Michael Chandler is already a former MMA lightweight world champion. He won the title on three separate occasions in Bellator, punching his spot on an elite list of the best fighters in the world. Yet question marks and doubt never stopped surrounding whether or not he would have the same success if he were competing for a title in the UFC.
That question will finally be answered on Saturday with Chandler pitted against Charles Oliveira in the main event of UFC 262 in a bout to determine the new lightweight champion.
“Winning UFC gold is the epitome of accomplishment inside this sport,” says Chandler. “If you hold the UFC title, you are number one. I’m going to finally prove I am the number one guy in the world.”
The 35-year-old Chandler made an impressive Octagon debut in January when he demolished Dan Hooker in the performance of the night at UFC 257. In his prior two fights, Hooker had gone a full five rounds against Dustin Poirier and Paul Felder, losing to the former by unanimous decision and defeating the latter by a split decision. But he didn’t even make it out of the first round against Chandler, who laid a trap early by convincing Hooker he was not going to throw any shots directly after his right straight to the body, until of course, he did.
“These fights are so much more mental than people think,” says Chandler. “We’re not just two guys getting into a fistfight; we’re watching tendencies and idiosyncrasies in each and every exchange. And I wanted to lay a trap.”
Chandler is as sharp as anyone in the world at thinking fluidly in the midst of a fight, remaining calm and surgical in his approach, which was certainly on display in his victory against Hooker.
“It’s mental as much as it is physical,” says Chandler. “Dan Hooker is one of the best in the world. Dustin Poirier went 25 minutes with him but couldn’t get him out of there. Paul Felder went 25 minutes with him—he couldn’t get him out of there. I was the first guy to knock him out with a head strike. For me to do that, I needed to get him on his heels.”
Chandler’s overhand right is an enormous blow, making an opponent feel his power. He executed it flawlessly against Hooker, by first hitting the body, then shifting his feet into a southpaw position and following up with a powerful left hook, a part of his arsenal he has been polishing.
“It puts a lot of guys out,” says Chandler. “Now it’s time for me to go get that title.”
In order to earn this title shot, Chandler needed to defeat a top-five opponent. He is eternally grateful that Hooker stepped up and accepted the fight.
“I’m not here to throw anybody under the bus or slander anybody’s name, but Dan Hooker was the only guy inside the top-five that said yes,” says Chandler. “Just because he lost the fight, he shouldn’t be old news. He should be looked at as a real fighter. He took on all the risk to fight the outsider, the ‘B-league’ guy. Hooker had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Dustin Poirier said no. Tony Ferguson said no. Justin Gaethje said no numerous times. The only guys in the top five that didn’t say no were Conor [McGregor] and Khabib [Nurmagomedov] because it wasn’t offered to them.
“So props to Dan Hooker. He was the guy that stepped up. Without a great opponent, I don’t get this title shot. He is world-class and one of the best in the division, and I know for sure he will be coming back. I’m very grateful he gave me a chance.”
Chandler is now presented with a life-changing opportunity. Only one opponent stands in his way, and that is Oliveira, who has been unstoppable during his eight-fight win streak.
“Charles Oliveira has been in that Octagon so many times, and now he needs to answer whether he can win the title under the pressure of those bright lights, which is the same question for me,” says Chandler. “We have similar stories. We’ve both taken our losses.
“I lost three fights in a row and went 688 days without winning a fight. I got wrote off. Charles had some bad performances, missed weight and lost a decent amount of fights. But he’s always come back better and stronger and more skilled.”
Oliveira polished up his striking and he is dangerous on the ground, which has been evident during his win streak, particularly in the way he dominated Tony Ferguson. Yet Chandler believes he is the better fight and will prevail this Saturday.
“May 15 will be the greatest moment of my professional career, but I’m even more excited about May 16,” says Chandler. “That’s the day I put my UFC championship belt on the mantel, and I won’t even look at it. For me to make the impact I want to make, it’s not just about winning the UFC title. I need to win the UFC title, I need to hold that title, I need to have huge fights and I need to make people feel something every single time I am on the microphone and every time they see me compete.
“May 15 is going to change my life. And then on May 16, I’ll have even more to fight for. It’s time to go get that title.”