It’s a busy lunchtime at Training Camp, a Nashville mixed martial arts gym, but assistant manager Kat Kennedy doesn’t mind taking a few minutes to chat about one of her favorite subjects: UFC Lightweight contender Michael Chandler. Chandler, 35, owns the gym, and the building is alive with excitement for Saturday when he squares off against Brazil’s Charles Olivera for the division’s vacant belt. “We saw what he did with Dan Hooker,” Kennedy says, referring to Chandler’s UFC debut in January, when he knocked out the veteran in two minutes, 30 seconds, via a hooking left. “We’re just waiting for a repeat.”
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There’s a well-worn saying that overnight successes are 10 years in the making, and that’s certainly true for Chandler. After a Rudy-like ascent as a walk-on Division I wrestler for the University of Missouri, he finished fifth in the nation his senior year. Fellow Mizzou Tiger Ben Askren may have outshone Chandler on the mat (Askren, a recent Jake Paul victim, was an NCAA champ and competed in the 2008 Olympics), but the two transitioned to MMA nearly concurrently, debuting in February and November 2009, respectively.
While competing in different divisions, Askren and Chandler’s careers followed a similar trajectory. Both became Bellator champs in their respective weight classes, Askren in welterweight and Chandler as a lightweight. But while Askren would make his way as a journeyman, moving from Bellator to One Championship before debuting in the UFC in 2018, Chandler essentially sat in promotion, achieving dominance over the course of a decade, during which he held its lightweight belt three times and fought some instant classics.
But everything must come to an end, and in August 2020, after a second TKO win over Benson Henderson and few remaining accomplishments left to achieve, Chandler slid into free agency, and in September, surprise surprise, he signed a contract with the UFC. His promotion debut came on January 23, 2021. Largely overshadowed by the circus that is a Conor McGregor fight (fellow lightweight McGregor, headlining the night, would lose to top-ranked Dustin Poirier), Chandler would make a resounding statement, knocking out lanky striker Dan Hooker less than three minutes into round 1. Mic drop; the much-hyped Michael Chandler had arrived with a bang.
One might think that Chandler’s stocky build puts him at a natural disadvantage to those with a longer reach like Hooker. But again and again, over a deep Bellator dance card, he’s proven more than capable against them. To the naked eye, he’s lightning-fast and hits like an ice cream truck, but ask any of his peers, and the real reason for his success as a striker is less obvious: He is a master of footwork. Subtle shuffling and shifting obscure the fact that he has closed the distance, and a longer reach is negated with opposing fighters rarely recognizing their fatal mistake until it’s too late. Suddenly, there it is: A left jab feint and a bombing overhand right, which has landed again and again and again against a variety of opponents.
As might be expected, Chandler is very comfortable taking it to the ground. His striking power is an effective camouflage to a wrestler’s trademark double-leg shoot, which he achieves with remarkable consistency and locks in deep. (Check out a highlight reel with a number of scoop-to-slams.) Like other former wrestlers, he’s got a head full of cauliflower ear and a penchant for getting in close. He may not be the most fluid jujitsu tactician, but he’s developed a few moves that he does well, and he maximizes their efficacy. Submissions — according to MMA site Sherdog, about 40 percent of his early stoppages — are often with a rear-naked choke, which he sinks in and cranks with a shuddering amount of raw strength. Tap, or Chandler might rip your head off before you lose consciousness.
If there’s any comparison to past UFC champs, former welterweight champ Matt Hughes might be the closest. Hughes, now retired, was also a top-five NCAA wrestler before adapting his foundation to mixed martial arts. If anything, Chandler is the continuation of the Hughes lineage, an excellent wrestler with striking power and accuracy worlds ahead of what Hughes achieved. More recently, Chandler might be compared to former Mizzou Tiger Tyrone Woodley, another All-American wrestler who, while not yet retired, can boast a near parity between knockouts and submissions. For peers, Chandler looks to a distinctly American mold with its modern adaptation to mixed martial arts.
The well-worn maxim with MMA is that styles make fights, and on Saturday, Chandler and Olivera’s face-off is fascinating from a stylistic perspective. The two contend for the lightweight belt as the result of the retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who had perfect dominance over the division but announced his retirement as the result of his father’s COVID-related death in the first half of 2020. While they match up on the scales, Olivera and Chandler fight in markedly different manners. Olivera is thin and long, with an oily Brazilian jiujitsu style that slides from threat to threat, from standing to the guard, and more often than not ends in submission. (Olivera currently holds the UFC record for submissions at 14.) While he’s a 10-year UFC vet, his early years of back-and-forth have largely settled into a streak of wins, and he enters the Octagon Saturday ranked third in the division to Chandler’s fourth. Their ranking, however, is largely arbitrary, and positions one and two, held by Poirier and Gaethje, respectively, are both occupied by fighters whom Nurmagomedov easily smashed. The result of Saturday’s fight will certainly see a shakeup in the top spots, with the results dictating a rudder for the division’s future and its directive force.
Like many MMA gyms come fight week, Nashville and Chandler’s Training Camp is filled with excitement. Many of its members have purchased the UFC’s official Chandler walkout shirts and jackets with their fighter’s name emblazoned on the back. Watch parties are scheduled; many are looking forward to throwing a few back while cheering for their gym’s owner to transition from former Bellator champ to current UFC’s lightweight belt-holder. Kennedy says that she, along with many, has watched in awe of their boss’s work ethic during his buildup. “The pain fuels him to keep going,” she says. For strikers with one-punch power, as he has, an early knockout is likely, but Chandler has proven five-round durability should the fight go the distance. Whether short or long, a city and gym are behind Chandler, who is here finally after a long time coming.
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