Frank Shamrock won the UFC championship in his first bout in the promotion, defeating Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson for a vacant title. Anderson Silva won the title in his second UFC bout, knocking out Rich Franklin to start a nearly 2,500-day reign.
Those two legends of the sport made it look simple, but simple it is not.
Jon Jones, who is No. 1 on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, won the light heavyweight title in his eighth bout in the promotion, the same number it took for the legendary Georges St-Pierre to capture the welterweight championship.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired last year after a 29-0 career that had some calling him the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, didn’t get the lightweight belt until his 10th fight.
Michael Chandler spent many years on the outside looking in, the face of a promotion but still largely invisible to the burgeoning group of MMA fans who followed the UFC but nothing else.
But once he got in, Chandler proved he was paying attention all that time.
On Saturday in the main event of UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Chandler will meet Charles Oliveira for the lightweight title that Nurmagomedov vacated when he retired. It’s his second bout in the UFC.
He made his debut in stunning, spectacular fashion, knocking out Dan Hooker in two minutes and 30 seconds. He then cut a promo in the center of the ring after the win that paid homage to pro wrestling icon Ric Flair, making as big an impression with his words as he did moments earlier with his fists.
No matter what happens in the rest of his career, it’s a moment that he’ll never forget and will always regard fondly.
“I was in the back crying happy tears, I really was,” Chandler said of his UFC debut after a decade with Bellator.
He wasn’t crying happy tears after he scored the dramatic and key victory; he was emotional before he made the ring walk because he finally understood the enormity of what he’d done. His years of success in Bellator, his dedication to pushing his body to limits he wasn’t sure he could reach, had finally paid off.
He was in the co-main event of a card that would do astronomical pay-per-view numbers. He was in the best promotion in the world with the eyes of the sport focused upon him.
He said as cutman Rob Monroe was wrapping his hands before he walked out to fight Hooker, it occurred to him that he’d finally landed where he belonged.
“It seemed so familiar because it was right exactly where I needed to be, as if I had seen it in a dream, in a vision, before this knowing that eventually I would get to that point,” Chandler said. “My eyes were welling up with tears. I was listening to my music and I just felt untouchable. In the humblest way, I just felt untouchable. I felt like I could walk into the cage and fight Francis Ngannou that night and might have been able to get the better of him. That’s how my mind was.”
He paid attention as he was in Bellator to how the UFC operated, to what made president Dana White tick. He knew that White loves fighters who, more than anything, fight with reckless abandon and give everything they have in pursuit of a dramatic victory.
That was Chandler, whose epic fight with Eddie Alvarez in 2011 first really brought him to national consciousness.
He was also well aware that White loves fighters who believe in themselves and are willing to step up and face any challenger no matter the circumstances.
Before he fought Hooker at UFC 257, he served as a backup at UFC 254 in the event that anything happened to either Nurmagomedov or Justin Gaethje in the main event that night. He’d be there to jump in.
He said yes multiple times to fights with Tony Ferguson. He accepted matches with Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, all bouts that, for one reason or another, didn’t come about.
When White finally accepted Nurmagomedov’s retirement and began looking for fighters to compete for the vacant title, Chandler said yes before he knew who the opponent would be.
Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer, called and asked him what he thought of fighting for the title at UFC 262 on May 15.
It would turn out to be Oliveira, but before Campbell could continue, Chandler responded. He accepted before Campbell uttered the first sound of Oliveira’s name.
And when he made his debut, he knew that when he was interviewed in the ring, the show had to continue. Humble, soft-spoken Mike wouldn’t suffice in that spot.
He put on a display to remember with the microphone.
“I wanted to make people feel something,” Chandler said of his in-cage interview after kayoing Hooker. “I wanted to not just come to the party; I wanted to kick down the door, throw in a couple of dance moves and have everybody say, ‘That guy, that guy right there, he’s got something.’ … I wanted to make people feel something and introduce myself to a whole new fan base that is 10 times bigger than the one I’d been exposed to for the last decade-and-a-half. It worked out extremely well.
“When I got the phone call for the UFC title shot, I was excited and a little bit confused, but I wasn’t going to argue with them.”
If he can repeat his performance versus Hooker against Oliveira, he’ll have something even more: A UFC championship in just his second bout.
It will put him into elite company, with two of the biggest names in the sport’s history.
It was a long time coming, but to Chandler, this day was inevitable. And he was never going to let it pass.
“I’ll fight anybody, do whatever I have to do,” he said. “I know what I can do and I’ve known that for a long time. I just have to prove it to the people who didn’t get to see me for all those years.”
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