The road to MMA gold can be a long and winding one. However, those winding roads can also be the most exciting ones.
Through a strange turn of events, Michael Chandler has fallen in and out of Bellator lightweight championship status for the last seven and a half years — almost his entire professional career. He has won, defended or lost some form of the title nine times in six years. In the biggest upset in Bellator history, he lost the undisputed strap for the second time by first-round, non-contact ankle injury to Brent Primus at Bellator NYC last June.
On April 13, at Bellator 197 in St. Charles, Mo., Chandler was finally set for a chance to get back the strap that he felt was unfairly awarded to Primus. However, a couple weeks ago, the champ had to pull out with an injury. Up stepped Bellator veteran Brandon Girtz, who has had a winding road of his own.
The Minnesota native Girtz is a tough-ass scrapper. He has won and lost just about every way possible, but, much like Chandler, he has never put on a dull fight. Coming off a three-fight losing streak between November 2016 and July 2017 — a streak that looks worse on paper than it actually was — the 15-7 pro traveled over to Italy for Bellator 190 in December. He knocked out Luka Jelcic in less than two minutes. Of all of his pro fights, that one was unique.
“That was the first fight I’ve had internationally, so it was quite the adventure, so I kind of took it as that,” Girtz told Combat Press. “That was a learning experience. The travel, the fighting — it’s a whole different ball game. Traveling across the world to fight, it ain’t no easy task. I just enjoyed the journey.”
It may not have been an easy task, but Girtz made it look incredibly simple. He took out Jelcic with little effort. Before his three-fight skid, Girtz was sitting at 6-2 in Bellator. Two of those recent losses were unanimous decisions where he did win at least one round, and the third fight ended in a doctor’s stoppage, due to a cut, in a rubber match against Derek Campos. If there is one thing to always expect from Girtz, it’s the proverbial fireworks.
When it was announced that Primus was out of Bellator 197 and Girtz was the replacement, it seemed like the best-case scenario. That is, except to the aforementioned Chandler. Chandler really wants to get the belt back, but his winding road just keeps winding. For fans and Girtz, though, this is a great bout.
“I absolutely loved it,” Girtz admitted. “It is a fight I’ve always wanted, and I think it’s a great fight. It’s a fight that I always looked at as one I’d have ever since I joined Bellator. I love the match-up, honestly. We’re both explosive fighters. We both hit hard. We both have wrestling backgrounds. I look at us as two of the same, you know?
“The advantage that I look at on my side is the heart — the willingness to get gritty — is a little different. Like I said, we’re both explosive fighters, and I’m going in there to put him out.”
Title fights are great, but, barring the freak injury, Chandler was supposed to beat Primus no problem. A sequel was really only meant to get Chandler the strap back. However, a great match-up always trumps a lopsided title fight from an entertainment perspective.
Girtz and Chandler have a combined 30 Bellator fights under their belts, but the two have never met. Now, the winding roads will finally converge. If Girtz scores a win over Chandler, then it should mean a No. 1 contender spot.
“This was supposed to be his title shot,” Girtz said. “He was fighting for the title. If I beat Michael Chandler, I feel like I’m basically on the top. I’ve always looked at Chandler at the top. I’m not saying he didn’t lose that belt, but I still feel he was the better fighter of the two. I thought he was going to take it back if he was fighting Primus, but unfortunate events happened and now I’m matched up with him. I feel like, if I take him out, I’m next in line for that belt.”
As soon as Girtz found out about the short-notice headliner, he went right into camp. Several years ago, he made the move from Minnesota to Denver, where he trains at Genesis Training Center. His training partners include UFC lightweight Justin Gaethje and Bellator lightweight Carrington Banks. In addition to hiking in the mountains with his dog Vicii whenever the weather permits, he also does his strength and conditioning at the famed Landow Performance.
“I’m always in the gym,” Girtz said. “It’s winter here, so I haven’t been able to do as much outdoors as I like to do, but, right now, it’s just been straight grind mode.”
Long, winding paths have finally put Girtz and Chandler on a collision course. It all goes down on Friday, April 13, at Bellator 197, which airs live on the Paramount Network from the Family Arena in St. Charles.
“It’s going to be fireworks,” said Girtz. “Two explosive fighters going up against each other — it’s going to be one hell of a fight. I definitely see it better than the fight that was supposed to be going on. I think a lot of people agree. It’s going to be a high-action fight, especially that first round. We’re both trying to prove something.”