The biggest opportunity in Michael Chandler’s career began Tuesday night.
One of the most decorated fighters in Bellator and a genuine superstar since his arrival in the UFC, Chandler is now starring every Tuesday on ESPN in the newest season of The Ultimate Fighter.
“I have always wanted the brightest lights and the biggest stage,” says Chandler. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
This is Season 31 of The Ultimate Fighter, and the first time it’s airing on ESPN. It is led by Chandler and MMA icon Conor McGregor as respective coaches ,while the fighters compete to make the UFC roster. It will culminate with a highly anticipated bout pitting Chandler against McGregor.
“I’m preparing for a fight date this winter, so the waiting is the hardest part,” says Chandler. “If Conor puts together a great training camp, he’ll still be a force to be reckoned with. I’m staying patient and I’m excited to compete against him.”
Though their fight is at least six months away, the competition has begun. The first episode of The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs. Team Chandler aired Tuesday night, laying the groundwork for the season. The structure is prospects against veterans, with Chandler coaching the veterans in the men’s bantamweight and lightweight divisions, while McGregor leads the prospects.
Set in Vegas, the premiere episode established the teams and ranked the fighters. In a change from previous seasons, all the round matchups were decided in the first episode. The first fight also aired, with former UFC fighter Roosevelt Roberts representing Team Chandler by knocking out Nate Jennerman in just eight seconds.
In the buildup, McGregor’s absence from the Roberts-Jennerman weigh-ins was highlighted. Chandler was present for all team activities. But the implication was McGregor had more pressing matters than his coaching duties.
“They definitely highlighted Conor’s suits and cars, so that showed a difference between us,” says Chandler. “I’m the guy who shows up to work on time, the guy who is reliable, and I’ve always got my work boots on. I always want to do more than what is expected of me. That’s the way I was raised by my mom and dad. And it looks like that’s the direction they’re going [with the show].”
A familiar face also returned, as TUF Season Eight winner Ryan Bader appeared as one of Chandler’s assistant coaches. A former UFC fighter with 15 wins in the promotion, he is now the reigning heavyweight champion in Bellator.
Despite the fact he fights for a rival promotion, making sure Bader was included on his coaching staff was important to Chandler.
“Mixed martial arts is all over the world, but it’s still a small community,” says Chandler. “Bader is a friend. We’ve shared the same manager for over a decade. He still has a good relationship with the UFC. You could see the nostalgia seeing him speak with Dana White.
“And Bader was only supposed to be there for a week, but he changed all his plans to spend even more time with the guys. He wanted to be part of it in a bigger way, and he was with us 20 out of the 30 days we were there.”
The driving force of this season of The Ultimate Fighter is the ebullient McGregor. Full of charisma, his charm is out in full force as he begins to sell his first fight in the Octagon since suffering a fractured tibia and fibula in the cage two summers ago.
That caliber of leg breaks are especially difficult injuries to rehab, especially as McGregor turns 35 this summer. Whether he can still compete at an elite level is a serious question, and Chandler will be a tough opponent, particularly when he unleashes his full offensive arsenal in the first five minutes.
“Conor is unapologetically and sometimes even unrealistically confident,” says Chandler, 36. “I respect Conor for choosing to fight me, which I believe is the toughest fight for him. My skill set, my explosiveness, my will to win, my speed and my power, it’s going to be a tough task for him.”
Anticipation for the fight will be intensified throughout the season of TUF, a unique prelude to a very compelling bout.
“The waiting is the hardest part,” says Chandler. “I’m filming a TUF 31 reaction show every week that releases after every episode, so that will keep me busy. I’m immersing myself in TUF, but I’m preparing for a fight date this winter.”