Though there hasn’t been very much written about him up to this point, there’s already an interesting divide forming between the story that people want to tell about Bellator lightweight Djamil Chan and the story he’s interested in telling. A hard-hitting, Netherlands-born fighter who scored one of the most vicious knockouts of the year in his promotional debut back at Bellator 153, Chan certainly has an interesting story to tell, in that he happens to have accomplished so much already in his career and happens to be a person on the autistic spectrum.
But that’s not an aspect of his personality that Chan wants to be defined by, as he’s stated before. No, Chan only has two real goals when it comes to his MMA career: providing for his son and delivering explosive, highlight-reel knockouts each and every time he steps into the cage. At Bellator 161 last weekend, Chan suffered a hard-fought loss to fellow knockout artist Derek Campos in a fight that could’ve easily launched him onto the short list of contenders for Michael Chandler’s belt. Following the fight, Chan sat down with us to discuss everything from his upbringing to what we can expect to see from him moving forward.
Being from a part of the world that has produced some of the greatest kickboxers in the history of the sport, did you feel any pressure growing up to pursue martial arts?
Yeah. When I was growing up, martial arts was like a fantasy. I was always at school thinking about fighting, and then I did some karate. [Mixing school with fighting] began to get a little complicated, but then later on I started to do some kickboxing and I fell in love with the sport right away. I was like 15 years old, and when I was training, I felt this great sensation. I felt alive. From then on I was in the fight game.
What fueled your decision to then transition from kickboxing to MMA? Was it the popularity of the sport as it began to pick up?
Not at all. I was kickboxing for a while and it wasn’t going well for me, so I dropped out of school, I stopped kickboxing, I felt empty. [After a while] I went back to the gym to start taking up kickboxing again and the gym was teaching MMA, and at that time they still called it “free-fighting.” So I asked the guy teaching it what it was and he said, “That’s in the cage.” He asked me if I had seen it before and I said, “Yeah, that’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard of. I love it.” I was hooked right away, I started classes, and everything just came along.
I know you prefer not to discuss your autism, but if you’ll humor me, I was wondering whether the daily training regimen of a sport like MMA works for you on a social or neurological level at all?
Yeah, definitely. To me, it’s sometimes like everything around me is built like a pattern. So when I’m in a social setting, it’s like everything is not realistic. It’s not that I cannot believe what I’m seeing, but when I’m fighting and I’m training, I feel alive. That’s when I enjoy life. It’s like you’re feeding different emotional states. If you want loose aggression, you do some kickboxing. If you want to be a little more down to earth, you gotta do some Jiu Jitsu. It’s good for the spirit.
When you decided to leave high school, did you ever think that there would be a time where MMA would become a viable career option, or were you more just interested in pursuing your passion?
At that time, there was no future in sight for me, but I just believed. My coaches told me that if I could do this and stay on the grind that I could be a champion in the Netherlands. For me, I never achieved such a thing, so when they said that to me, I started upping my training while working on the side. After four months, I had a competition, so I was working just so I could afford to train. That was a really hard time for me.
Which probably made that eventual call from Bellator all the more validating.
It was a crazy year, because I became father and just got on The Ultimate Fighter. Those two things happened at the same time and everything in my life just kind of exploded. After [TUF], Bellator called me and I was just like, “I have a second chance and I have to do it right this time.”
In the UFC especially, we’ve recently begun to see a shift away from an emphasis on “title fights” to one based around “money fights.” Has that changed your goals regarding what you want to do in the sport at all?
I want to build a name in Bellator for being a knockout artist. I want people to say, “Djamil is fighting. He knocked out this guy, he knocked out that guy … ” I just want people to talk like this about me, and eventually, the title fights will start coming.