mike-chandler-5.jpgWhen asked how much he had to convince Bellator MMA lightweight champion Michael Chandler to sign a new long-term deal with the Viacom-owned fight promotion, Bellator Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney put it in terms everyone could understand.

“I can tell you that every single time Michael and I go out to dinner for the rest of our lives, he picks up the check,” Rebney told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com).

That sounds just fine to the unbeaten Chandler (11-0 MMA, 8-0 BFC), who told MMAjunkie.com on Wednesday that he’d agreed to a new multi-fight contract with Bellator – one which Rebney insisted would make Chandler “one of the highest-paid lightweights in all of MMA.”

The new deal comes just a week before Chandler is slated to defend the Bellator 155-pound title against Season 8 tournament winner David Rickels (14-1 MMA, 8-1 BFC) at Bellator 97 on July 31. It also comes at a time when Chandler had roughly a year left on his existing Bellator contract, according to Rebney. The new contract will keep him off the free agent market and with Bellator for years to come, both men said in a phone interview.

“It’s a minimum of eight fights,” Rebney said. “It’s got a lot of years left on the deal, so it’s long-term for us and long-term for Mike, but for us that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When you put these deals together, you’ve got to have some uniformity on the number of fights, but our vision for Michael is long, long term. You’re going to see that in what we’re doing from a marketing perspective.”

To some extent, Bellator has already done that, building advertising campaigns for sponsors such as Dave & Busters around Chandler, who has emerged as the face of the tournament-based fight promotion ever since taking the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez with a fourth-round submission win in November 2011.

He likely would have been pursued by the UFC after becoming a free agent, but Chandler insisted he had no qualms about re-signing with Bellator before testing his worth on the open market.

“It’s one of those things where it just feels right,” Chandler said. “This deal, the negotiations and the meetings and the talks, everything was playing itself out, and it felt right. I felt that this was the right move to make. I love fighting in Bellator. They put a lot of faith in me, and they’re using me a ton for advertising and continuing to sign top talent. I can guarantee they’re going to continue to sign more and bigger talent. For me, it’s just about continuing to fight. I want to continue to go out there and dominate and show my friends and family, my fans, how hard I’ve been working.”

Of course, Chandler admitted, it helped that an ongoing legal battle between Bellator and Alvarez has made the details of the organization’s offer to the former champ public knowledge. It showed him what Bellator was willing to pay a man he’d already beaten, and informed his own notion of what he should expect to make for a new deal, he said.

“It was a little bit [of a help] just to see what he was being offered,” Chandler said. “I’m not a guy who spends a lot of time going to different websites and trying to figure out what guys are getting paid. Obviously, my passion is fighting, but yes, I do want to be compensated accordingly, and compensated as well as I possibly can. Especially being 27 years old, getting closer to 30, I want to be able to provide for my future wife and future kids.”

The new contract should help him do that. Although neither would offer specifics about the financial figures involved, Rebney said repeatedly that this deal will put Chandler among the elite 155-pound earners.

“Obviously, our industry is not that large,” Rebney said. “There’s the UFC and Bellator. What the UFC pays its top lightweights and what Bellator pays is pretty common knowledge. It doesn’t take a CIA agent to figure out what those numbers are, but I can tell you pretty unequivocally that Michael Chandler is now one of the top-paid lightweights in all of MMA.”

That, Rebney insisted, is a distinction Chandler earned throughout his tenure with the organization. After fighting twice for Strikeforce early on in his career, Chandler was a free agent when Bellator zeroed in on him as a potential future star. He made his Bellator debut in September 2010, and then became the lightweight champ in 2011 after the win over Alvarez in what many dubbed the year’s best fight

Chandler has been a fixture in most top-10 rankings ever since – he’s currently No. 3 in the USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie.com MMA lightweight rankings – and his rise from a virtual unknown to a force to be reckoned with is one that mirrors Bellator’s own climb, according to Rebney.

“Michael Chandler, as much if not more so than anyone else in this organization, exemplifies what we’re about,” Rebney said. “Two years ago if you asked a bunch of MMA fans who Michael Chandler was, there wouldn’t be many who would respond. Today you look at the top rankings and the top 10 in MMA, and Michael Chandler is in most people’s top three. I hear the question that people ask, like will you or can you or how can you establish yourself? I think Michael Chandler is the best lightweight in our sport, and he’s going to continue to prove it with his effort and his abilities, and you’re going to continue to see him climb that list. I’ll put the house on Michael Chandler against any lightweight in the world today, and I think the new deal we structured with Mike speaks directly to that.”

For Chandler, the new contract means waving goodbye to any hope of testing himself against the top lightweights in the UFC in the near future. That’s a prospect he can live with, he said, as long as Bellator keeps finding him fresh challengers through its tournament system.

“The biggest change, which was promised to me a few months ago, was that with the new platform on Spike TV, the new deal, there would be more and more tournaments,” Chandler said. “And there has been. I think this September is the third lightweight tournament. When you kick out three tournaments a year you’re kicking out three No. 1 contenders a year, and that right there gives me three opponents a year.”

On Bellator’s end, signing the champ to a new long-term deal roughly a week before he’s due to defend his title for only the second time signals that it’s putting a lot of its eggs in the Chandler basket.

“The reality is, there was a significant amount of time left on Michael’s deal, but I looked at where he is in the landscape of MMA, the progress he’s made, what he’s done inside the cage and also what he’s done outside the cage in terms of working with us on marketing and promotion … and looked at it from a corporate perspective and decided it makes sense to make him part of this family long-term, and in so doing make him one of the highest paid lightweights in all of MMA,” Rebney said. “For all the right business dynamics, it made a lot of sense. … This is a good move for the company. I always try to base my decisions on what’s going to be best for Bellator. This is a business that we run, and it is good business to be in the Michael Chandler business.”

Now it’s up to Chandler to prove that hypothesis right. He’ll get his next chance when he faces Rickels in the Bellator 97 main event in Rio Rancho, N.M., this coming Wednesday night. At least now, Chandler said, he can stop worrying about what’s coming next and return his focus to the perils of the here and now.

“As the champion, you’re always focused on your next fight,” Chandler said. “But you also have your eye on, who are they signing next? Who’s in this next lightweight tournament? There’s some great matchups, but more than anything they’re getting me more fights, keeping me active, and that’s the most important part of my career right now. They’re doing it, so I’m happy.”

For the latest on Bellator 97, stay tuned to the MMA Rumors section of the site.

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