Like much of the mixed martial arts community, Will Brooks is intrigued by the possibilities of the new Bellator regime.
Until something concrete comes to fruition, however, the promotion’s interim lightweight champ is taking a wait-and-see approach in regards to Bellator 2.0. In fact, he hasn’t even spoken with Scott Coker, the promotion’s new president.
“I’ve just been here in the background watching everything happen,” Brooks recently told Sherdog.com.
Major change takes time. If anyone knows that it’s Brooks, who flew largely under the radar as a prospect until his upset victory over Michael Chandler at Bellator's inaugural pay-per-view event in May.
Not that he was struggling before that fight. “Ill Will” first generated some hype with a second-round stoppage of former Sengoku champion Satoru Kitaoka at Dream’s 2012 New Year’s Eve event. A victory over tough veteran Ricardo Tirloni in his Bellator debut soon followed, and Brooks appeared well on his way to joining the likes of Chandler, Eduardo Dantas and Pat Curran as one of the promotion’s top homegrown talents.
That progress came to a screeching halt in his next outing, however, as Brooks suffered a 43-second knockout loss to Saad Awad at Bellator 91. He rebounded to post four consecutive victories, winning the Season 9 lightweight tournament and avenging the loss to Awad in the process. Still, three straight decision triumphs during that process did little to boost Brooks’ stock.
When it was announced that he would replace the injured Eddie Alvarez on Bellator’s first pay-per-view offering, the overall response was one of confusion.
“I think people were still like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I don’t think many people remembered I had won the tournament,” Brooks admits. “Even when they announced the fight, people were still like, ‘Who? Why is this guy fighting Chandler?’”
Brooks was fighting Chandler in part because he was the best available alternative to Alvarez and in part because Bellator couldn’t afford to cancel another pay-per-view. What the naysayers didn’t know was that Brooks had gradually undergone a transformation since his upset loss to Awad.
Changes in both his personal and professional approach made for a much better version of Brooks by the time he stepped into the cage with Chandler at Bellator 120.
“I really started focusing on things as a regular person -- being myself,” he said. “I was putting so much pressure on myself. I wanted to fight guys like Chandler and Alvarez, guys in the UFC lightweight division. I wanted to be the best, and if not the best, one of the best.
“Once I lost that [first] tournament, I had to sit back and be like: ‘Will, you’ve got to get back to being a person. You’ve got to get back to being yourself and enjoying yourself -- having fun and not [being] so stressed out about trying to put on a good show for everybody.’ I think going into the second Awad fight I was a lot more comfortable in my own skin.”
Couple that with the positive influence of working out at American Top Team, where Brooks says he learned how a training camp should really operate, and the Illinois native was primed to deliver on his potential against Chandler -- even if the rest of the world didn’t yet know it.
Brooks started slowly against his favored foe, dropping the first two rounds. He got stronger as the fight progressed, putting the former champion in serious peril in rounds three and four. Chandler survived and finished strong in the final frame, but it was Brooks who emerged with a contentious split verdict.
While the victory might have been disputed, it was undeniably Brooks’ best performance to date. Spike TV will re-air the pay-per-view card -- including that fight -- on Friday at 9 p.m. ET.
“The two times I was in the tournament, people had me pegged as a wrestler. Being able to compete with a guy like Chandler...being able to go out there and give him a run for his money as far as the striking game goes, I think that was a very exciting thing for me,” Brooks said.
Since then, Brooks has engaged in a war of words with Chandler on Twitter. He doesn’t take the exchanges too seriously, but he believes that Chandler might see things a little bit differently.
“When I was doing that, I was just having fun,” Brooks said. “Chandler seems to be a good guy, but he seems to be a pretty sensitive guy who takes himself a little too seriously sometimes. The group of friends that I have, we poke fun at each other. If you show me some type of weakness, I try to go after it.”
Brooks is someone who considers himself to be a fairly astute people watcher. That has carried over into his assessment of Chandler.
“I think he’s one of those guys that’s just been handed a lot of things in his life -- been kind of catered to,” Brooks said. “So it’s made him kind of a sensitive guy. He doesn’t have a thick skin.
“I think he’s an Abercrombie Fitch type of dude and kind of had his hand held for a long time,” he added. “Somebody said something to him, he might be one of those guys that ran to the teacher or something like that.”
In a perfect world, Brooks would like to get a shot to unify the lightweight crown with a belt against Alvarez, the reigning champ. No matter who is running the show at Bellator, it’s the only logical thing to do. At least that’s how Brooks sees it.
“What typically happens in MMA history is if you have an interim belt and you have the real belt, you unify the belts, right? I’m just trying to go along with the program,” he said. “Of course I’ve been a little confused by everything. I stated that and made my opinion felt through social media. It might have gotten under some people’s skin at Bellator. I’m trying to do a better job with keeping my mouth shut.”
Even if he can’t make good on that goal, Brooks wants everyone -- Chandler included -- to know that it’s all in the name of a good time.
“We’re supposed to have fun with this thing. We don’t have to take ourselves so damn seriously.”