Bellator’s Chandler to test free agency in summer

Former Bellator MMA lightweight champion Michael Chandler, one of the company’s most recognizable faces of the past decade, intends to test free agency for the first time in his career this summer.

Chandler (20-5) is scheduled to face former UFC champion Benson Henderson (28-8) at Bellator 244 on June 6, and has informed ESPN it will be the final fight on his exclusive Bellator contract.

Chandler, 33, said he and the promotion have discussed the possibility of an extension, but it appears both sides are comfortable with the possibility of him testing the open market.

“We have had some talks, but it looks like I’m going to be a free agent after this fight,” Chandler told ESPN. “I would love nothing more than to finish my career and retire as a Bellator fighter, and I’ve told that to [Bellator president] Scott Coker, but the simple fact is they have a business to run with checks and balances, and I know my wife and son deserve to be taken care of, and I have a calling in life that might require me to go elsewhere.

“I think I’m a guy who could go to [One Championship] and finish my trilogy with Eddie Alvarez, or imagine me fighting guys like [UFC lightweights] Justin Gaethje or Dustin Poirier, and putting on Fights of the Year. And I do think I’m the best guy to solve the puzzle of [UFC lightweight champion] Khabib Nurmagomedov.”

Chandler signed with Bellator in 2010, after just his third professional fight, and has not tested free agency once in his career. And while Bellator could certainly make him a new offer before June 6, Chandler said it seems likely at this point he will engage in conversations with other promotions.

“I’m going into training camp soon, and I’m not going to be focused on negotiating a contract,” Chandler said. “At this point, all the ducks are lined up for me to put an exclamation point on the last fight of my contract, and go out and perk the ears of other organizations, who I think will want me. It’s never been a matter of these organizations wanting me or not, it’s always been a scenario I just haven’t tested.

“Bellator has taken care of me, and I’ve taken care of them. It’s been the perfect storm of a symbiotic relationship — them having an asset they were not willing to lose, and me being in a situation where the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”

Chandler made it clear he’s very open to staying with Bellator but admitted he’d love to challenge some of the other top lightweights in the world. ESPN currently ranks Chandler the No. 8 lightweight in the world. He is the only 155-pound fighter from Bellator currently ranked inside ESPN’s top 10.

The Nashville-based fighter said he’s had no problem staying motivated during his time with Bellator, but acknowledged it’s been nearly 10 years since he felt the high of fighting a perceived No. 1-ranked lightweight, when he first challenged then-Bellator champion Alvarez in 2011.

“For me, getting up is an inside job, but it has been hard stepping in the cage with guys who I’ve had to lose against and not a lot to gain,” Chandler said. “If I had the opportunity to fight Khabib, or anyone ranked No. 1 — I’ve played that in my head a million times. Not since 2011, when I stepped into the cage and fought Eddie Alvarez for the first time and was the extreme underdog — I’ve never quite had that feeling of a 10 since then.”