IRVINE, Calif. -- Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler envisions himself the best 155-pound mixed martial artist on the planet, and though he's handicapped by the notion that one cannot be such a thing outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the 26-year-old wrestler from Missouri is at least deserving of being in the discussion.
Such was the intensity of Chandler's statement at 3:07 of the second round against 36-year-old judo Olympian Rick Hawn to close Bellator MMA's first card broadcast on Spike TV.
Following an impressive opening frame in which Chandler handled Hawn standing and on the ground, the Bellator champion slapped on a hand-to-hand rear-naked choke at 3:07 of the second.
"I got a lot improving to do," Chandler said afterward. "I'll tell you that much."
Not so much, based on Chandler's early career success, though the ex-University of Missouri wrestler could do well to keep his hands up.
Hawn (14-2) popped Chandler with a stiff right, and the champion responded by driving through the Olympian with a strong takedown.
Chandler maintained top control, peppering away with short punches and elbows. With less than a minute remaining in the first, Hawn stood and nearly tossed the champion, who responded by trading punches.
Chandler continued to make the most of his grappling advantage in Round 2, scoring a high-elevation double-leg takedown that prompted an eager roar from nearly 4,000 fans inside UC Irvine's Bren Center.
Chandler continued working over Hawn with in-tight elbows and punches.
A game challenger on paper, Hawn earned the shot after winning three fights in 2012 to capture a Bellator lightweight tournament crown.
Chandler, too, earned his right to fight for the title this way, and made a name for himself by defeating Eddie Alvarez for the belt in arguably the best MMA contest of 2011. Expectations for Chandler shot through the roof following the Alvarez fight, and he did nothing to make that tide recede.
Following a scramble, the finish came as Chandler swung to Hawn's back, secured control and locked in the title-retaining strangulation.
"I put the hips in," Chandler said. "Me and [trainer] Neil Melanson worked that [maneuver] 16,000 times right there."
Curran defends title over "Pitbull"
Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran picked up steam over the course of his five-round title defense versus Patricio "Pitbull" Freire to retain the title by split decision (48-47, 48-47, 47-48).
ESPN.com scored the bout 48-47 for Curran.
It wasn't the show-stopper promoters and network executives hoped for as Bellator made its Spike TV debut, yet Curran and Freire put together a classy effort defined by beautiful and angry striking exchanges.
Both fighters had rust to shake off after considerable layoffs -- Curran was out 10 months and recovering from a broken orbital bone while "Pitbull" hadn't fought since May 2011 -- and each took their time in doing so. After the challenger opened with a quality first and Curran responded in the second by popping "Pitbull" in the nose to induce a stream of blood that lasted the entire bout, action picked up significantly in the final 15 minutes.
Freire's best period was the third. Whatever shackles of ring rust he brought into the cage had been shed by then, and he flowed with purpose. While Curran (18-4) still landed solid jabs on the 25-year-old Brazilian's face, including a nifty triple shot, Freire (17-2) connected with a thudding high kick to the champion's head and pressured to gain momentum heading to the championship rounds.
For the most part, Curran had done what he wanted. He blocked the majority of Freire's power-based attacks, especially those aimed high, yet there was a good chance he wasn't ahead on the judges' cards.
The 25-year-old Floridian responded as well as he could have in the fourth, putting together his best five-minute stretch of the fight. The champion connected with a bevy of body-to-head combos that slowed Freire's attack and, in turn, evened up the contest heading into the fifth.
"Pitbull" stepped forward with serious intent to begin the final round, yet Curran's footwork, accuracy, quality work with his lead left frustrated the Brazilian, who appeared to fatigue under the weight of the champion's work. Still, the gifted challenger stepped it up in the final 20 seconds, bringing a crowd eager for action to its feet, by attacking with the sort of ferociousness that helped him build an impressive record.
Curran, however, cooly stood his ground up until the bell, and deservedly retained the Bellator title.
Light heavyweight semis take shape
Fighting on the main card, Zayats (20-6) ruined Renato Sobral's evening with a spinning backfist that staggered the Brazilian veteran near the end of the first round. Zayats pushed forward with punching, planting a left that put "Babalu" (37-10) down on the canvas along the cage fencing. Hammerfists and punches followed until referee John McCarthy called a halt to the contest at the 4:49 mark.
Noe (9-1) offered a similar ending by plastering Seth Petruzelli (14-7) until referee Jason Herzog called a halt to the bout at 2:51 of the opening round. Taking top position off a scramble, Noe trapped Petruzelli and delivered unanswered shots to pound out a stoppage.
Southern California-based veteran Newton (19-7-1) had an easy time with Bulgarian Atanas Djambazov (17-3) en route to a second-round tapout via rear-naked choke. The win at 2:21 of the second round came after Newton established grappling control and wrangled the choke even before he sunk in his hooks.
In a tournament alternate contest, Jason Lambert remained eligible should an injury arise by finishing Hector Ramirez (9-5-1) at 3:59 of the first with a rare inverted armbar. Action before the finish saw both men trading strikes, but when it hit the floor Lambert (26-12) was clearly the more proficient fighter. The former King of the Cage champion went for a triangle from the guard before locking down Ramirez's left to force a tap.