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I've been a huge fan of Michael Chandler ever since I first saw him at Bellator 97, where he fought David Rickels. Back then, I didn't watch much Bellator MMA, so I hadn't yet seen the all-time classic that was his first fight against Eddie Alvarez. Nevertheless, I had heard a lot about Chandler, and knowing that he was a solid former NCAA Division I wrestler, expected to see a grappler who had learned to throw a powerful right cross, a popular stylistic archetype for the early 2010s. What was my shock then, when I saw the bout? Chandler moved beautifully around the cage, like a championship-level boxer, and had crisp, textbook punches and combinations to match. I had never seen a mixed martial artist move or box so well, and this one had good grappling, too! I had the same feeling I did when watching Vitor Belfort's debut at UFC 12, perhaps even more so. Chandler absolutely eviscerated “The Caveman,” a good martial artist well above the average Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight of that time, in just 44 seconds. I knew I was seeing a truly special, all-time great fighter. Fast forward nearly eight years, and Chandler, if he loses to Dan Hooker on Saturday at UFC 257, is in danger of being cruelly, unjustly underrated.
It's hard to convey how ridiculously skilled and ahead of his time Chandler was back in the early to mid-2010s: a guy who could beat you with lightning-quick double-leg slams as easily as with his vicious right cross or left hook. He had an amazing jab, possibly the best in all of MMA at the time, and phenomenal reactions and counters. He also had legitimate one-punch knockout power in both hands, a rare gift among elite boxers, never mind mixed martial artists. On the ground, he had vicious ground-and-pound, and was tremendously agile and fluid in advancing position and finishing with submissions. Watching him set up an arm triangle or rear-naked choke was a thing of beauty. Did I mention he could kick really well? His leg and head kicks were solid, but the ones to the body were absolutely brutal. There was just no safe situation against Chandler. He wasn't perfect, of course. His defense, even back then, could have been better, and his chin didn't match his “Iron” nickname. He also tended to look for one big punch too much at times, and his explosiveness would diminish noticeably after the first or second round.
Do Chandler's accomplishments match his tremendous gifts and skills? For the most part, yes. He is officially 3-1 and should be 4-0 against UFC lightweight champions of his era, dominating Benson Henderson twice (the split decision in their first fight was courtesy of one of the worst scorecards in the sport's history), stopping Eddie Alvarez in their first encounter in a fight for the ages, and defeating him in the rematch according to most observers. Most also saw his first fight against Will Brooks as a draw or victory for Chandler. Other than that, Chandler has defeated a slew of good opponents, via decisive, one-sided beatings for the most part, finishing 16 of his 21 wins, with the five remaining being prolonged beatings, like the first Henderson fight, the victory over Goiti Yamauchi or his rematch with Brent Primus. If he received fairer judging in the Alvarez rematch and the first Brooks fight, he would be 23-3 right now, a spectacular record considering the consistently high level of opposition he has faced.
However, Chandler—who turns 35 in a few months—is not the fighter he used to be, and hasn't been for some time. Being fairly short for lightweight at 5-foot-8 with a limited reach of 69 inches to match, he has always relied on his quickness, reactions, and explosiveness. Those have waned over the years, and that has made his relative weakness, defense, more prominent. His chin has also withered a little from the punishment over the years. Bellator featherweight champ Patricio Freire, another criminally underrated fighter, noted that Chandler wasn't the same prior to their fight at Bellator 221, and he proved it in the cage, with a shocking knockout of the lightweight champion in only a minute. Nowadays, Chandler struggles with speed, as seen in that encounter, as well as taller, longer, skilled fighters, even ones not known for great stand-up. Primus was having striking success in their rematch before Chandler used his wrestling to maul him, and prior to that, Yamauchi had also hurt him on the feet.
However, Chandler's decline has been far less severe than that of other lightweight legends around the same age. Jens Pulver was the original UFC lightweight champion, a great fighter who defended the belt successfully against B.J. Penn and Dennis Hallman before the division was shuttered, and he went on a spell of eight losses in nine fights beginning with when he was 31. Takanori Gomi went from the best lightweight in the world to losing fights when he was 30, and by the time he entered the UFC a year and a half later, he was no longer a top talent, sustaining multiple stoppage losses against guys who never reached the heights he did, and starting a six-fight losing streak when he was 35. Penn himself went from a fighter considered potentially the greatest of all time to his current seven-fight losing streak beginning when he was 32 years old.
By contrast, Chandler has won five of his last six fights against high-level opposition, including impressive knockouts in his last two outings, with only a great like “Patricio Pitbull” able to take advantage of his decline.
However, that brings us to his fight against Dan Hooker. Chandler was ahead of his time eight years ago, but the rest of the division has caught up. Hooker's own boxing is excellent and rivals Chandler's. Moreover, he is exactly the kind of long, skilled striker that can exploit his weaknesses. If Yamauchi and Primus gave Chandler significant problems on the feet, what will a devastating, even longer striker like Hooker do? Furthermore, Hooker is a good wrestler in his own right, and will be more difficult to take down and keep there than Yamauchi or Primus. As much as I love Chandler, I believe Hooker will beat him.
And in terms of Chandler's legacy, that's a crying shame. I can already see “UFC or bust” fans using his loss as proof that he was never that good and was facing lesser competition in a lesser organization, conveniently ignoring his triumphs over UFC lightweight champions Alvarez or Henderson, or how much more Henderson struggled in Bellator compared to the UFC. They won't see it as the natural erosion of age, sparring, and battles on a fighter's abilities, as well as the continued evolution and improvement of the division as a whole. Most of all, they won't credit Chandler as being one of the very greatest mixed martial artists in history, which I absolutely believe he is, even if Hooker knocks him out in Round 1.