The brief – but brilliant – start to Michael Chandler’s professional mixed martial arts career intensifies on Saturday.
Chandler has earned the pro fight of his young life, and it will be televised live on cable television for any and all to see.
Xtreme Couture fighter, Michael Chandler will face Patricky “Pitbull” Freire for the Bellator 44 lightweight tournament championship, which takes place Saturday at the Ceasar’s Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. The winner earns not only a six-figure paycheck, but a shot at Eddie Alvarez’s Bellator lightweight championship belt.
There certainly will be plenty of rooting for Chandler in Jefferson County. Chandler, 25, is a 2004 graduate of Northwest where he was a four-year standout wrestler.
“We will all be watching our boy,” said Ron Wilhelm, who, along with twin, Bob, coached Chandler at Northwest.
The Lions are long-known for having standout grapplers, and Chandler goes down as one of, if not the toughest of the tough.
“He’s the hardest worker we’ve had come through our program,” Northwest coach Ron Wilhelm said. “Off the mat, he’s one of the classiest, neatest young men you could meet. On the mat, mean as a rattlesnake.”
When it comes to taking the next step in his athletic life, Chandler has developed at every level in his athletic life.
Though there is no denying his prep achievements, he never won a state championship, finishing runner-up his senior season. He then walked on at the University of Missouri and parlayed that opportunity into an outstanding collegiate career. He became only the 16th University Missouri wrestler to earn a slot in the century club for wins (100-40 overall). Chandler earned runner-up honors in the 2008 and 2009 Big XII Championships and was awarded automatic bids to three of the four NCAA tournaments he competed in. He was a two-year captain and Division I All-American. But after a year as an assistant coach at Missouri, Chandler set his laser-beam focus on mixed martial arts.
Now Chandler is living and training at the epicenter of the MMA world, especially for a gifted finely-tuned wrestler. Chandler is part of the Extreme Couture fighting team in Las Vegas. The Couture in the title is in reference to Randy Couture, a living legend and a borderline demigod in the sport.
“Just walking into a gym with (Couture’s) name on it, you know there is going to be a certain standard,” Chandler said. “There are no easy days and there is no slacking.”
Couture’s gym is populated with a virtual who’s who of the sport, most of which with deep fighting contracts with the Ultimate Fighting Championships, by far the top and most popular organization in mixed martial arts. At any given time, Chandler can look around and spot uber-popular fighter Forrest Griffin wailing away on thai pads or another legend, Vitor Belfort working on his ground game. Chandler often spars with Gray Meynard, who is scheduled to fight for the UFC lightweight championship.
Chandler, who lives in Las Vegas with his younger brother Eric, has more than held his own in lion’s den. And in mixed martial arts, a sport that is progressing athletically at an alarming rate, you can’t be a one trick pony. While Chandler is suffocating and dominant on the ground, he has to be equally adapt at throwing (and defending) any and all types of punches and kicks as well as not making himself vulnerable to submissions.
Gil Martinez is the head striking coach Extreme Couture. Like anyone who has crossed paths with Chandler, Martinez is blown away by the drive, motor and bottomless tank that comes with the package.
“Its hard for Mike to please himself,” Martinez said. “You don’t find kids his age with that determination and have that kind of attitude about the fight game.”
But it is also Chandler’s thirst to evolve that has the coaches buzzing.
“The kid is like a sponge,” Martinez said. “He has made great strides with his hands. He’s barely touching the surface of his talent. Once he puts it together he will be a force to reckon with.”
Though now he is competing under the bright lights of Vegas and Atlantic City, Chandler’s heart and mind is never far from home. He often calls Wilhelm after his fights.
“I will always be announced as, by way of High Ridge,” Chandler said. “That is where it all started. That is why I am the fighter I am today.”
Chandler still grins about how he managed to make it onto the varsity wrestling team as a freshman and there he was with the likes of Northwest notables Ray Fleig, Nick Reeves, Nick Nelson, and Justin Crammer.
“Those were the guys who you were afraid to talk to but aspired to be,” Chandler said. “The atmosphere at Northwest was the best. It was work hard and have fun. Coach would make you smile then make you run. I love that sweet and sour mix.”
It would be hard for any fighter not to admit of dreams of fighting for the UFC. The organization recently packed 55,000 people in Toronto to set a North American attendance record for the sport. But for a fighter just getting his feet wet, Bellator has been a perfect fit for Chandler. Saturday will mark his third fight since March 12.
“I’m still a young fighter and there is no reason to rush it when there are different avenues,” he said. “I know I will be the best in the world at some point.”
What happens on Saturday will help put Chandler on the fast track to that goal.
Against Freire, Chandler will likely be considered the underdog. Freire – an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – is being hyped heavily by the organization and has won in spectacular fashion in the Bellator tournament.
But to no surprise, Chandler and Martinez love their chances.
“I don’t talk much about game plans,” Martinez said. “But we plan on putting (Freire) in some uncomfortable situations.”
Chandler’s grinder mentality and fortitude is the perfect antidote to Martinez.
“I just want to push the pace but keep composed,” Chandler said. “At the end of the day I don’t want to squeak by.”
By Brett Auten | STLhighschoolsports.com