviews and news and hot takes and things, follow him on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.