The sport of mixed martial arts has experienced a steady growth in popularity over the past several years and because of the increased visibility, more and more athletes are leaning towards a career in MMA. Talent is coming from all disciplines but with the success of legends like Randy Couture and former college champions such as Mark Munoz or Phil Davis, MMA has become a very popular "next step" for college wrestlers once their days on the mats are over. This year's NCAA Division 1 finals received far more attention from the world of mixed martial arts than it has in previous years and it is rumored that many of the NCAA's best have committed to make the move to mixed martial arts.
In a recent interview with Bellator lightweight Michael Chandler, we spoke about his transition from the Black and Gold mats of the University of Missouri to the make or break grind of professional MMA. Chandler had to make a lot of crucial decisions to insure that his career got off to the correct start and judging from his undefeated record, including a first round submission victory in the opening round of Bellator's lightweight tournament, he made the correct choices. From the gym that a fighter trains at to the organization the fighter performs in, all things factor into becoming successful in both the business and the sport of mixed martial arts and with that being said, Chandler shared the details of his initial steps towards mixed martial arts.
"I graduated from the University of Missouri where I wrestled with Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren," Chandler began. "I wrestled with Tyron for one year and then he became my coach for the next two, then as he made his transition to MMA I started to take notice. I wasn't really interested much before he started and to be honest I wasn't even a fan. I never watched it or kept up with it because I was just in love with the sport of wrestling. Eventually I started rolling around with him and then he got some mitts off a website, just cheap boxing gloves and stuff. We would mess around and work out with them and I helped him get ready for a few of his amateur fights. That's really how I got started in MMA. Then Ben Askren started fighting and after I graduated I took a trip up to Canada with Ben to train with T.J. Grant. After that I went with Tyron down to Coconut Creek Florida to train at ATT because Tyron had solid ties down there with Yves Edwards and I became really good friends with Yves. I even made the trip to Austin to work out with Yves because he needed help with his wrestling and I really needed help with my stand-up and many other aspects of my game as well. I've been really blessed just being able to train with two guys who are really making an impact as Tyron is close to fighting for the belt in Strikeforce and Ben is already the Bellator champion."
While every fighter ultimately steps into the cage alone, it is the time spent in the gym that prepares him for battle. Fighters who make MMA a full-time commitment consider the gym a second home as they spend endless hours learning what it takes to be successful. For an aspiring mixed martial artist choosing a gym is a crucial part of the process and Chandler shared how his journey to Xtreme Couture unfolded.
"I coached at UM for a year after graduation and as much as it hurt my heart I told Coach Smith that I really wanted to pursue a career in mixed martial arts and I couldn't continue to coach. I moved to St. Louis with Tyron and trained for a couple months but it just wasn't what I needed. I knew that I needed something stable and that I wanted to be a world champion and the best possible place for me to accomplish those goals was at Xtreme Couture. I came out here for a week to check it out and made good friends with Randel Aleman, who is now my manager, and during that week I trained with him and Gray Maynard. Gray was training for Kenny Florian at the time and he really took me in and we hung out and worked together for the entire week. After I left Las Vegas and went back to St. Louis I just knew that Xtreme Couture was the place I needed to be. To make sure I even took a trip up to San Jose to AKA with my buddy Mark Ellis and he's still up there but at the time he was also looking for where he was going to land as well. I went out there for a week but it just made me realize that working with Gil Martinez and Neil Melanson and the great roster of fighters was exactly what I needed. I love the weather. I love being surrounded by mountains and I haven't looked back since."
The idea that college is the last stop before entering the "real world" extends into the transition from the NCAA to MMA. Where in an NCAA program there is a schedule and coaches to push an athlete towards their goals, once the university time is over, so goes that stability. In Chandler's eyes, it was a situation he knew well and as he had done in the past, put himself in the situation that would allow him the best competition and instruction.
"I wrestled at the University of Missouri and I had smaller offers from Division 2 schools and NAIA programs where if you go there, get your full ride and you get to be the big man on campus but the amount of guys in the wrestling room who are really able to push you to that next level where you really want to go isn't there," Chandler described. "I decided to walk on to the University of Missouri wrestling team knowing that I could never start, never break the line up or go out onto the mat wearing the black and gold but at the same time I took a leap of faith and put myself in the best situation that I possibly could. That is exactly what I did with Xtreme Couture as well. Being in St. Louis, nothing against what Tyron was doing, but there wasn't a team there where you wake up in the morning, eat breakfast and hit the gym. You come back home, eat lunch and go back to the gym where you are training with some of the best fighters in the world. It becomes a regimented schedule where you can lock in your focus and I have 15 to 20 guy's numbers in my phone that I could call up at any time of the day and they would meet me to get a work out in. I'm not talking about no name guys either. Guys like Gray Maynard, Evan Dunham, Jay Heiron, Mike Pyle and Martin Kampmann...guys who have been there and done it. I truly believe you can only become as good as your training partners will allow you to become. That's how I'm living my life right now and that's a living testament. I'm taking advantage of the situation and I'm excited to see how good I can become. I'm excited to see how good they can make me but at the same time I'm helping a lot of the guys with their wrestling as well."
When a high level college wrestler enters the ranks of professional fighting expectations follow. Ben Askren was a highly decorated NCAA Division 1 champion and despite winning the Bellator tournament he has received criticism when compared to the other champions of the sport. Even with the obvious additions of punches, kicks and knees, wrestlers soon find out that MMA wrestling is something they must learn to adapt to.
"Obviously there is no out of bounds in a cage and there is a wall that you are going to hit if are getting shot on or if you are driving someone back with a double leg," Chandler explained. "There is a lot of cage wrestling and a lot of things that pride doesn't stop me from saying that I'm not great at yet. Not being able to takedown guys off the cage and being able to stop guys from taking me down against the cage is something that I thought I would be much better at. I thought I would come right in and not be taken down and be able to take down guys at will but when you get somebody up against the cage it's different and takes a lot of getting used to. That is something that I have worked with Gray Maynard a bunch because he's very good at it. He's shown me a lot of pointers and little things and it's made all the difference. It's just like anything you are learning that is new you have to learn the little techniques and tricks of the trade. Things like where to shift your weight and where to put your foot, those things make a huge difference. Just making sure there is no space between your foot in the cage sounds like it wouldn't mean much but it's extremely important so they can't get their hand in there to pull your foot out. It seems so simple but Gray kept taking me down with it and we stopped to go over what I was doing wrong and it was that I was leaving just a little bit of space that an experienced fighter is going to expose. These things are muscle all muscle memory and you have to drill it, drill it and drill it. Luckily being a wrestler that is something I'm used to and doing something a thousand times to learn it is something I'll never have a problem with. I think a lot young wrestlers coming up are scared to be put on their backs but I'm a firm believer that I should never have to be put on my back. If I get taken down then it's my job to get up quickly. I'd belly out before I ever went to my back just because I don't feel that my back is going to be a place at this point in my development where I'm going to be threatening with submission. My jiu-jitsu isn't at that level yet and even if it were I don't think I'm ever going to be that fighter who is fighting off his back with submissions. I want to get back up, get in your face and take you down. Those are the two biggest things in my opinion that are the biggest difference between NCAA wrestling and MMA wrestling."
Chandler continued as he broke down the details further, "The idea of wrestling whether its collegiate or MMA is being able to control your opponent's hips. You go out there and you score the takedown and right away you are looking to control their hips. Wrestling with a guy like Gray who has the hips, the mat awareness and the overall experience he knows exactly which situations he can get out of and when to make the push to scramble back to his feet. That's one of the biggest advantages to having so much wrestling experience because even in an MMA bout where I only have several fights, if it goes to the ground I have had 500 matches where I know what to do. It's an amazing thing to have a natural reaction in a sport I'm new in. I can be put in a position that I've been in so many times before and guys are working hard to learn the things that I already do well. These guys are already behind the curve because they don't have that wrestling base and lack the mat awareness. It's an awesome background to have and there is going to be a lot of chain wrestling because the sport is evolving. We just got finished with the NCAA Wrestling Tournament and there are at least 50, maybe 100 seniors who are committed to making the move to MMA. You are looking at top level guys every single year who are graduating and moving out to a camp just like I did to get their careers started. Our team at Xtreme Couture is growing and we are hopefully going to get some more wrestlers to join because the work ethic is second to none. In my opinion wrestlers are the most dedicated, most disciplined and hardest working people on Earth. You get 10-20 wrestlers in a room you are going to see guys working hard that don't have egos and they are in their trying to dominate but at the same time everyone is getting better. You are literally trying to break them but then you build them back up afterwards and that is the kind of team we are working with. I feel so blessed to be a part of this situation. So my advice to the seniors who are coming out or anyone who is looking to start a serious career in MMA is to not be scared. Make sure you put yourself in the best position you can possible be. When I walked on to the University of Missouri I knew there was a chance I would never even get to put on the black and gold singlet to compete but I knew the best wrestlers were there and that was how I was going to elevate my own game. The same thing applies to MMA without a doubt."