This is. INSANE.
[ #UFC268 | The Main Card is LIVE on ESPN+ PPV: https://t.co/xRVlqJBhNX ] pic.twitter.com/CTvC3ODW1q — UFC (@ufc) November 7, 2021
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Some great fights sneak up on us. There’s nothing to suggest a particular bout is going to stand out, but then everything suddenly amps up. An underestimated challenger begins taking it to a formidable champion. A usually cautious fighter comes out looking for a knockout. A competitor who has been losing the fight fights his way out of a sticky situation and begins making an improbable comeback. That was decidedly not the case at UFC 268, where Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler made their way to the Octagon on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
I’ve been covering major fights from cageside from over 15 years, and never have I seen a crowd as pumped up for anything that wasn’t a main event or co-main event as this one was to see Gaethje fight Chandler. There was a buzz and electricity stronger than for all but the biggest of headlining title bouts, to a degree not fully captured by the television broadcast. This crowd knew exactly what it was getting: a showdown between two of the most fearless gunslingers in the history of the sport. So it stood, in unison, as soon as the pre-fight video package wrapped and roared louder still as each man came out.
It’s hard to imagine Gaethje and Chandler having a bad fight, but there’s never any guarantee of an MMA classic. With Gaethje, in particular, the limiting factor is often the length. His fights are almost always thrilling for as long as they last, but they are so action packed they often go only a matter of minutes. Neither man would be stopped on this night, so for 15 minutes, they collided in an epic war of wills.
Throughout his career, Chandler’s most formidable weapon has always been his dynamite right hand. It was the weapon that put Patricky “Pitbull” Freire unconscious before he even hit the ground, made Benson Henderson face plant, separated David Rickels from consciousness and sent Eddie Alvarez to the floor for a rear-naked choke. Chandler can telegraph it at times and thus not land it flush, but when it connects, it does so violently.
An early sign of what sort of fight this was going to be came at the midpoint in the first round, where Chandler wound up and landed one of his massive right hands directly to Gaethje’s jaw. It didn’t seem possible it could have connected much harder, yet you would hardly know it judging from Gaethje’s reaction. He just stood there like nothing happened, so Chandler wound up and landed another mighty right hand, and then another.
This still did not budge Gaethje, who fired back with a left hook that rocked Chandler worse than any of the punches “Iron Mike” had landed. Chandler, undeterred, went back to his right hand once more and finally got a reaction out of Gaethje. The former World Series of Fighting champion was sent back but quickly recovered, so Chandler went back to it again and again. Gaethje kept taking Chandler’s best weapon, and unlike so many former opponents, he kept coming. This set the tenor for the final two rounds: If Chandler couldn’t finish Gaethje with his best weapon, he was bound and determined not to let “The Highlight” finish him.
Gaethje began to take over in the second round, but the biggest turning point of the fight was a ferocious uppercut that nearly finished Chandler. From there, Chandler through sheer force of will refused to be finished. He would take heavy punches and wave Gaethje on for more. He would respond to being punched by spitting out blood and walking forward into the fire. Chandler’s gutsy message couldn’t be clearer: You can beat me up, but you’re not taking away my will to fight.
At the end of the Chandler-Gaethje brawl, both men had proven their point in a way. Gaethje had walked through Chandler’s best shots, taken over the fight and administered a sound beating to a top contender. Chandler, for his part, had landed plenty of strong shots of his own and refused to give in to the slightest degree, physically or psychologically, when taken to the limit. It’s no wonder Chandler walked by press row in a near triumphant mood while Gaethje marveled at his opponent’s tenacity inside the Octagon.
It can be hard for fights with lofty expectations for action to live up to the hype. From Wanderlei Silva-Gilbert Yvel and Houston Alexander-Kimbo Slice to Francis Ngannou-Derrick Lewis, action battles have frequently failed to materialize. Gaethje-Chandler delivered as much as it possibly could. It’s the sort of fight that drives interest in the sport and a fight to which both men can point with pride when their careers come to an end.