In August, Michael Chandler fought the last fight of his Bellator MMA contract, knocking out former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson at Bellator 243. After the win, Chandler entered free agency, where speculation ran rampant that the former three-time Bellator lightweight champion would finally make his move to the UFC. That speculation proved prescient as last month, Chandler officially signed with the UFC. But just because Chandler is no longer with his organization, doesn’t mean that Bellator CEO Scott Coker likes him any less.
Speaking with MMAJunkie recently, Coker addressed Chandler’s departure from Bellator, making it clear that he harbored no ill will for Chandler’s decision and that he thinks the move was the right one for both Chandler and Bellator right now.
“I personally really think he’s an amazing human being and a great family man,” Coker said. “He’s got great values and is a real martial artist. He exemplifies everything I love seeing in an athlete and saw when he represented our brand. … It was, ‘OK, we’re going to rebuild this 155-pound division. He has some great opportunities. Let’s let him go.’ At the end of the day, we could have matched it, to be honest. But I just felt like his destiny lies elsewhere.”
Chandler obviously agreed. At 34 years old, Chandler is, ostensibly, nearing the end of his prime and has already faced most of the top names in Bellator, many of them twice. The UFC offers him a wealth of new opportunities and the chance to, perhaps, prove that he is the best lightweight in the world, like Eddie Alvarez did before him. But though Chandler will be plying his trade in the sport’s premier organization for the next stretch, Coker says that he and Chandler already spoke about his eventual return to the promotion where he made his name.
“Michael has been the face of Bellator for the past 10 years, or his whole career, pretty much,” Coker said. “He’s had some of the most amazing battles in the history of Bellator.
“Michael and I talked about this. We said one day he’ll come back, and we’ll hang your poster up on the rafters, and maybe you’ll be the first person inducted into the Bellator Hall of Fame.”
There would be few fighters more deserving of such an honor as Chandler has been, arguably, the most important fighter in Bellator history. A three-time lightweight champion, Chandler also holds a number of records in the promotion, including stoppage wins and title bouts. In fact, it’s that excellent pedigree that earned Chandler special consideration when signing with the UFC. Despite having yet to even make his debut in the promotion, Chandler is serving as the backup to the lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, set to take place at UFC 254 later this month. And given the wealth of other options available to the UFC for such a position, Coker says that elevating Chandler to that role right out of the gate is a reflection of just how much the UFC respects the fighters in Bellator.
“He’s a guy I’m always going to support,” Coker said. “I’m going to watch all of his fights. And what does it say about the quality of fighters in Bellator when a guy like Michael Chandler leaves and gets put right into the immediate title shot conversation? Right? It shows you how great these fighters are over here.”
UFC 254 takes place Oct. 24 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.