Sanford MMA’s Michael Chandler earns big UFC opportunity

34-year-old Sanford mixed martial arts star prepares for biggest challenge yet

Sanford MMA fighter Michael Chandler would not have reached this point in his career if he feared failure. No one likes to lose, of course, but backing away from something because there’s a chance it’s going to be difficult? No way.

It has been part of this Missouri native’s life as an athlete to take on challenges that many would dismiss as not worth the risk. If he’d listened to others, for instance, he never would have become an All-American wrestler at the University of Missouri.

Science, technology, training: Mixed martial arts at Sanford Health

That attitude put him in a better place as a competitor. On Saturday, Jan. 23, it puts him in the ring vs. Dan Hooker at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as part of a much-anticipated card that includes a Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier main event.

It’s Chandler’s first fight with the UFC. In this case, it represents a step up in competition at a time when he could have stayed where he was, surrounded by career successes. It’s like when the challenges of major-college wrestling seemed like a good idea. Some thought it wasn’t going to work.

“It was against the wishes of everyone around me,” Chandler said. “But for some reason, a yearning inside my heart said I should walk-on at Missouri and have a go at the Division I level. Even if you fall flat on your face, at least you tried and you left no questions.”

Step up for Chandler

As his time as a professional MMA fighter has progressed there have been fewer and fewer unbelievers. The challenges, though, keep coming.

The UFC represents a step up for Chandler, 34, who has developed a strong following in his own right while becoming a three-time Bellator world champion in his 11 years as a professional.

“The UFC is the pinnacle of mixed martial arts,” he said. “It’s the highest level. It’s the epitome of what all of us mixed martial artists strive for. I was very comfortable in Bellator but now I’m getting the opportunity to go out and become the No. 1 lightweight in the world. That’s my goal.”

Chandler, who turned professional in 2009, was affiliated with Sanford MMA since the gym and Sanford became a part of the sport.

He’s all in on being part of the Sanford team. He’s found that particularly reassuring recently while the world of sports scrambles midst the presence of COVID-19.

“The great thing is that with Sanford MMA we take every possible precaution,” Chandler said. “We have Dr. (Brad) Reeves, our team orthopedic surgeon who is constantly getting the latest studies and latest data. We have the safest, most well-equipped MMA gym in the entire world when it comes to training and keeping safeguards in place during a worldwide pandemic.”

Part of the Sanford team

Safety has always been part of the equation for Chandler. As a father and a husband with a young son, his connection with Sanford goes well beyond just showing up for training sessions at the team gym in Deerfield Beach, Florida.

The initial affiliation began with his agent, Mitchell native Dave Martin, who oversees the Sanford MMA team. It has led to regular visits to South Dakota.

“The first couple times were ‘Aha’ moments for me where it was like ‘Wow, this is a really great organization,’” Chandler said. “I really got an appreciation for how many different operations they’re spearheading. They’re trying to make the world a better place, a safer place and a healthier place.”

Those who have worked in the same gym with Chandler view him as a combination of talent and resolve who has continually delivered in his profession.

“It starts with how he lives his life,” said Sanford MMA coach Greg Jones , a three-time national champion wrestler for West Virginia University. “He’s very disciplined and hardworking, but it goes beyond that. He has very strong self-belief and self-confidence. He’s been on a quest to be the best fighter in the world for years now. I’m really looking forward to him getting opportunities to go out and prove that.”

The bout represents an advance not just for Chandler but the entire Sanford MMA gym, which was honored with a “Gym of the Year” nomination at the 2020 World MMA Awards. The 10,000-square-foot facility is the primary training site for more than 40 professional fighters, including current and former world champions like Chandler.

Spotlight shining

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that his upcoming bout vs. Hooker on UFC’s “Fight Island” includes McGregor. Though not in possession of a UFC championship belt at the moment, the Irish lightweight is by far the sport’s most identifiable athlete. His appearance on the card automatically boosts the event.

Chandler understands this part of the dynamic completely.

“He’s the biggest name in combat sports — an icon for the entire planet right now,” Chandler said. “People who are even remotely interested in mixed martial arts are going to want to watch this fight. And I’m going to be fighting right before him. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to a brand new and much larger audience. I’ve left no stone unturned in my preparation. I can’t wait to get out there and compete.”

As a dedicated athlete with an appreciation for this kind of challenge, Chandler has company at the home gym. It’s not just about one big fight for one guy, it’s about a team and a staff creating and maintaining a culture that regularly delivers these kinds of opportunities.

“Having guys like Michael Chandler — and others who I could go on and on about — does wonders for our program and allows us to go out and find more people like them,” Jones said. “And, talking as a coach here, that makes it easier for us to accept a few others who can benefit from that positive influence and change their lives. We’ve partnered with Sanford to change the landscape of mixed martial arts. We can really build on this beyond just winning and losing fights.”

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