Bellator's Chandler, Pitbull fight to settle bad blood, best-ever debate

Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler has won seven of his past eight matchups. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Michael Chandler's first real memory of being around Patricio Freire dates all the way back to early 2011.

At the time, Bellator used a tournament format, with seasons and events airing every week. After the fourth season, the promotion flew the tournament participants to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, for video shoots.

Chandler, then 25 years old, was coming off his Bellator lightweight tournament win, and Freire, 23, who lost to Joe Warren in the season two featherweight tournament final, had just won the season four tourney.

Chandler and Warren, a pair of former star amateur wrestlers, were hanging out together that day. Warren, Chandler said, was giving Freire and his brother, Patricky -- both nicknamed "Pitbull" -- a hard time.

"I'll never forget, Joe Warren was taunting and heckling both of the 'Pitbull' brothers, literally making fun of them and telling everybody about how fat they were," Chandler told ESPN. "They both were overweight. They both were out of shape. I don't know if they hadn't been training. I don't know if they were going through some injuries, but it was funny sitting back watching Joe Warren roast them, telling everybody how fat they were, calling them the Sausage Brothers and the Burger Brothers."

Freire will tell you that his rivalry with Chandler started when Chandler made remarks about his family after knocking out Patricky in 2016. Chandler will say that it became real when Freire accused him of performance-enhancing drug use last year.

But that day in Florida eight years ago might have been the origin of the blood feud between the two best fighters in the history of Bellator. Chandler and "Pitbull" will settle things in the cage on Saturday in the main event of Bellator 221 in Rosemont, Illinois. The fight will be for Chandler's Bellator lightweight title. Freire, the featherweight champion, is moving up in weight for the historic bout.

Freire, who said he couldn't train at the time due to a broken hand, remembers that 2011 shoot as one of the first times he thought Chandler was using banned substances.

"Him and Warren didn't have fights booked, but they were all looking like bodybuilders, full of veins and muscles in their body," Freire said through an interpreter. "I remember that pretty well. They were full of steroids, and I couldn't train."

The history between the two men is rich, but this is a fight that transcends trash talk. When Chandler and "Pitbull" step into the cage on Saturday, it will be a contest to see who Bellator's true franchise fighter is, who is the best to ever enter the Bellator cage. Chandler and Freire have long been the cornerstones of the upstart promotion, which was founded by Bjorn Rebney in 2009.

Chandler and "Pitbull" are tied for the most wins (16) and title wins (six) in Bellator history. Chandler has the most finishes (11) in Bellator history, one more than Freire (10). They are tied for second in fights in the promotion (20), behind only those of David Rickels (22).

"I think this is definitely the biggest fight in Bellator history," Chandler said. "When you talk about accolades of the two fighters, when you talk about the tenure of the two fighters, when you talk about two guys who have always consistently performed and put on a show."

Chandler (19-4) is a three-time Bellator lightweight champion. Freire (28-4) has held the Bellator featherweight belt twice. They have both lorded over their respective divisions for the better part of the decade. "Pitbull" believes the thing that sets him apart from Chandler is his willingness to move up in weight, which he also did against former UFC champion Benson Henderson.

"He mentions himself as the greatest," Freire said of Chandler. "But he didn't have the audacity to go up in weight class and fight a champion that's bigger than him. And that's what I'm doing for a second time. He doesn't have the courage that I do."

Chandler, 33, first won the Bellator lightweight title in 2011, a submission finish over Eddie Alvarez in what still might be the most exciting fight in Bellator history.

Former Bellator play-by-play man Sean Wheelock remembers Chandler telling him back then that he thought he could beat Alvarez, who was considered one of the best lightweight fighters in the world. Wheelock said he was impressed by Chandler's moxie and quiet confidence. He is not at all shocked that Chandler and "Pitbull" are still performing at a high level today.

"I think the fact that we're talking about guys from 2010 representing Bellator now, a Bellator that's much different than it was then, it shows that Bjorn was very good at creating stars," Wheelock said. "I'm not surprised because I know they're both supremely talented. Give them credit for staying loyal to Bellator. I think they both could have gone on to the UFC and replicated that success. I think they're both top-five fighters in the world in their weight class."

An ESPN request for an interview with Rebney went unreturned this week.

"This is definitely the biggest fight in Bellator history." Michael Chandler

Scott Coker took the reins of Bellator in 2014 after the promotion was acquired by Viacom. Coker said he was disconnected from MMA in the three years following his sale of Strikeforce to the UFC; he didn't know the caliber of Bellator's stars. But he was blown away when he saw Freire beat Daniel Straus in January 2015, just a few months into his tenure.

"It was like the Hagler-Hearns moment for me when I saw those guys throw down, and it was so intense," Coker said. "I remember thinking, these guys are f---ing amazing."

Chandler beat Patricky, Freire's brother, for the first time in 2011 and again by vicious knockout in 2016. After that finish, Chandler climbed the cage to celebrate and was met by Patricio. The two exchanged words, and that's when Chandler made a quip about beating up the entire "Pitbull" family.

"He has to talk about me and my brother, not about our family," Freire, 31, said. "He was the one who decided to make it personal, including every member of our family. And now he's gonna have to pay for that."

Chandler says the beef is one-sided, and Freire took that comment out of context. He said he hasn't lost a wink of sleep due to "Pitbull." The one thing that has gotten under his skin, though, is the steroid accusations. Freire has claimed that Chandler hasn't gotten caught yet because Bellator does not have an anti-doping policy that tests out of competition.

"Nothing has really made me upset aside from the baseless, false accusations of PED use," Chandler said. "That's something that's just a black eye on the sport because you're bringing up the fact that if you're in Bellator, you're a cheater because you can't be a clean athlete in Bellator. It's just a silly argument to make.

"Secondly, it just makes him look insecure and reaching for dumb things because I look a certain way or I train a certain way or I do certain things on my Instagram that make him feel uncomfortable with his manhood. I don't know."

"Pitbull" said Chandler is upset by these claims because "the truth hurts."

"I don't respect him as a fighter," Freire said. "He's a dangerous fighter, but to me he's dirty. He's using substances and trying to kill someone. To me, most of the things he did, he did because he had the steroids. He wouldn't be half the fighter he is if he didn't have all that."

Chandler said he does respect Friere, at least inside the cage.

"He's got a dangerous mentality," Chandler said. "He's a fighter's fighter. He's a guy who wants to go out there and brawl, and he's not afraid to get into a fistfight. He's a guy who's got power in his hands, power in his kicks, power in his knees, power in his elbows. And he's good with his submissions."

Chandler vs. "Pitbull" has everything anyone could want in an MMA headliner. Champion vs. champion. Legitimate bad blood. A long, sordid history. Most importantly, though, this is a fight that pits the best against the best. Bellator bragging rights are on the line, and the stakes could not be higher.

"I will prove that I'm the greatest fighter in Bellator history," Freire said. "And it will put me in the conversation with all the greats."

Added Chandler: "We're in the same class, if you will. The same graduating class. We both came in as freshmen under the Bellator banner, and now we're both seniors. And we're fighting for captainship of the Bellator organization."