As the coronavirus pandemic continues to lockdown mixed martial arts (MMA), opportunities to look back at great moments in the history of the sport rise. For Bellator MMA, one of those historic moments came on Nov. 19, 2011. The place was Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., and the card was Bellator 58.
Season four Lightweight tournament winner “Iron” Michael Chandler (8-0) punched his ticket for a world title fight by defeating Patricky “Pitbull” Freire (9-2) in the finals at Bellator 44. Despite a one point deduction for three accidental groin shots, Chandler still won the bout on all three score cards, earning a unanimous 29-27 (x3) decision. Neither man walked away from the fight looking pretty, though.
While Freire would have the opportunity to regroup and reset, Chandler would be jumping out of the frying pan and walking straight into the fire. Eddie Alvarez (22-2) was the first and only champion at 155 pounds in Bellator, having earned that crown back in 2009 by submitting Toby Imada with a rear-naked choke 38 seconds into round two at Bellator 12. Alvarez was so excited about his performance he did a backflip off the cage to celebrate!
Alvarez won four fights after that bout, including a title defense against Pat Curran at Bellator 39, putting him on a seven-fight win streak in and outside Bellator MMA. His name was on a lot of lists at the time for “Best Lightweight not in UFC” and his star was rising to incredible heights. Alvarez had a huge experience advantage for their fight, too; however, Chandler stood toe-to-toe with the champ physically, 5’8” to 5’9” with both having 69-inch reaches.
The unheralded Chandler may not have been the favorite of the pundits or fight fans, but as “Iron Mike” has said in interviews since, he loves finding ways to solve puzzles and there was no bigger Rubik’s Cube than Alvarez for him to face. “The Underground King” may have thought his natural punching ability would carry him through, but his orthodox stance was no match for Chandler’s, getting rocked by rights multiple times until saved by the bell in round one.
Although Alvarez was bleeding from the mouth throughout the second frame, he mounted an impressive comeback through takedown defense and precision striking. Chandler’s furious first round fisticuffs may have expended too much energy, as he forgot to keep his hands up defensively and got tagged with a hard head kick. Alvarez left a lasting impression on the judges to end the round with a speedy series of strikes for which Chandler had no answer.
The momentum swung right back in the other direction, though, as Alvarez looked like the more tired man in round three, while Chandler miraculously caught a second wind. While Alvarez was doing enough damage to lump up Chandler’s face, the back-and-forth brawl seemed to narrowly edge the way of the challenger as the round wore on. The only thing that kept it from being more dominant was Alvarez’ continued excellence in takedown defense against the natural born wrestler from the University of Missouri.
At this point in the bout you could have competently argued a two rounds to one advantage for either man without drawing much ire, making the fourth and fifth rounds absolutely crucial for both men. The old cliche is that a, “tie goes to the runner” or that there’s a “champion’s advantage” in a close bout, and Chandler wasn’t about to let Alvarez test the merit of those sayings. He rocked Alvarez with his right hand, mounted him on the ground, and Alvarez gave up his back as Chandler pummeled away. That was the opening he had been looking for all along. Ironically, the man who became champion with a rear-naked choke surrendered to the same thing at 3:06 of round four.
As Nas once said, “there’s one life, one love, so there can only be one King.” Michael Chandler now had the belt around his waist to prove it, but this wasn’t the end of the war between Chandler and Alvarez — it was only just an epic first battle.
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