10 minute read

From MMA World Champion Fighter to Dad

It’s beginning to become more well known that we live in a hyper-sensitive world. Comments, cyber bullies, opinions, judgement, and arguments ensue more commonly across social media platforms behind the comfort of a keyboard and phone screen. As we tend to fall under the microscope of likes and follows, we should more often stop to think, “What if we actually had to step into the ring of reality and actually face our opponent?”

A real fight, human vs. human, face to face, means looking in the eyes of another and really taking on your own fears. It’s a terrifying thought. Just ask Michael Chandler. He gets paid to do it. And it just so happens, he’s really good at it too. For some obvious reasons, of course. He trains hard, is strict about his diet, is dedicated to his goals, deliberate with his schedule, and intent on proper recovery to ensure he has laid the groundwork for his body and mind to be in peak condition. He fights for his income. His payment is literally blood, sweat, and tears - and there are no refunds.

Above all, Mike is humble though. He is smart. He is a loving family man and the definitive specimen of hard work built from a bluecollar upbringing. He knows his opponent, but more importantly, he knows himself. And because of the beatings he has dished out and taken, he will never submit to the real fight: Providing for the people he loves and commemorating what truly matters.

Michael Chandler Jr. (better known as Mike to his friends and family) is a professional mixed martial arts fighter, competing in the lightweight division of the Bellator MMA, a sport that can trace its origins back to ancient Greece, the Roman Gladiators, and the first Olympics (see the documentary on Netflix, The Hurt Business, for some intriguing details on this and Mike’s career).

Although Mike was born and raised in Missouri, he now resides in Nashville with his wife Brie and adopted son Hap. Mike is also a business owner and runs a gym called Training Camp here in East Nashville, located less than a mile from Nissan Stadium. Recently, Training Camp has merged with Nashville MMA to focus even more on the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. “We want to grow the awareness of Nashville as an MMA city.” Training Camp will remain the same gym, but starting November first, it will highlight a plethora of MMA programs. “It was a natural fit to be under the same roof together,” Mike says.

Building his business was a major factor in the decision to move to Nashville. He and his wife Brie saw the growing city as a great opportunity to settle in and raise a family. While adoption is a tedious and time-consuming process that doesn’t always have a set timeline, Mike and Brie worked diligently through the steps while still preparing for an upcoming fight. Background checks, endless paperwork and long nights hoping for a phone call eventually found the couple welcoming young Hap into their home this year.

Today, the new title of “Dad” makes everything more special. “Things happen pretty quick,” Mike tells me and explains that being thrown into the fire of being a father was perfectly put together for him. He says, “The moment you hold your child everything changes. You have a different purpose in life. I’m more passionate about everything. I already wanted to make a dent in this world and now, having a child, I want my son to see that.” A quick look at their Instagram profiles will tell you their is a lot of love in their household.

When Mike first started his career he was young and felt as though God put him on a platform to inspire people through his craft. He has upped the stakes with every addition to his life. “Now I am a husband and father. I have a family to provide for. I want to put my family in the best possible situation,” he asserts. “Bringing a child into our world means taking on the responsibility of loving and providing for him the rest of our lives.” He truly believes that he would not have been called to this sport if he wasn't meant to take on the right amount of damage. “I have a shelf life,” he accepts, “but the more miles I can get out of this body and push back on my retirement date, the more money I can make to support my family and the lifestyle we want to live.”

After graduating high school in 2004, Mike enrolled at the University of Missouri (surprisingly without an athletic scholarship) and earned a spot on the wrestling team as a walkon. He accredits most of his work ethic to his parents and coaches. “As a walk-on [to the wrestling team], I was already behind. I had a ton of work to do just to catch up. Wrestling is a blue-collar sport and I knew the only way I was going to be successful at it was to outwork everyone else that stepped on the mat with me,” Mike recalls. So he did. While at Missouri, Mike was a four-time NCAA qualifier and a Division 1 NCAA All- American honoree. His overall record in his four years as a starter was 100- 40. Impressive to say the least. Turns out hard work does pay off.

Soon after graduating from Mizzou, Mike quickly found a love for MMA and was picked up by an organization called Strikeforce. He made his fighting debut in 2009 and won by successfully executing a TKO (total knockout) in the second round. His next fight with Strikeforce was in May 2010. Again, Mike won by submission in under a minute and quickly made a name for himself.

Strikeforce was an MMA and kickboxing organization that was purchased by the owners of the American Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2011 (what we now know as the UFC), who eventually closed the promotion. The UFC uses a match-making style to allow their “men in suits” to decide who fights for the ultimate title. Mike went the other route by competing in the Bellator division, which holds a tournament-style methodology. A fighter must win three fights in three months in order to have a shot at the title. This was more to his liking.

In Mike’s professional MMA debut with Bellator, he landed a first-round TKO victory over Kyle Swadley and went on to start his career with a 9-0 record. Today, he holds three Bellator Lightweight World Championships along with many other accolades including winner of the Bellator Season Four: Lightweight Tournament, the 2011 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year and was rated by SportingNews.com in December 2018 as the number one greatest fighter in Bellator history. Mike also has notable victories over former UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson and Eddie Alvarez.

Even with all of these achievements though, Mike claims his biggest success came from his hardest loss - a split decision against a returning opponent. This loss would break his perfect record.

Prior to the fight, Mike underwent a diligent 12-week training process that all came down to a 20-minute fight. Diet, sleep, recovery, training, and injury prevention play a huge role during all of his training camps, and he spends a lot of time away from his family, which Mike admits can be tough sometimes. While Mike is more dialed-in than most, he says, “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t question if I’m doing everything right.” But life is a balancing act. Mike lives by the mantra, “no regrets” and says you have to constantly work to do your best but lead with your heart. When our motives are derived from our best intentions, we can still be a ray of light in our inability to balance. It’s what makes us human.

Even though the balancing act can be a constantly changing pie chart that feels more like riding a seesaw, Mike says, “The hardest thing is showing yourself grace in those areas.” The time you focus on your family is also helping your craft, and vise versa (focusing on bettering your craft makes you a stronger individual for your loved ones). The true balance resides in the bigger picture over time. In short, Mike’s first loss in his professional career after going 9-0, shifted his focus to success, not perfection.

At the beginning of his career, Mike was the best in the world at 155 pounds. “I needed to be perfect,” he says. But he also admits that this way of thinking eventually led to his downfall in the form of three losses in a row. He had to stop trying to be perfect and remove the enemy, or as he says, “the inner me that was a victim to horribly negative selftalk.” Instead of trying to win a five minute round, he was trying to win every 30 seconds of the fight. The feeling of failure started to pile up and he began labeling himself as exactly that. He recalls, “Your friends and family don’t see you that way. I needed to remind myself of that because all I could think about was my mistakes.”

Mike had to show himself some grace and forgiveness in order to rebuild mentally. He had to let himself fail and then face the hard facts and learn from it. He realized, every single person he had ever looked up to, everyone who has ever been successful, at one point in time was also a failure. It's how they deal with those failures that make them different from the rest.

The grace Mike refers to is the acceptance of these hard lessons. If we acknowledge those failures for what they are then we realize it isn’t the end of anything; only one event or one chapter in the entire story. If every day we feel like a failure, then every day that is what we embody and become. Believing and trusting our own strength is how we continue moving forward. It is the only way to succeed again if we intend to accomplish our goals. We must find the courage to perform again.

As I discussed with Mike the uncomfortable truth, he disclosed this:

"I’m not very good at this, by the way. But I’m working on it. It's a constant process. I have a finite amount of hours to have these credentials. They will eventually go away, so I have to enjoy the process. You can’t continuously see yourself as someone different than the way you perform. And you can’t consistently perform in a way that is inconsistent with the way you see yourself. You have to wholeheartedly believe in the journey’s outcome. Otherwise, it leads to self-sabotage. Imagine being that person that wants to lose weight and hasn't worked out in a while. The first workout sucks. It hurts and you don’t feel successful. You feel like a failure. But anything worth doing is a consistent fight to keep yourself physically and mentally sound. Whether it is starting a business, getting in shape, or winning a fight, if it is worth it to you, you place value on the process, continue moving forward, and fight just to scratch the surface. And even still, the fight will continue."

It’s important I paint the picture of Mike as he is because he isn’t like some of the “crazies” we might see or mentally picture in the sport of MMA. Mike doesn’t fight out of hate or anger. He doesn’t win because of a chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seek revenge from a bad childhood or carry guilt because he grew up in a violent neighborhood. He wants to win because he feels like he owes it to the people that helped get him there.

I have no doubt this way of thinking gets him through a variety of tough matters. When we enter the hurt locker of a hard workout (or for Mike, when he gets hit in the face), we are consumed by our pain. Mike told me he finds peace in those moments. In that moment of suffering, we lose a portion of the control. Our initial reaction to this reveals an aspect of our true self. Most of us can only hope that we are the person we want to be on those occasions. Most of us are afraid of what we might learn about ourselves. Mike has faced these moments so many times in the ring that his level of self-awareness has transcended to his actions as a husband, friend, father, and business owner. The lesson in each of those moments simultaneously builds a better man and fighter.

Mike would agree that more often than not our culture wants things to come easy - we almost expect it. However, the things that last in life, like wealth, health, and relationships, still fall back on the foundation of hard work, time, and effort. This is the term we know as earned. “But it's not that we don’t do the right things,” Mike says, “it's that we don’t do the right things long enough.” And this is a word we know as persistence.

A career as an MMA fighter is literally and physically rough, no question. Mike’s secret was his emotional connection to peace within the flames. To him, being thrown into the fire was merely the passenger of his inner tranquility. The human spirit may have become more timid, but the real sadness is our fear to put ourselves out there, usually because our ego keeps growing. His humility aids his continued development. After all, he admits, “There aren’t too many demoralizing moments worse than being knocked out in front of millions of people,” he laughs.

We learn the most about ourselves in similar scenarios. There are not a lot of things in life that will teach you about yourself the same way fitness will. Mike says discovering the things we are afraid of is the only way to genuinely grow. “It's easy to fall into the coasting pattern of things I'm good at, but I can only reach my potential outside of that comfort zone. You have to do the things you don’t want to do,” he conveys. For many of us, just like Mike, we have to push ourselves to the deep, dark, hurt locker in order to reveal those characteristics. Mike says, “The biggest mistake is doing what we want to do instead of what we need to do. Working within the confinement of your comforts means sacrificing the gifts you have been given.”

Mike embodies the philosophy of extreme ownership and I can’t help but wonder if the backbone of it all resides in his faith. Mike confesses, “We are never blessed with more than we can handle.” And he admittedly mentions if anything outside of the ring affected his training process, then “that was my

own fault.” Mike understands that in order to enjoy the spoils of a win, to bear the fruits of his labor, and earn the things he wants, he has to be undeniably unafraid. “My heart was designed in that manner,” he says. “I was always meant to run towards the battle.” In my own humble opinion, this is Mike’s way of allowing himself to be proud (of himself). When he is still standing at the end of a fight, head held high, out of breath, exhausted, with a clear conscience, only then is he able to justify the pain and sacrifice hard work requires. There is a difference in pride and ego: I think that term is called integrity.