There were more than a few confused faces and raised eyebrows when Bellator Fighting Championships announced that their lightweight champion Michael Chandler, fresh off of his Fight of the Year performance over Eddie Alvarez to close 2011, would face journeyman fighter Akihiro Gono in his next bout.
At 9-0, Chandler has rocketed past rising prospect to legitimate top ten lightweight over the last year, so when looking at his next challenge very few people expected it to be a fighter coming off back-to-back losses.
Throughout his career, Akihiro Gono has been a tough challenger for a lot of fighters including hard fought battles in the UFC with names like Jon Fitch and Dan Hardy. Still Gono’s career would appear to be past its peak, and more recently the one-time Pride fighter has lost two fights in a row and has gone just 3-5 over his last eight bouts.
The question then has to be asked of Bellator CEO and Chairman Bjorn Rebney, why was Gono given the chance to face their lightweight champion in a super fight?
The simple answer is because Gono was the one fighter who said yes.
“There’s a balance, you get a guy and I’ll try to give you as straight forward an answer as I can, when you get a guy who is good as Michael Chandler and I think we can all agree that Michael Chandler should be among everybody’s top list at 155lbs in the world. When you get a guy that good, good names who are not currently engaged in a Bellator tournament or beholden to a UFC contract, are not jumping out of the gym to take that fight,” Rebney revealed when speaking to MMAWeekly Radio.
“When you look at the list and you say to yourself who can we get that’s got a good history in the game, that’s got some huge wins behind them, could conceptually be a guy who could compete if he can re-ignite the flame and Gono was that guy.”
The fact is according to Rebney the call was made to several other lightweight fighters trying to find the best name possible to face Chandler, but all of them except Gono turned down the challenge.
“We went through a lot of different names trying to fight somebody to fight Mike, because we’ve got this tournament going on now, Mike vs. Eddie (Alvarez) was a while ago, you’ve got to keep a guy like that busy. It’s incumbent upon us to keep him busy, and you look through the list and you call a lot of fighters. You call a lot of 155lbers and say are you interested in this fight? And the answer across the board with a lot of guys is no. I’m not interested in that fight in any way, shape or form,” said Rebney.
Bellator’s current super fight format has been their way of keeping a champion busy while they complete tournaments to crown new contenders to fight in title bouts. With a move to Spike TV on the horizon in 2013, Rebney is hoping to do away with the super fight scenario all together, but for now they just don’t want Chandler sitting out for the majority of 2012 while their next lightweight tournament comes to a close.
Rebney admits that the call was even made to some welterweights who might have been interested in cutting down to 155lbs for the chance to face the Bellator lightweight champion, but again no one was jumping at the opportunity except for Akihiro Gono.
“Absolutely no disrespect to Gono, he’s had a spectacular career and he’s been at the top level of this game. He’s not been on a great run as of late, but he did say yes, and he said yes with a lot of time to train, and he said yes with an amazing amount of enthusiasm for the opportunity, and one that could change the direction of his career,” said Rebney.
No matter what money was offered or what opportunity was laid on the table, no one was chomping at the bit to face Chalder on May 4, so Gono gets the chance to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Bellator history.
“You’re looking for the best guy you can get, but a lot of the best guys that are available, it doesn’t matter about the money, they’re not interested in fighting a Michael Chandler at this stage of his career,” said Rebney.
“Michael Chandler is a beast in this game so you do the best you can with the situation.”