H/T Jeff Bottari / USA Today Sports for the photo.
Introducing a new blog series from Happy Hour Sports - Scraps to the Strap. I will be taking a look at a different fighter each week from around the UFC and highlight the fights they should take next in their quest toward UFC gold. Normally I will try to talk about someone from one of the more recent fight cards, but as we all know names come up at any given time in the MMA media, so if you see someone's name flying around on Twitter they could get featured here too. On top of this, if you have any suggestions on who you want to see featured next, feel free to email your thoughts to email@example.com, or Tweet at us @HHSportsHQ and I can take a look at painting a picture of that fighter's path to the belt. With that preface out of the way, let's get started.
"Iron" Mike Chandler has been all over the UFC headlines for the past month or two after his electric knockout kick to Tony Ferguson's face. With Ferguson's poor form the three fights prior, Chandler was a -400 favorite headed into the fight which is hard to find in a fight featuring the #5 and #7 ranked fighters in the stacked Lightweight division. This was uncharted territory from a betting perspective for Chandler, who was a dog in all three of his UFC fights since entering the promotion in January of 2021.
H/T Mark J. Rebillas / USA Today Sports for the photo.
Chandler turned 36 back in April and has made it clear since he joined the UFC that he is here to fight as often as he can with two goals in mind. The first is to have the most entertaining fights possible, and you would be hard-pressed finding someone who thinks Chandler has fallen short of that goal so far. His second goal he shares with the rest of the division - and that is to win the Lightweight belt and be king of the most entertaining weight class in the UFC.
Michael Chandler got his chance at winning the belt against Charles Oliveira in May of 2021 when the title became vacant following Khabib's retirement. After Oliveira's two title defenses since winning the belt versus Iron Mike (yes, I will call his fight versus Gaethje a title defense) you could easily argue that Chandler gave Charles the closest run for his money. Oliveira looked like he was out for a moment in the first round, and all signs pointed to Chandler continuing to dominate him after the break until Oliveira shocked the world and flipped the script on him just moments into the second round.
There is not too much that needs to be said about the 2021 Fight of the Year winner against Justin Gaethje and after another insane performance punting Tony Ferguson out cold, it is time to look at what Chandler's path to the belt looks like. Chandler's post-fight interview made it sound like he thinks he deserves another title shot now - but there are a few different hurdles he will need to conquer before he gets that shot again.
H/T Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC for the photo.
1. Conor McGregor
Michael said it himself. As long as Conor does not get the Dana White privilege of jumping the line to fight Charles Oliveira, who else makes the most sense in his first fight back from injury? Chandler may have caught Conor in a good mood because Conor had a lot of praise for Chandler on Twitter moments after the UFC 274 call out. Does that mean that Conor gives this fight the green light though? It is hard to say, especially after Oliveira mentioned McGregor too in his octagon interview.
Let's say that all of the complexities and drama of putting together McGregor-Chandler are put to the side and the fight happens at the end of this summer. What does that look like when the cage closes and the door locks? There is one guarantee - Chandler is going to follow the exact same strategy as his previous two fights. Clinical punching combos and heavy leg kicks from the man whose thighs are larger than an 18-wheeler.
I am very curious to see how Conor reacts to those deadly leg kicks. This was the clearest weakness he had in both Poirier fights in 2021, and it looked like he had improved on checking his kicks until his leg snapped in half during the trilogy fight. It would be a lot of fun to see who kicks harder between Poirier and Chandler, but that does not really help Conor's situation.
At the end of the day, it is still Conor McGregor we are talking about so anything can happen. The concern for me is his lack of activity compared to Chandler, where Conor's lack of time competing in the past five years is starting to look more and more clear in the small sample size we have. Chandler is going to stand up with him though, giving Conor the opportunity to do what he does best. He looks absolutely shredded now, so maybe he clocks Mike with one and it's lights out.
I will not be holding my breath on the chances of that, as I won't be holding my breath that the fight happens because of how much of a wild card Conor's future fight schedule appears to be as it stands heading into the summer. I think this is an exciting opportunity for Michael Chandler to cash in a massive check, and build an even more impressive resume. But does beating an inactive and slightly washed-up Conor McGregor get you a shot at 155-pound gold? Conor's got Masvidal calling him out at 170 lbs this past week, and it is hard to say if a 170-lb bout against Chandler gets Mike that 155-lb title shot he seeks redemption for.
H/T Zuffa LLC for the photo.
2. Dustin Poirier
Enter Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier. I think regardless of if Conor and Chandler fight, this fight has to happen. Dustin called out Mike for ducking him in his fiery octagon interview with Joe Rogan after he knocked out Ferguson, saying that Chandler purposely left him out. Now Chandler has come onto Ariel Helwani's show and claimed Dustin was just easy to forget.
I could give you my breakdown of how poorly executed Dustin Poirier's last six months have been promoting himself since he lost to Oliveira in December, but I will save you the time. The point is I don't necessarily disagree with Chandler, it is more a question of if Michael genuinely left Poirier out on accident or by strategy. Chandler is sharp physically as we have seen, but he is a smart guy outside the octagon as well. There was a reason behind leaving Dustin out, but we will not know what that was.
What does matter is how Dustin proceeds from here. A few weeks ago Dustin came out and said he will sign to fight anyone right now, and that includes making the move to 170 lbs. He has said he will fight Colby Covington and called him out, but Colby's future fight schedule is uncertain as there is no information on if he was injured after Jorge Masvidal jumped him following their UFC fight in March.
If Chandler can get Dustin now and win, it is the quickest way to guarantee a trip back to the title fight at 155 lbs. Now, just because it is the quickest method does not make it the easiest. Dustin also wants to win UFC gold before he hits the twilight of his career and after two missed opportunities versus Khabib and Oliveira, he is on the same hunt as Chandler for the best path to the belt. The problem for Michael Chandler is that I do not think this is a fight that is in his favor.
Dustin will not have to worry about losing via rear-naked choke again as he did versus Khabib and Oliveira, and can instead focus on picking Chandler apart on the feet. Dustin and Michael's wrestling will cancel each out, and I believe that Chandler is going to want to stand up. Dustin has the tools to pick him apart on the feet with his solid combos and striking defense, while Chandler has not shown the best defense and oftentimes goes for the massive power punches to put on the highlight reel.
Chandler uses his athleticism to open up his chances in fights, using big powerful explosions to get his opponent off guard. Dustin has shown time and time again that if his defense fails he has been able to soak up big shots in a fight, and his durability is something that has been impressive for a long time. Poirier is so experienced and calculated in his approach to a fight, that I just don't see the electricity Chandler brings being able to wear Dustin down. Iron Mike will not be totally phased by how often Dustin builds on his jabs, but they do stack up and when your defense is poor it will eventually lead to some clean power shots from Dustin that will hurt Chandler.
Overall I believe Dustin has better stand up than Chandler, which is why I don't like this fight for Mike and could see it being the reason why he omitted Poirier in his callout. However, for the purpose of this exercise let's say he clocks Dustin with one and gets his second shot at the title.
H/T Christian Petersen / Getty Images for the photo.
3. Charles Oliveira -OR- Islam Makhachev
Charles Oliveira is still surprising people as one of the most doubted champions since he won the belt. Oliveira came back in electric fashion to defeat Michael Chandler back in May of 2021, came back after losing round 1 to Dustin Poirier in December, and got knocked down by Justin Gaethje before ending him quickly in the first round in April. He has continued to show improvement as he progresses his 11-fight win streak in the UFC, and that is a scary thought for any contender in the 155-lb division.
The one contender that the fans and the oddsmakers in Vegas favor to take down Charles is the Dagestani fighter Islam Makhachev. Islam has had one of the most dominant runs to the top of the Lightweight division that we have ever seen. As many of the Dagestani fighters have risen to prominence following Khabib's undefeated run in the UFC, Islam is the first to reach what looks like a soon-to-be title shot.
I could write multiple columns on how entertaining an Oliveira and Makhachev fight will be when it happens, but ultimately one man will wind up with the belt. If the first fight is close, there is a chance for a rematch which hurts Chandler's chances of getting his next title shot no matter how his resume looks. The other doubt here is that I don't think Chandler stands a chance against the incredible Sambo and Judo of Islam Makhachev or the revitalized Oliveira in a rematch where he can either knock Michael out again or capitalize with his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Charles Oliveira has continued to impressively submit his opponents and is one of the best when it comes to finding their backs and choking them out. He was able to do this against Poirier and Gaethje with ease, and I am sure he would love nothing more than to get a rear-naked choke on Chandler after knocking him out in the first run. Oliveira looked nearly out against Chandler in the first round, but as I highlighted with Poirier, this man continues to show resilience when it comes to soaking up big shots which Chandler does best.
Michael Chandler will once again try to keep this on the feet, but Oliveira will find his way to knock down Chandler as he did in May. History also shows us that Iron Mike can get knocked down quickly, as Gaethje was able to do it to him and Tony Ferguson put Chandler on the ground in Round 1 last month. From there it is work your way to the back, mount up off the guard and go to town. That sounds way easier than it actually is, but Oliveira has proven to be one of the most clinical Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu artists we have ever seen.
And now I will double down on this same strategy with Islam Makhachev. One of Khabib Nurmagomedov's favorite quotes is that "if Sambo were easy, they would call it jiu-jitsu." Although I have no comments on that as I would personally get wrecked by both, I also think Michael Chandler who is extremely experienced and tough would also get wrecked by both. Islam's ability to grab onto his opponents and pour all of his weight into taking them to the ground with a leg sweep or a leg grab is second to none in the Lightweight division.
Because of his skills, many are recognizing that Islam is like the Khabib 2.0 in this division, which is high praise for the two childhood friends. Islam has not shown any weaknesses in his ground game, and will dominate Michael Chandler on the ground despite Chandler's wrestling background. It is a different ball game when it comes to sharing the mat with a Dagestani fighter, and right now Makhachev is the toughest of them all.
H/T UFC.com for the photo.
Michael Chandler is very close to another title shot at 155-lbs. However, having to face Dustin Poirier, Islam Makhachev, or Charles Oliveira again really limits his chances of winning UFC gold. I believe the best case for Iron Mike is to cash in on the massive check of fighting McGregor, and then evaluate where the division stands.
I am a big fan of Michael Chandler's and find his longtime dominance in Bellator to be fascinating. I hope that despite his age of 36 we get to see several more years out of him in the UFC because Iron Mike will always be must-watch television due to his entertaining approach to fighting. On top of this, you will be hard-pressed to find a nicer guy outside of the octagon.
If you would like to see your favorite fighter profiled next in this series, shoot us an email at Happyhoursportshq@gmail.com, or Tweet at us @HHSportsHQ and join the conversation. I hope you all enjoyed this first installment and I look forward to providing more columns on fighters and their path to the belt in the future.