I had the pleasure of watching Michael Chandler's final college wrestling match. In the fifth place match at the 2009 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Chandler beat Bloomsburg's Matt Moley, turned to his adoring hometown fans, extended both arms over his head, placed the back of his wrists together and proceeded to simultaneously flap both hands.
That's what I remember most about Chandler's wrestling career- the hand flapping. I still wonder about its meaning and purpose. You would see him do it regularly after big wins, and in the stolid, button-down world of wrestling, this sort of celebration really stood out. Normally, I figure these sorts of things are meant to mimic an animal mascot, but I don't believe the gesture had anything to do with Chandler's team at the University of Missouri. Mizzou is the Tigers, and the flapping had a distinctive avian flavor.
While the story behind the flapping remains a mystery, no uncertainty exists that Chandler loved putting on shows on his home mats in Missouri, where he often made very good opposition look pretty bad. Below you can see one of his impassioned interactions with the Missouri faithful after a big win.
Chandler's fifth place finish at the 2009 national tournament marked the only time he achieved All American status, but he threatened to place in the NCAA's top eight all four of his years starting at 157 pounds for Missouri. Every single year as a varsity wrestler, Chandler qualified for nationals, twice earned a seed and twice fell just one win shy of All-American status, losing in the round of 12 as a freshman and junior (both times to Indiana's Brandon Becker).
In his four championship bracket losses at the NCAA tournament, Chandler only lost to the cream of the crop: Penn State's Bubba Jenkins- an eventual national champion, Boise State's Ben Cherrington- an eventual national champion, Cornell's Jordan Leen- a past national champion and Illinois' Mike Poeta- a two time national finalist and one of the best to never win a national championship. In the year where Chandler broke through and placed fifth, three of the four wrestlers who placed in front of him in the 157 pound weight class were national champions (Leen, Nebraska's Jordan Burroughs and Edinboro's Gregor Gillespie) the other was the aforementioned Poeta. The year after Chandler graduated, Harvard's J.P. O'Connor, a wrestler whom Chandler had beaten in the past, won the 157 pound NCAA championship.
Looking behind us, we might be a little surprised that Chandler didn't leave college with a bit more hardware in his trophy case, but based on his high school accomplishments, he overachieved astonishingly during his time as an NCAA Division I wrestler.
When Mizzou announced its star studded recruiting class for the 2004-2005 season, it boasted a collection of nationally accomplished signees from across the USA, and Chandler wasn't initially one of them. Chandler did not commit to wrestle for Coach Brian Smith's Tigers till late in his senior year of high school. His name showed up on a Missouri press release for late commits as something of an afterthought- a tough local kid who would try his hand at the big leagues after never even winning a Missouri state championship.
Upon arriving on campus Chandler immediately began outperforming his pedigree, and after a strong redshirt season, he took his place in the team's starting lineup for good. On the mats he sported an exciting style which highlighted his impressive athleticism. Reviewing film of Chandler's college wrestling, he showed everything necessary to develop into a top-flight fighter: quick feet, lighting fast shots, fluidity, strength and aggression. Additionally, his comfort in scrambling situations foretold a smooth transition into submission grappling. Early in the match below (the 1:30 mark), Chandler enters into an epic, almost two-minute long scramble with Jordan Leen, and impresses even in the process of surrendering points to the Cornell wrestler.
Most important of all the qualities Chandler brings from wrestling into fighting is what some would call a "blue collar" mentality. On his University of Missouri athletic bio, Chandler's college coach, Brian Smith offers high praise of his work ethic, and from a Division I wrestling coach, this sort of praise does not come lightly.
Factgrinder Final Analysis:
Michael Chandler was a first rate wrestling talent who had the bad fortune of peaking as a college wrestler while competing in one of the most stacked 157 pound weight classes in NCAA history. In other years, the 2009 version of Chandler could very well have won a national title. His steep improvement curve stretching from high school and through his five years of college indicates that he still had a ton of upside remaining when his college eligibility expired. While his scattered forays into the Olympic styles only yielded moderate success, I believe that with his continued development and favorable weight class realignment, had Chandler pursued a freestyle career, at this point he would likely stand among the American wrestlers with a real shot to make the World Team this year at 70 kg (a non-Olympic weight).
Instead he's a pretty darned good fighter.