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Michael Chandler vs David Rickels: Long journey, short night

Bellator Japan - Fedor v Rampage Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images

In a previous retrospective, we looked at how “Caveman” David Rickels punched his way to a title shot, finishing “Assassin” Saad Awad at Bellator 94. That made Rickels the winner of the Season 8 Lightweight tournament, earning him a bonus check for running the gauntlet, as well as a guaranteed title shot in the near future.

The now 14-1 Rickels wouldn’t have to wait long ... nor would he want to. His only loss to date had been a bizarre bout with “Psycho” Karl Amoussou at Bellator 69 where his opponent’s jock strap was repaired with athletic tape. Even though he lost the split decision that night, the crowd at L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort in Lake Charles, La., was firmly on Rickels’ side.

Indeed, win or lose “Caveman” was always a favorite with the fans.

Rickels’ technical knockout over Awad in the tournament finals culminated a journey that started in the mean streets of Derby, Kan., as a rough-and-tumble high school wrestler. He’d go on to attend Butler Community College before taking his natural skillset to the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), amassing more than half of his wins (eight of 14) under the bright lights of Bellator MMA.

His moment had arrived and all he needed was a date and a venue to prove he was the best. Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M., was chosen as the site of Bellator 97 on July 31, 2013, and the match was made.

“Iron” Michael Chandler (11-0) was ready to make his second title defense after submitting Rick Hawn at Bellator 85 on Jan. 17 earlier that year. In both contests, Chandler was giving up an experience edge in professional bouts, but the wrestler with 100 wins at the University of Missouri was giving up nothing on the mats, which is the reason he was able to wrestle Hawn down and sink in a deep rear-naked choke.

Despite his stellar promotional record, one had to suspect a fellow wrestler could neutralize those strengths, and in a stand up exchange, he’d be a formidable challenge for Chandler. At 6’0” with a 72-inch reach, “Caveman” was both lean and mean, while the 5’8” Chandler and his 69-inch reach would have to do what he had done so often in his career — overcome a big size disparity through heart, determination and prodigious striking power.

After waiting patiently through four rounds of Ben Askren vs. Andrey Koreshkov in a “Funky” Welterweight title bout, the moment for the main event had finally arrived. Referee Jason Herzog gave his final instructions, both men were prepared to go toe to toe in an epic war, and 44 seconds later it was all over. Wait, WHAT? No joke. After watching Askren out-wrestle Koreshkov for nearly 20 minutes until he finally wore him down, two wrestlers took the center of the Bellator cage and didn’t even go 60 seconds total.

The height and reach advantage for Rickels quickly vanished when Chandler dropped him to his knees with a heavy right at the 39 second mark. For a moment, it seemed as though “Caveman” might recover his wits as he had done in so many previous brawls, but Chandler was a shark and Rickels was blood in the water. He pursued Rickels vigorously and dropped him again so quickly that Herzog had little choice but to save the dazed and wounded man.

It was a heartbreaking loss for Rickels, but it wouldn’t stop him from bouncing back with a technical knockout win a few months later. Meanwhile, a decisive win for Chandler — with his fastest finish to date — would lead to a highly anticipated rematch that became a Bellator instant classic.

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