Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the hottest MMA free agent on earth, longtime Bellator standout Michael Chandler. While a recent video suggests Chandler is on his way to the UFC, there’s nothing set in stone, and Chandler’s options remain open.
We had a super enjoyable, 20-minute chat, talking free agency, his physical and mental growth … and a potential hair match against Dustin Poirier. Oh yes. I had to ask. C’mon.
Following is the transcription from our interview.
Homistek: I was looking at your career before the call, and it’s crazy to think you started as a pro in 2009 and now 11 years later it seems like you’re getting better than ever. I know there’s no secret to this, but what do you do to just keep your mind and your body polished 11 years into this fight game?
Chandler: Well, I think it’s like you said: There is no secret. But it’s really not that hard. All you have to do is live a clean lifestyle, take care of yourself, surround yourself with the right people, work extremely hard, never get out of shape, and always constantly look to improve.
I don’t really get out of shape, so therefore I never let my body take steps backwards, and I think that’s what a lot of people do, they just take three months off between fights or they get lazy or they get undisciplined with their diet, undisciplined with their workout regimen and just kind of get complacent.
I also say, ‘People don’t get old. They get busy.’ I think the older you get, the more busy you get, the more stuff you have on your plate. You get kids, you get a wife, you get all these different obligations, and I’ve just continued to stay true and stick to the most important thing in my life, which is me making sure I can provide for my family. That’s what it’s always been for me when it comes to training ever since I was 14 years old.
You mention the family and things that develop as you get older, and it’s crazy that you say you’re thinking of that even when you were 14 years old. Were you always just a family-focused guy? What kind of level did it hit once those things came to fruition?
It did hit another level, but also, I had great examples. My mom and dad worked two and three jobs, year-round, to provide for me and my two brothers to make sure we had every opportunity possible to just be as successful as possible. I know all the sacrifices they made impacted my life so I could go to wrestling camp, so I could go travel, so I could go join this team or get new wrestling shoes or take any opportunity I needed.
Once again, it goes back to it not being that hard. All they had to do was work extremely hard and good things were going to happen and they were going to be a good example for us. That’s kind of what I did. People overthink things and they get kind of analysis paralysis and they don’t know which way to go when usually it’s just staring right down at ya. It’s just called hard work and sticking to the plan.
Absolutely, and this sport is obviously one of the toughest to maintain at a professional level. You see guys who are in it for five years and you can see them declining or starting their exit. You’ve been in it 11 years, and it still looks like you’re peaking. What are you doing to recover and how are you avoiding injuries that can plague so many careers?
That’s the thing: You don’t really have to take much time off. I think every day that you’re not moving, every day that you’re not working on your body, every day that you’re not doing something, you’re basically taking steps backwards. As soon as I hit 30 and I realized I was closer to the “end date” of my career than I was the beginning, you know, I kind of really started taking recovery more seriously.
I discovered this product called the PSO-RITE and realized that all of my back pain that I had over the last 10 years, 15 years at that point, ever since I was 14 years old, stemmed from me having a tight psoas muscle that connects from the lumbar spine down to your femur and controls your pelvic tilt and where your hips sit. So as long as I’m using that every single day, as long as I’m on my roller — and actually this morning before this call I had a body-work massage therapist come over and work on my legs … There’s no need to ever take days off. There should always be a day where you’re doing something, whether it’s stretching, moving, mobility, obviously using products like the PSO-RITE, and constantly making sure that you’re unlocking new potential with your body.
That’s an interesting idea. Would you count the mental game as part of that? Do you consider studying or focusing on your mental strength and well-being a ‘day on’?
You definitely can. That’s definitely an aspect of it. Even the hardest of days should include visualization and building your mind. The easiest of days should as well, and even more so on the lightest of days. Your reticulating activating system can’t quite tell if you’re actually doing something in the physical realm or you’re manifesting it and visualizing it in your mind. Your brain sometimes really can’t tell the difference between a physical rep and a mental rep. So if I can close my eyes and I can be inside that cage and I can visualize myself performing at a high level or knocking out my opponent or finishing my opponent or exceeding my expectations, the likelihood of that happening increases tenfold every single time I do it.
You talk about the mental strength, and it’s obvious throughout your career. You hit that three-fight losing streak [from November 2013 to November 2014] then you bounce back with the best run of your career. Where were you mentally after that three-fight losing streak and how were you able to push through it the way you have?
I was actually not in a good place during that loss streak. I hadn’t quite grasped the concept that I was in control of my mind. I needed to take ownership of what was going on between my ears, and really the fight between my ears was really the most important fight that I was ever going to be in. I’m not stepping into that cage fighting against an opponent. I’m stepping into that cage fighting against my self-limiting beliefs. My shortcomings. My inability to see myself as a champion sometimes. We all have these things. For me, it’s this small guy from a small town who was talking this small mentality. And I gotta beat that guy down every single day. I’ve got to duck tape him to the basement of my mind to continue to see God’s promises manifest themselves inside the cage [and] outside the cage.
Once I had those losses, I realized, ‘Man, I gotta start taking ownership of what’s going on inside my mind’ [and] I really started focusing a lot on my mental training. I hired a sports psychologist for a couple months, got kind of on the right track, and now it’s just focusing almost every single day on some sort of mental training, whether I’m in training camp or out of training camp. Because those fights are won and lost inside the mind, not necessarily in the physical realm.
I think you see a good example of that with your last challenge, knocking out Benson Henderson when you know that free agency is looming. That’s a dangerous fight. I think people underestimate how hard it is to look good against Benson Henderson. You might beat him. But you’re very likely not going to look too good or too exciting doing it. You broke the mold, knocking him out in the first round, obviously. How much were you thinking and relying on that mental strength to conquer that challenge?
I definitely couldn’t sit there and say, ‘Yeah, I know I got this.’ That’s the hard part about mixed martial arts. You’re tied onto a tornado and you have to be OK with and accepting of the uncertainty that’s about to happen. You hit the nail on the head, man, and not a lot of people do understand how tough of a draw Benson Henderson is, strictly because maybe he’s not the most dangerous fighter, maybe he’s not the most skilled fighter, but he’s not an easy fighter to have a dominant performance against. He’s not an easy fighter to go out there and have a one-sided, lop-sided victory [against]. So to be able to go out there and do what no man has done in his entire career, which is knock him out cold, was definitely not exactly how I saw the fight going.
It was pretty comical, because the first fight, all I wanted to do was knock him out. I was going to go out there and I was going to try to finish him. So that was my mentality, and I end up fighting him for 25 minutes in a knock-down, drag-out decision. Then this fight, I told myself I was going to settle in and just look dominant. Try to beat him by a dominant decision, and I end up knocking him out in two minutes. That’s just the craziness of this sport, and I couldn’t be happier because, yeah, this was the most pressure I’ve ever been in in my entire career. The most pressure, probably, that you can possibly be in. As we said, I’m still in my prime. This fight was going to determine how much money I was going to make and my longevity in this sport for the next five years or so, for the rest of my career.
This fight … Everything rode on this fight. Everything rode on the preparation. Everything rode on the outcome of this fight, and it was a scary place to be. But throw yourself into the fire so you can either feel the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. For me, it worked out well, and here we are. I do think this is one of the biggest free agent times in recent history. So it’s going to be exciting to see what happens.
It’s funny to hear you say that, because 2020 is so ridiculous in so many ways, but I think you’re dead on that entering free agency right now couldn’t have worked out better for you with the options on the table — you got PFL, ONE Championship, obviously the UFC out there. How do you start to kind of compartmentalize these and just go through the process of determining where you want to be?
They’ve all called, and they’ve all tried to get information and tried to figure out when we’re going to start talking. But my manager is a man of integrity, operates with character, and has said, ‘We’re still in an exclusive negotiating period with Bellator right now’ where we can only negotiate with them. It’s a short period of time, but we’re sticking true to that. But, yeah, everybody’s called. Everybody wants to talk …
Bellator’s trying hard right now to put together offers that they think that we would accept, and we’ve gone back and forth. This isn’t just a guy who fought in an organizatoin. I essentially helped build Bellator into what it is, and Bellator has helped build me and my career. So this is a long-standing relationship with a fighter and a promotion. So they are trying their hardest, and they are intent on trying to keep me. All the other organizations are excited to possibly get a seat at the table, too. I’m just believing that I will make the best possible decision when it presents itself with the information I’m given. And that’s really all you can do. God always opens the right doors and closes the right doors at the right time.
There’s a ton of noise. I put out a tweet asking, ‘Who do you guys want to see me fight next?’ and I’ve never gotten so many mentions on Twitter. It was like over 1,000 people chiming in, saying they want me to fight [Dustin] Poirier or they want me to fight Patricio, they want to see me go win the PFL tournament, they want to see me fight Eddie [Alvarez] in ONE Championship or they want to see me fight [Justin] Gaethje. There’s a ton of options. You run through the whole top five in the UFC, you got Eddie Alvarez in ONE, you still got the fights with Patricio and possibly going to get the RIZIN belt if I stay in Bellator. You got a ton of guys in PFL that I could fight and win that tournament, win $1 million. So there’s a bunch of options, and they’re all gonna kinda work themselves out in due time.
Yeah, man, and the Poirier fight is, for me, super fun. I saw that tweet, too. But here’s the thing that’s interesting to me. I gotta be honest with you: Poirier might be the only guy in the MMA world that can give you a run in the hair game. You guys got the two best hairstyles in the game. Who wins that?! Who wins the hair match?
Well, I win that for sure. But the funny thing is: He probably doesn’t get it as much as I do because Poirier’s a guy who’s in the eye more, I guess, but he and I get talked about a lot as in looking alike. I get Chad Mendes and I get Dustin Poirier. Those are the two guys people always say I look like, so it would be interesting if we did end up fighting, what it would look like, both of us fighting each other inside the cage.
That’s amazing. Could it be a hair match? Loser shaves his head. What do you think?
No, dude. *laughs* First of all, I ain’t losing, so I guess it doesn’t matter, but I wouldn’t want him to have to do that. He’ll just have to take the ‘L’ and we’ll shake hands after.
Such a kind soul. *laughs* So, I’m just looking at your career right now as we’re talking, and it’s kind of ridiculous. You have 23 fights with Bellator, and like you said, you kind of helped build them. Did you ever think midway through this run — because there’s been talk, ‘How would Michael Chandler match up with the top guys in the UFC?’ for years — just you as a professional, as a person … What excites you about this challenge ahead with free agency?
More than anything, it’s kind of … When you’ve been in the sport for 11 years, and you’ve essentially been with the same organization for nine or 10 of ‘em, adding a little spice is really nice. Right now, I could very well end up with Bellator, and I’ve been very vocal about it. I’m really excited about ONE Championship, and I’m really excited about the UFC and about PFL, but I’m just as excited and just as happy if I sign another long-term deal with Bellator, we come to an agreement, I hold every single record in the Bellator record book, I end up in the Bellator Hall of Fame, I get behind the desk and behind the mic, and I get a job with them and wind up a part of the organization for the next 25 years. I’m completely happy with that option as well. But right now, being that I became a free agent — and you gotta remember … it was my choice, but it was also Bellator’s choice. Scott Coker and myself and my manager, we never came to any kind of agreement. We all agreed I’d go ahead and fight this thing out. Now, here we are. It all kind of went my way and we’re going to figure this thing out.
Now we’re going to find out what my worth is in the other organizations, and there’s a ton of buzz right now. This is the biggest amount of buzz I’ve ever had in my career, so I’ve essentially worked my tail off 11 years — and I can promise you right now: Nobody in the entire world, in any division, in any weight class, in any promotion has worked harder than me, has lived a cleaner lifestyle than me and taken this sport as seriously as I have for the last 11 years. So it’s nice to see, even though it might’ve taken a decade, that I’m finally starting to get that recognition that I feel I’ve fought for since Day 1.
Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hunter Homistek is a writer and marketer who has worked for Bleacher Report, MMAFighting.com, Fight! Magazine, FloCombat, and DKPittsburghSports.com.