Photo: Bellator MMA

NEW YORK–Bellator returns to the land of pay-per-view later on this evening with Bellator NYC, the biggest fight card that the promotion has ever put together and the second in its nine-year history that will be behind a pay wall–first inside the hallowed walls of “The World’s Most Famous Arena” Madison Square Garden.

Lightweight champion Michael Chandler (16-3), who made his debut back in September 2010 at Bellator 31, has been along for the ride since the early days of the promotion. He fought on the first Bellator pay-per-view card and has grown into one of the best lightweight talents in all of MMA, while Bellator President Scott Coker, who replaced founding CEO Bjorn Rebney in 2014, has taken the promotion to newfound heights.

Chandler will, of course, be a part of the festivities at MSG tonight, defending his title against up-and-comer Brent Primus. And since “Iron” has fought 16 times for the promotion and had a bird’s-eye view for the last seven years, he reflected on what it means to be a part of this historic event.

“It’s been amazing–it really has–to see the exponential growth,” Chandler said at the Bellator NYC press conference. “I’ve been with Bellator since the ESPN Deportes days. Back in the day when girls softball games were getting precedence over mixed martial arts events on TV. And my fights weren’t happening on TV until two in the morning because of things like that happening. So to be on Spike TV and build the brand and now be on pay-per-view at the world’s most iconic arena…

“The exponential growth has been amazing and it’s awesome to be with a company as we grow symbiotically, win/win situation for both parties. I’ve been involved in some of the biggest and exciting fights in this brand, under this promotion. They’ve done a great job of taking care of me. So it’s been a phenomenal situation. It’s been a phenomenal working relationship and it doesn’t get any bigger than Madison Square Garden. It does not get any bigger than June 24, Saturday night. It’s exciting and I’m excited for the future.”

From fighting in L’Auberge du Lac Resort in Lake Charles, Louisiana at Bellator 31 to becoming a two-time lightweight champion to being a part of the biggest card in the promotion’s history, Chandler has been an important and integral part of Bellator. Some fighters have bolted for the UFC, but the Missouri native has stayed the course. He’s happy and content with where he’s at right now.

“I’m happy in general,” Chandler told MMA Plus after the press conference on Thursday. “I think this is a long career. If you do things right, and you stay disciplined and you take care of yourself you are going to have a long career. I’ve been taken care of well since I’ve been in this organization. So, it’s been a good situation. It’s been a good win-win situation for both myself and Bellator. I’ve been in some of the most exciting fights that they’ve ever had and they’ve done a good job of promoting and building me as well.

“It’s been good. And the future is bright with Bellator and the future is bright for myself. I am by no means married to any organization. I’m married to my wife and married to the idea of taking care of my future kids. If more of us fighters fought like that, we would know our value and we would realize that we can’t be getting undercut by these promotions. I am not. I am doing well, so we will see.”

Chandler, 31, says he’s been to MSG once before to see a New York Knicks basketball game. The champion is ecstatic to be fighting in the arena that has hosted some of the most famous boxing matches of all time, like “The Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971.

“That’s was a huge fight,” said Chandler, who appears to be in the best shape of his career. “It was right here. Our cage is going to be set up within feet of where that boxing ring was set up in Madison Square Garden. So it’s nothing short of an amazing opportunity, an amazing venue. There is a different feeling, a different vibe, a different energy in the air when you walk into that arena.

“To be able to walk through the same halls as Ali and Frazier and [Mike] Tyson, to be able to warm up in the same work out room, the same backstage area, the same vicinity as all these legends, it’s crazy man. [They are] Legends of combat sports. It’s cool. You try not to think about it too much because at the end of the day it’s just a cage in an arena and you gotta fight. And then once it’s over you can journal it, write it down and be able to tell your kids some day that dad fought in the world’s most iconic arena.”

When he was at that Knicks game, Chandler said he looked up at the “unmistakable ceiling” inside MSG and “imagined” what it would be like to fight in front of thousands of fans there. On Saturday night, he will get that chance and he’s planning on bringing the house down.

“It’s going to be a cool, cool night. New York is quickly becoming a mixed martial arts town,” he said. “It’s exciting and Saturday night I literally plan on going out there and stealing the show like I normally do.”

As much as he wants to fight in New York City at “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and has enjoyed the lead up to the event and his path as a fighter up until this point, Chandler, interestingly enough, says he’s already looking forward to the conclusion of Bellator NYC.

“There is so much pressure and so much build up and you know you are going to go out there and perform well,” said Chandler, who is currently riding a four-fight win streak. “You get excited for that feeling again, that feeling of it being over. That feeling of that weight being lifted off your shoulders. You can still go out there and zig when you should’ve zagged and get knocked out, get clipped and get put away.

“There’s that pressure that come with no matter who you are fighting you can lose at any given moment. That’s why this sport is so spectacular. Once the ref finally does pull you off your opponent, that’s when you can finally, finally rest and take a breath and I am excited for that feeling.”

The champion’s opponent at Bellator NYC, Primus, has flown under the radar a bit even though he is undefeated at 7-0. While Chandler respects his opponent, he simply doesn’t think he is anywhere remotely close to the same zip code that he resides in as far as overall skill and talent.

“If I fight solid there is no way in any universe, in any realm on any planet that this guy beats me,” said Chandler, exuding confidence. “And I think that about anybody in the world. I think that from the top of the lightweight division to the bottom. I’m a dominant human being and I have trained as such and I have prepared as such and I have had been disciplined and I have had my nose to the grindstone since I was 12 years old whether it be wrestling, high school wrestling, college wrestling and now mixed martial arts and I live the life of a champion.

“If I go out there and perform 90 percent of what I’m capable of, 70 percent of what I’m capable of I can beat any lightweight in the world. So Brent Primus is no different. So I just gotta go out there and perform. He’s solid everywhere. He’s not great or spectacular any where and I am. I feel like I am spectacular in every aspect of cage fighting.”

After Primus, Chandler, who has spoken numerous times before about jumping up to welterweight, says he “wants big fights.”

“I don’t care what weight class,” he continued. “I don’t care if the belt is on the line. I don’t care where it is or where it is. I want big fights.”

Has he had conversations with Bellator and Coker about it?

“I’ve talked to them. They know,” he said. “I was talking about it before this fight. I wanted to fight Paul Daley or Michael “Venom” Page. I wanted to fight one of those guys on this card. It’s a big fight. At the end of the day you take the fights that are given to you and Coker and these guys they know what they are doing.”

First up, though, is Primus. Chandler lost the lightweight title once before and knowing what it’s like to lose it, makes him want to hold on to it even tighter, he says. But what’s more important than the belt, Chandler mentions, is going out and performing better than his last fight each and every time.

“To me the belt is just a pile of leather and gold, you know?” said Chandler, who dropped his title to Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 106 before winning it back at Bellator: Dynamite 2 after knocking out Patricky Freire. “It’s great to have, but it’s a piece.  It’s a symbol that means accomplishment, but to me it’s about going out there and outperforming my previous self. It’s about going out there and performing the way that I know I can.”

The Blackzilians have splintered off, but Chandler’s situation remains the same he said. He is still working with grappling coach Neil Melanson and striking coach Henri Hooft. The former Division-1 All-American at The University of Missouri has always been strong in the grappling department. It’s his striking where he’s made considerable progress over his last few fights.

“My last couple of fights I’ve shown a more disciplined side of myself, a mature side of myself, a more polished, refined side of myself,” said Chandler.

His highlight-reel knockout over Freire at Bellator: Dynamite 2 certainly showed that his hands have been looking good. And according to him, they are going to look good again when he puts them on Primus inside Madison Square Garden.

“They’ve always been there, man, you just have to implement them and have confidence in them. There is no doubt that when these hands get put on the button, guys go out and Brent Primus is no different. And that is something that I’ve realized. Brent Primus is no different from Conor McGregor down to the 100th ranked guy. Every single one of them would go down at the mercy of my right hand. So I’m going to land it on Saturday night and continue to show the world it’s something to be feared and we will see what happens from there.”