Michael Chandler and Pat Curran retain title belts in Bellator's debut on Spike

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Michael Chandler wasted little time in submitting Rick Hawn (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting).

Michael Chandler wasted little time in submitting Rick Hawn (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting).

Sometimes a first impression is a double-take.

That was the case Thursday night when the Bellator Fighting Championship made its debut on Spike TV and two of its champions put on shows that demonstrated why they own the belts.

Pat Curran opened the Irvine, Calif., main card -- and Bellator’s new residency on the former TV home of the UFC -- with a masterful five-round picking apart of Patricio “Pitbull” Freire to successfully defend his featherweight title for the first time. It went into the books as a split decision, but the rounds Freire (17-2) won were razor thin, while Curran (18-4) seized control as the fight wore on.

The other championship bout? That can be summed up in two words: Michael Chandler. Or more appropriately: Michael! Chandler!

The lightweight belt holder also was defending for the first time, and he protected the strap like a mama bear protects her cubs, dominating Rick Hawn on the way to a second-round submission victory. Chandler (11-0) had captured the title in a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Eddie Alvarez back in November 2011, but there was no back and forth this time. Hawn (14-2), who represented the United States in judo at the 2004 Olympics, couldn’t stop Chandler from taking him down and keeping him down, and the champ’s second-round takedown led to a rear-naked choke that elicited a tapout at 3:07.

“Me and [grappling coach] Neil Melanson worked that about 16,000 times right there, and it worked out, man,” Chandler said afterward in the cage, taking about the finish. “It’s a crazy game, but I love it.”

Chandler is not so much in love, oddly enough, with where he stands as a mixed martial artist. “I’ve got a lot of improving to do, I’ll tell you that much,” he said, later adding, “If you ain’t moving forward, you’re moving backward.”

Moving forward presents another kind of challenge for Chandler: Who’s next for the promotion’s 155-pound king?

If Bellator’s contract litigation with Alvarez resolves in favor of Bjorn Rebney’s promotion and it gets to retain the services of the ex-champ, a rematch between Chandler and the man he dethroned would be a big hit. But if Eddie ends up in the UFC instead, then what? Well, eight fighters begin the Season 8 lightweight tournament later this month, and just as happened when Hawn won last season’s tourney, a challenger will emerge.

—Jeff Wagenheim