For many fans, the UFC is to mixed martial arts what the NFL is to pro football.
In reality, it’s somewhere between the NFL and the boxing landscape, with one promotion as the clear cut leader in MMA but also plenty of top talents who have thrived in the octagon after arriving from second-tier world promotions. Case in point: Four of the last nine men to hold UFC lightweight gold (undisputed or interim) had been champions with perceived step-below organizations such as WEC (Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis), Bellator (Eddie Alvarez) and World Series of Fighting (Justin Gaethje), in most cases within two years from their UFC debuts.
Michael Chandler, who will make his octagon debut on Saturday against Dan Hooker in the pay-per-view co-headlier of UFC 257, aims to join that championship club by the end of 2021. He arrives for his 155-pound contest at UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, as a former three-time Bellator champ.
Plenty of hardcore fight fans would say that Chandler, who split a pair of classic championship fights with Alvarez in their former promotion and swept two bouts against Henderson after the former UFC fighter came over as a prized free-agent, has always been one of the top lightweights on the planet. Good luck convincing the UFC-only crowd. That fact has stuck in Chandler’s craw.
“Yeah, it really did, just because I knew my abilities, and I knew that I lived a champion’s lifestyle,” Chandler told The Post in a phone interview on Wednesday. “… But it’s also just a testament to what the UFC has built. What Dana [White, UFC president] has built the last  years is just nothing short of amazing. They’ve built a global mixed martial arts platform, a global sports franchise that transcends the sport itself. Those letters U-F-C, it has become synonymous with the big leagues, you know? So I always knew that, and trust me, I’ve had to swallow my pride a ton.”
The 34-year-old Chandler (21-5, 16 finishes), who made his pro MMA debut only months after completing his All-American wrestling career at Missouri, has competed exclusively for world-level promotions Bellator and Strikeforce since his second bout. Chandler rose to prominence early in Bellator, defeating Alvarez by submission in his ninth pro fight to become the champion in November 2011.
Chandler staunchly believes former Division I wrestlers like himself make for the best fighters, touting the high stakes of competing in the NCAA Tournament before tens of thousands. Even then, most fighters don’t follow his path of competing just once on the regional scene before joining the world title stage. It’s a path he believes has been a positive for him as he enters the UFC, which he “of course” notes is the biggest show in the sport. That will be especially true Saturday evening, fighting immediately before crossover superstar Conor McGregor takes on Dustin Poirier in their headlining rematch.
“They think I’m fighting in a barn somewhere,” said Chandler, who in June 2017 at Madison Square Garden lost a title fight to Brent Primus due to a doctor’s stoppage for an ankle injury, “but I’ve done nothing but fight on high-level, high-profile cards.”
Although Chandler comes from wrestling and does utilize his base, he’s developed a reputation as an action-oriented finisher, with nine (T)KOs and seven submission wins on his ledger. Each of his final two fights for Bellator ended by knockout within three minutes, the latter over Henderson in an August rematch. It was only the second time the ex-UFC champ had been stopped by strikes over 38 career bouts.
“I’ve got a great track record of always putting on exciting fights,” Chandler said. “Listen, I’m not undefeated. I did get my lumps. I did get my losses. Every single time, I’ve picked myself back up. … I’ve never been in a boring fight. Win, lose or draw, I come to entertain. I come to have a good time.”
Those unfamiliar with Chandler might wonder why, if he’s such a world-class lightweight, he didn’t transition to the octagon sooner. He had opportunities to leave Bellator, with whom he had a “great scenario” and “good business relationship,” via free agency over the past decade since becoming a champion. But something about the move didn’t feel right until September, when he signed with the UFC, be it then-champion McGregor putting the division on hold to box Floyd Mayweather or current champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson being booked several times to fight yet never making it into the cage.
But Chandler always believed his career path would lead him to UFC when the timing was right, as he believes it is now against New Zealand’s Hooker (20-9, 17 finishes).
“Each one of those times, there was always something that made me hesitant,” Chandler said. “I always knew jumping to the UFC was the right thing to do from a competition standpoint, from a platform standpoint. I always knew that.”