Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler isn't overly cocky or brash, yet he isn't afraid to speak his mind regardless of what others may think.
"There's a fine line between humility and not thinking highly enough of yourself," Chandler told ESPN.com. "I spent a lot of years tip-toeing around, being afraid of what people were going to think. It's OK to have a little bit of pride in yourself. I spent way too many years suppressing that, and I just refuse to live a life that's not conducive of a champion."
After knocking out Patricky "Pitbull" Freire with a thunderous right hand -- described by Chandler as hitting "the sweet spot on a baseball bat" -- to recapture the lightweight title in May, Chandler has begun to enjoy the fruits of his labor, to take stock of a great moment in his career.
"I stand here not afraid to admit that I've watched that knockout a thousand times," Chandler said. "If my visions come to fruition, I'm going to knock Benson Henderson out in the first or second round just as devastatingly."
Chandler will look to make that prediction true against Henderson (24-6) on Saturday in the headliner of Bellator 165 from the SAP Center in San Jose, California. The matchup pits the Bellator and UFC 155-pound champions from 2012 and most of 2013 against each other.
Henderson defended the UFC strap three times in that time frame while Chandler defended the Bellator belt twice. Chandler says he would've loved a shot to fight Henderson then, to see who the true premier lightweight in the world was, but he gets his shot years later -- a stretch of time Chandler claims he has only benefited from.
"I feel like I'm the best I've ever been, and I think it's happening at the worst time for him," Chandler said. "I think he has done nothing but second guess himself, decline in skill, and I think at this point he's settled on becoming the head coach at the [MMA] Lab. You know, you get to coach and be a gym owner. I was focused on gold belts."
While both fighters are 3-3 in their last six bouts, Chandler is riding a three-fight win streak in which he has dominated his opponents, including the knockout of Freire that Bellator's Jimmy Smith called "fast in slow motion." In his own stretch, Henderson fought three times at welterweight, including his Bellator debut to Andrey Koreshkov in April, a unanimous decision loss. In his title eliminator fight with Patricio "Pitbull" Freire in August, Henderson didn't look stellar prior to winning via TKO in the second round when Freire was unable to continue with a leg injury.
"He's past his prime, and he has taken way too many shots," Chandler said. "He doesn't believe in himself anymore, he doesn't believe he can beat me. He sat there and he lied to Scott Coker at the negotiation table. Scott Coker's writing him big checks, and he's coming out and underperforming. I'm going to go out there and put a nail in the coffin, and send him off into retirement down there in Arizona."
This appears to be the halcyon age for Chandler, but to get here, he had to go through some dark times. The aforementioned three-fight losing skid, in which Chandler dropped the title to Eddie Alvarez in a contested split decision, kicked it off. That loss was followed by back-to-back defeats to Will Brooks. He went 688 days without a victory, a time he says made him grow physically, mentally and spiritually into the man he is today.
"He's past his prime, and he has taken way too many shots. He doesn't believe in himself anymore, he doesn't believe he can beat me. ... I'm going to go out there and put a nail in the coffin, and send him off into retirement." Michael Chandler on Benson Henderson
During that time, Chandler decided to switch camps and train with the Blackzilians in Boca Raton, Florida. He reconnected with grappling coach Neil Melanson, whom he bonded with while beginning his MMA career at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. Chandler says that their dynamic works great because he'd "run through a brick wall" if his coach told him to, and it would be reciprocated. He adds that relationships like theirs are rare in this sport, and compared it to the likes of Demetrious Johnson and Matt Hume or Frankie Edgar with Mark Henry.
"He has been my grappling coach, head coach, good friend, mentor, and he's worth his weight in gold because he's the best grappling coach in the entire world," Chandler said. "He loves me more than anybody else in this entire sport. He believes in me more than anybody else in this entire sport, and that's a very powerful thing."
Based on his words, you could think that Chandler is looking past Henderson this Saturday, but that isn't the case. The Bellator champion says his work inside the gym is producing the best version of Michael Chandler to date. Saturday is the five-year anniversary of Chandler-Alvarez I, one of the best fights of 2011. A kid one year and a half out of college submitted a perennial top-five lightweight in the fourth round to win his first title. Now proven to the world and comfortable in his own skin -- to call it the way he sees it -- Chandler only has to measure up to his own standards.
"The only person that I need to outperform out there is myself," Chandler said. "If I go out there, and I put together my game plan, and I put together my hands and my feet, and my aggression, and my speed, and my power together like I know I can, there's not a man in this division, in this world, that can stop me."