Casual fights fans that don’t pay attention to mixed martial arts organizations besides the UFC are in for a real treat this weekend at UFC 257.
That’s because Michael Chandler, one of the sport’s top lightweights of the era, is set to make his long-awaited Octagon debut in the co-main event of a Conor McGregor pay-per-view card.
The former three-time Bellator MMA champion squares off against No. 6-ranked contender Dan Hooker this weekend on Fight Island in a litmus test to determine where Chandler should rank amongst the UFC’s best 155-pounders.
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Chandler is aggressive, agile and he’s a home-run hitter with his right hand yet a third of his wins have been by submission. He holds notable victories over multiple former UFC champions but before he can compete for UFC gold himself, he’ll need a statement win.
So, the day after UFC 257 when fans wake up and reflect on Chandler’s debut, what will they be saying?
“It depends,” Chandler recently told Sportsnet. “If they’re diehard mixed martial arts fans, they’re going to say, ‘Man, I knew he was good but I didn’t know he was that good. I’m excited and I’m happy for him because he’s a guy that cut his teeth in this industry for a decade and it’s cool to see him get the shine that he just got. He just knocked out Dan Hooker and hopefully he fights Conor McGregor next.’”
And what about those casual fans?
“The not-so-deeply-rooted mixed martial arts fans who say, ‘Who the heck is that guy? I’ve never even heard of him, he must be a nobody,’ they’re gonna know who I am and then we can start building that trust and that relationship over the next five, 10 fights in the UFC and after I win the UFC title, they’ll for sure know who I am and believe in my skill set.”
The NCAA Division I All-American wrestler out of the University of Missouri made his MMA debut in 2009. Following a quick win in his first fight on the regional circuit, Chandler fought on a Strikeforce Challengers card – the same series of events future UFC champions Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey, Luke Rockhold, Tyron Woodley, Miesha Tate and Germaine de Randamie competed in early in their MMA careers.
Chandler signed his first contract with Bellator in 2010 and began buzzing through opponents.
He earned entry to the promotion’s lightweight tournament and wound up winning a world title in his ninth professional fight, beating Eddie Alvarez in an all-time classic.
Everything with Chandler’s career went swimmingly until late 2013 when he lost his title in a rematch with Alvarez. Six months later he lost to Will Brooks. Both were razor-thin split decisions that could’ve easily gone his way. A year after losing his title, he was finished for the first time in his career by Brooks in their rematch.
That was a turbulent yet formative stretch of Chandler’s life and he still cherishes it to this day.
“I had lost three fights in a row,” Chandler explained. “I went 688 days without getting a win. That dry spell was one of the toughest times in my entire life, mentally, physically, spiritually, as an athlete, as a man, and I fought a guy named Derek Campos in my next fight and went out there and finished him in the first round. I jumped up on the cage and I took the biggest sigh of relief in front of the St. Louis crowd.
“It was probably one of the greatest moments in my career because it wasn’t about the win, it wasn’t about the opponent, it wasn’t about the victory, the Xs and Os inside the cage. It was the victory over that burden that I had been carrying for 688 days.”
Chandler has gone 9-2 with six stoppage wins since ending his first and only multi-fight losing streak. He eventually regained his title but lost the belt to Bellator's top pound-for-pound fighter Patricio “Pitbull” Freire at Bellator 221 in May 2019.
The 34-year-old said “it’s hard to see yourself as a champion after you’re coming off of a loss” but he was able to recover with back-to-back first-round knockouts of Sidney Outlaw and former UFC titleholder Benson Henderson.
Having confidence and momentum is vital when facing a constantly-improving rising UFC contender like Hooker. The New Zealander is the taller, younger fighter with a reach advantage, a more diverse striking arsenal, and he has had a tougher strength of schedule over the past three to four years.
Chandler trains with a dogged group at Sanford MMA in Florida. Among his main training partners for this fight camp were former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and current No. 1 welterweight contender Gilbert Burns, who'll challenge 170-pound champ Kamaru Usman at UFC 258 next month.
Burns has first-hand knowledge of the damage Hooker can inflict. Before Burns moved up a weight class, he was knocked out at lightweight by Hooker in 2018. It took Hooker only 2:28 to become the first fighter to stop the Brazilian. Chandler’s only two losses from the past six years were first-round technical knockouts, so there’s evidence you can put Chandler away early if you land the right shot.
Stylistically, on paper at least, the debutant is being thrown to the wolves yet Chandler is relishing the challenge.
“It’s going to be a highlight of my career,” Chandler said. “It will be a highly known fight in the story that is Michael Chandler’s career.”
Despite his world titles, experience and the intangibles he brings to the UFC, Chandler is the betting underdog.
“I think it’s the tag of me being the outsider,” Chandler added. “It just shows the discrepancy between the organizations (but) I think it makes sense. … I deserve to be the underdog and I enjoy fighting from the underdog position.
“I’ll go out there and prove some people wrong and probably make a lot of people a lot of money because they get to bet on that underdog status.”