The wait is almost over for Michael Chandler.
After blitzing his way through the Bellator lightweight tournament and toppling one of the world's best at 155 pounds in 2011, the following year was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The former Missouri wrestling standout had only one showing in 2012, a non-title bout against Akihiro Gono, where it only took Chandler 54 seconds of work to get the job done.
It was no doubt an impressive performance against a seasoned veteran, but Chandler was eager to keep his progress rolling. When Olympic judoka Rick Hawn emerged as the winner of Bellator's sixth lightweight tournament, the 26-year-old champion finally had his next assignment. But with the promotion's preparing to roll out a new format with Spike TV in 2013, the organization's two top lightweights were put on the shelf until the new year.
The young champion will finally get the opportunity to defend his title when he mixes it up with Hawn this Thursday night at Bellator 85.
"I had a great camp and I've made a lot of improvements," Chandler told Bleacher Report. "I haven't really taken any time off since my last fight and I've spent a lot of time in the gym. I'm still healthy, happy, and young. I'm feeling better than ever and believe I'm going to be the best fighter I've ever been."
While both men have progressed to become well-rounded mixed martial artists, the matchup will potentially boil down to their respective pedigrees. Chandler is a former All-American wrestler who has transitioned his mat skills to become an aggressive takedown artist inside the cage. When you add in his continued progression in the striking and submission aspects of the game, it is easy to see why there is so much buzz surrounding the Missouri-native.
The same can be said for Hawn. The 36-year-old has added a powerful striking game to his world-class judo skills, and has proven to be dangerous wherever the fight takes place. That being said, Chandler believes his overall skill set will be too much for the Oregon-native to handle, and is looking forward to locking up with the Team Tri-Star fighter.
"Not to discredit Rick, but I feel like I'm more talented in every aspect of fighting," Chandler said. "He's a great competitor, and a tough guy, but I feel like I've progressed and my stand up and wrestling skills are just a little bit better. I'm in great shape and prepared to push the pace for 25 minutes if I have to. I'll be looking for the finish and I don't see why I won't be able to beat him up pretty bad, wear him down, and hopefully get the finish later on in the fight. That is kind of the plan. Again, not to discredit him at all. He does have Olympic level judo, but that is something I believe my wrestling is going to be able to counteract very well. Obviously he has a good right hand he's been able to knock a couple of guys out with. I need to stay away from that, stick and move, get in and out, and win the fight.
"I was never an upper body wrestler. I am a shooter. I get in on your legs and take you down. I think overall body awareness and knowing exactly where I need to be makes a big difference. Knowing how much weight to put on each foot or where I need to put my hands are things I'm very good at. Obviously with the wrestling background those are things that come naturally.
"His judo is great but I don't see him using it a ton against me," Chandler added. "It's not like he's throwing everybody on their heads. Granted it happens, but he isn't out there dumping people on their heads every single fight. He does get some good take downs with trips, but I just don't see those things happening to me with the amount of wrestling I've had. I'm excited to see. I could talk to you in two weeks and say, 'how bout that time he threw me on my head.' Who knows what is going to happen?"
Since winning the Bellator lightweight title, Chandler has made the transition of switching his training from Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas to Alliance MMA in San Diego. In a sport of constant evolution like mixed martial arts, it is crucial for a fighter to continue to progress his talents. Often times, that requires getting new looks and insights and Chandler felt the move was necessary to keep his growth as a fighter rolling in the right direction.
"It's been a great experience," Chandler said. "Training in Las Vegas at Xtreme Couture was awesome and I was there for almost two years. But now I'm training at Alliance and there are new coaches and training partners I have to work with. There are always a ton of different people to learn from and people that are pushing me to get better. No one takes it easy on me at all. It's been a great fit for me and I feel like it was a great decision to come down here. I haven't looked back since and I definitely feel like it was the right decision. I've gotten a ton better and I can't complain one bit."
When Chandler and Hawn step into the cage this Thursday night in California, it will be the premier showcase of Bellator's debut on Spike TV. Both the promotion and the network have big plans for the coming year, and are looking to make a major impact on the MMA landscape in 2013. For a surging fighter like Chandler, the partnership presents many interesting opportunities and he's excited to reach a the new audience Spike TV presents.
"It is a great opportunity to fight on a big stage," Chandler said. "It's the biggest stage I've ever been on and it's exciting. I'm ready to go out there and perform. It's exciting to go out there and fight for the fans who have been with me since the start, the fans I've picked up along the way, and the new ones who haven't really watched a ton of Bellator because it has been on ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports, and MTV2. Now it is on Spike. When you talk about being able to reach a ton of people, Spike TV makes that possible. I'm pretty excited about the situation."