In the co-main event of tonight's Bellator 120 pay-per-view event, "Ill" Will Brooks will substitute for the injured Eddie Alvarez in a scrap with Michael Chandler for the Bellator Interim Lightweight Championship. The battle between the once-beaten athletes will set the stage for the show's headlining bout, which pits Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal in the finals of the Light-Heavyweight Tournament.
Will Brooks (13-1) first raised eyebrows by following up on a decision win over Drew Dober with a definitive shellacking of battle-hardened submission whiz Satoru Kitaoka on the Dream 18 New Year's Eve card to close out 2012. That might not resonate with the casual observer -- to put that in perspective, Kitaoka boasts submission wins over welterweights Carlos Condit and Paul Daley and lightweights such as Kurt Pellegrino, Takanori Gomi and Kuniyoshi Hironaka, along with a decision win over Katsunori Kikuno, all of whom have fought under the UFC banner or still do.
He's been under Bellator's roof ever since, accumulating five dominant wins in six turns. The outlier was a first-round KO loss to Saad Awad in the Season 7 Lightweight Tournament, which was Brooks' first and only defeat. The 27-year-old American Top Team product is mistaken for a one-dimensional wrestler quite often: Brooks wrestled in high school but went on to play college football, and his kickboxing acumen has steadily improved and become somewhat unorthodox.
Brooks is bouncy on the feet and busy with stance changes, and he's developed a left kick that can either pester and probe from a distance (usually in the form of straight kicks and hopping side kicks) or cleave with power at close range (sharp roundhouse kicks to the low, mid and high levels). Despite his activity with kicks, Brooks' boxing has become cleaner and much more functional, endowing him with a formidable compliment to his brutish takedown game.
Alliance MMA's Michael Chandler (12-1) had a two-fight stint in Strikeforce immediately after his professional debut and then signed with Bellator, where he eventually joined Eddie Alvarez in a game of hot potato with the promotion's lightweight strap. Chandler blew through five straight opponents in Bellator, won the Lightweight Tournament and capitalized on the reward by unseating Alvarez via rear-naked choke at Bellator 58. Having become a world champion with only two years of MMA under his belt, the Division 1 All-American wrestler not only sustained but amplified his fighting prowess in the three title defenses that followed before Alvarez handed him his first and only loss, retaking the belt in the process.
It's understandable why Chandler is the favorite here: he's a four-time national qualifier and All-American at the D1 level, the rate at which he's improved is downright unsettling, he's now, along with Alvarez, widely recognized as a top-ten lightweight in the world and he has what might be the ideal blend of athleticism, technique, gameness and toughness.
What's a tad puzzling is that, behind the Marcin Held vs. Nate Jolly affair, Chandler is the second heaviest favorite on the card, garnering a four-digit spread on the betting lines. A gap of that magnitude is usually reserved for a guaranteed squash match ... and this isn't one.
From a certain lens, Brooks actually pairs up quite well with Chandler: he's one of the rare few who might be able to match his exceptional athleticism, his core competency is split between wrestling domination and effective striking, he's three inches taller yet he's also young, on the rise and ever-improving just like Chandler is. The inarguable counterpoint is a matter of status and recognition -- Chandler's body count simply has bigger and better names, and he's enjoyed more time in the spotlight because of it.
Here's some more food for thought, or fuel on the fire, depending on how outrageous the concept of giving Brooks a legit chance seems: Chandler's game, though undoubtedly voracious, boils down to explosive wrestle-boxing. Straight-line engagements account for the bulk of his attacks, his striking (and therefore, his range) is almost entirely limited to rugged handiwork at toe-to-toe range and his balls-out aggression can leave him susceptible to counter-striking.
It's difficult to guess how well Brooks will fare against Chandler's overwhelming wrestling chops, but it's not ludicrous to assert that he could at least hold his own if not perform comparatively. Much of a takedown's success is predicated on lesser pronounced subtleties like timing, set up and instinct anyway. Brooks is more dynamic on the feet, as he chucks a wide variety of kicks from a greater breadth of distance, and he phase shifts from striking to wrestling and moves laterally with more fluidity. Brooks has also adopted a "freestyle" mode of fighting, fusing atypical tools like his jumping side kicks and a few crafty Judo-esque clinch tactics with his unpredictable motion and awkward, almost broken rhythm striking tempo. Because of Brooks' unusual characteristics and freestyle tendencies, and considering that he's been training to face either Alvarez or Chandler since winning the tournament, the short-notice factor of this fight might favor him as well.
Of course, it's impossible to quantify pre-fight intangibles like how well Brooks can withstand Chandler's takedowns, or how closely they compare as freakish athletes, or how much Brooks' size advantage and style will impact the match up. The most sensible measurement is past performance and level of opposition, which brings us back to the aforementioned "status" debate. Without question, that makes Chandler the deserving favorite. But that's not the point of contention -- the gaudy chasm on the betting lines is. Whether as a defiant middle finger waved at purportedly distorted odds, out of respect for Brooks in light of the rampant skepticism toward his chances, or because there's a damn good case he can win this fight ...
My Prediction: Will Brooks by decision.