It’s really difficult to get under Michael Chandler’s skin.
Since signing with the UFC just over a year ago, the former Bellator lightweight champion has heard it all after he was immediately named as a backup to a lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje.
A few months later, Chandler made his debut with a stunning first-round knockout against Dan Hooker and then he was offered the chance to compete for the vacant lightweight title after Nurmagomedov announced his retirement. That opportunity didn’t sit well with many of the top fighters at 155 pounds — including Gaethje, who said the lightweight division was becoming the “laughingstock” of the UFC after Chandler battled Charles Oliveira for a vacant title.
Rather than lashing out about the comments, Chandler can actually understand Gaethje’s frustration but he also knows he’s only taking the opportunities that have been afforded him since he first arrived in the UFC.
“I will sit here and admit whenever Khabib retired and there was a pool of all of us, Justin Gaethje might have deserved to fight for the title more than me, more than Charles Oliveira,” Chandler said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I think there’s some resentment there, which is fine. Completely warranted. I would have thought the same thing. I think he was in some contract negotiations. I know obviously Dustin [Poirier] and Conor [McGregor] were tied up so there were only so many options that the UFC had at the time.
“With the debut that I made, I had a ton of momentum and I was willing to say yes. That’s one thing that I’ve done. I’ve said yes. I said yes to Justin Gaethje numerous times, whether the fight was actually offered to him or not, I know that fight was being worked on for Jan. 23. Maybe for May, I don’t know, there was some talks of it. When you’re in the UFC lightweight division, everybody’s so good and everybody’s got such a big name that there’s going to be some jockeying for position. He was left out of that one so I’d be just as mad as he is, which will in turn make you want to throw jabs at people. It’s part of it. Either way, we will let our fight do the talking.”
Now scheduled to face Gaethje at UFC 268 on Saturday, Chandler hasn’t taken anything his upcoming opponent has said personally because he knows that’s just the nature of the fight game.
That said, Chandler refutes the idea that he’s somehow been gifted anything, especially in comparison to Gaethje after he was offered similar opportunities once he signed with the UFC following a long stint with World Series of Fighting.
Much like his own body of work from Bellator, Chandler knows Gaethje put together the kind of resume that made him a high priority even with just a single fight in the UFC.
“Justin Gaethje got the same amount of preferential treatment. The same amount of Dana White privilege. Whatever you want to call it,” Chandler said. “He came from outside the UFC, came in, got a top five guy right away. If he would have beat Eddie Alvarez, he would have gotten a title shot. He lost to Eddie Alvarez, which made him go fight a couple more fights. He’s been in some big commercials. He’s been in big fights. He’s headlined cards. He and I have had very similar roads. I think he deserved it because he earned it. He probably in his heart of hearts believes that I deserved it and earned it but he needs to convince himself that I am seeking attention or I’m an attention seeker and I’m a fake and a phony and whatever things he has said.
“More than anything, a guy who doesn’t deserve the treatment that I’ve gotten thus far but you’ll find the older you get and the longer you do things, those who ask and those who say yes to opportunities, usually end up making it further than those that don’t or those that fight the powers that be. I’m not here to fight the powers that be. I’m here to fight the guys that they put me up against and Justin Gaethje’s the next one. Whether he loves me, whether he hates me, I know he respects me.”
In reality, Chandler really couldn’t care less what’s been said about him since first arriving in the UFC because ultimately he’s going to be judged based upon his performances.
That’s exactly what Chandler wanted after leaving the comfort of Bellator MMA — a promotion he called home for a decade — because he wanted to see how he fared against the best of the best in the UFC.
“That’s something that I asked for,” Chandler explained. “I didn’t come into the UFC wanting to tip-toe around. I wanted to prove I’m either one of the best guys in the world or I’m not. Selfishly, that was for myself because I knew if I never made the jump over to UFC, I would never be able to live with not knowing.
“I would rather go to the UFC and go 0-2 and get cut than never go. Obviously, so far it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s worked out very well. I’ve had some big opportunities, some big stages.”
At UFC 268, Chandler fully expects to test his own limits because Gaethje is well known for inflicting an incredible amount of damage on his opponents even if he doesn’t get the win.
Despite beating Gaethje by fourth-round TKO back in 2018, former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier said he felt as if he suffered through a car crash by spending just over 15 minutes in the cage with the fighter who has justifiably earned his nickname as “The Highlight.”
Chances are Chandler will need a lot of ice and probably more than a few Advil to deal with the pain inflicted by sharing the cage with Gaethje on Saturday night, but it’s nothing he’s not already expecting.
“I think we’re both so similar,” Chandler said. “We both throw power punches. We both bite down on our mouthpiece. We’re not afraid to fight fire with fire and be in the fire. Either of us could get knocked out.
“Only thing we can guarantee — there will be violence. It will be exciting. Everyone in Madison Square Garden will be the beneficiary and everyone that buys the pay-per-view will be the beneficiary and we both get bonuses. That’s for sure.”