It is not often the UFC sees a 34-year-old making a high-profiled debut.
But Michael Chandler is not a regular 34-year-old.
A three-time lightweight world champion in Bellator, he has consistently been one of the hottest properties outside MMA’s premier organsiation for a number of years.
When he signed in the second half of 2020, the UFC’s already stacked 155lbs division took on another legitimate standout talent.
At that point Khabib Nurmagomedov wasn’t retired, Conor McGregor supposedly was, while a slew of top level fighters clamoured for a shot at the gold.
Chandler traveled to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi last October as an alternate should anything happen to either Khabib, or his opponent Justin Gaethje. On that night he would not be called upon – but did have one of the best seats in the house to watch the man he considers to be the GOAT, cruise to a 29-0 record, and emotionally retire in the centre of the Octagon seconds later.
At the point, the 21-5 Chandler thought he would never get the opportunity to face the Dagestani, but a Dana White announcement last week left the door open for Khabib’s return. Nothing is set in stone by any means, but the man who still holds the lightweight gold is not averse to stepping back on the canvas – if someone gives him a reason to this weekend.
“It felt like a semi-announcement,” Chandler told Sport360. “It feels like he is still happy with his decision to stay retired unless something really entices him. I don’t know if that is me going out there and if the fight presents the opportunity for me to showcase my wrestling. Khabib is the greatest of all-time. He has looked unbeatable in so many fashions over the last 12 years.
“All of us, including Charles Oliveira who looked great against Tony Ferguson, myself, Dan Hooker, Conor, Poirier, we all have the ability and the skill sets to go out there and put on a spectacular performance.
“If Khabib does come back, I would love to be the guy he pursues 30-0 against, but I would also love to face the winner of Conor and Poirier. I signed with the UFC not just to get signed, but for a quest to win the title – I will get there by any means necessary and a win on Saturday night is the first step.”
And that first step is a formidable one in the shape of Kiwi, Dan Hooker. Coming off the back of a decision loss to Dustin Poirier, Hangman is desperate to get back in the win column – and what better way than to derail the Chandler train before it leaves the station.
The American is taking nothing for granted however, and has his focus firmly fixed on a fighter he has a lot of respect for, but is confident of taking out at UFC 257 – and the start of a new chapter in an already storied career.
“I am ready to go out there and get it done. After this weekend there will be a lot of clarity in the lightweight division, after I get done, after Conor and Poirier fight. We will find out what’s going on with Khabib – whether or not he is coming back, and we will find out the next steps.
“I come from humble beginnings. I have had a lot of ups and downs and have taken my bumps, but always got up dusted myself off and kept moving forward. I think where I am now is a testament to that. “I am a guy who never gave up, and never lost faith in his calling. I believe I was put on this earth to do great things in this sport. I was outside the UFC for a long time, now I am on the biggest platform in the sport and the story will continue.”
Wind the clock back to 2014 and you find Chandler on a three fight losing streak, having gone the best part of two years without a win.
It became a pivotal moment in both his life and career, shifting for questioning if there was a paycheck coming down the line, to hitting adversity full in the face and going on to have the distinguished career he is known for.
“You are only human, we are prone to wander and think of worst-case scenarios. There were moments where I wasn’t sure if I was going to get cut, or if those dreams I had of being the best in the world were really just going to be thwarted. I went 688 days without a win and that is a long time to not feel victory or accomplishment, to not have success in competition.
“No matter how dark things look there is always something you can hold on to and for me it has always been my unwavering faith in my calling, why I was pulled into this sport – and being surrounded by phenomenal people. You never fail until to stop trying, as long as you never quit the story is never over.
“Those chapters of failure and pain and loss are really something that molded me into the champion I am today. I am in the twelfth year of this great career that I have enjoyed and I still think the best is yet to come.”
Michael Chandler takes on Dan Hooker in the co-main event of UFC 257 on Abu Dhabi’s Fight Island, this Sunday morning – main card starts 6am UAE time.