When Michael Chandler set foot in New York City’s Times Square on Monday, he looked up and saw video of himself matched up opposite Dustin Poirier. The video promotion of his UFC 281 fight at Madison Square Garden this weekend was a humbling reminder of just how far he’s come.
“I was a small guy from a small town with such small visions of what I was going to do in my life,” Chandler told UFC.com.
But staying in his hometown of High Ridge, Missouri wasn’t in the cards for Chandler. His athleticism, discipline, and heart carried him to be a walk-on for the University of Missouri wrestling team.
After four successful years on the wrestling mat, he turned to mixed martial arts and fashioned himself into one of the top lightweight fighters in the world.
“I’ve been dedicating my life to building this mind and body since I was 14 years old,” Chandler said. “Twenty-two years of being brilliant with the basics and being extremely determined and tough in competition.”
In 2020, Chandler was approached with the opportunity to finally make his UFC debut. It was the opportunity that the competitor in him had been waiting for. It was his chance to continue pushing himself to new heights and to showcase who he was on the biggest stage that MMA has to offer.
“Truly, I just think about my career and there were a lot of moments when I never thought that I would be here in the UFC,” Chandler said. “I’m so thankful that I made that decision, that I took a chance on this whole thing. Here we are two years later, and I truly feel like I’m living a dream, and when I’m grateful and my heart is full, that’s right where I want to be.”
At UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira, he’ll face a former interim UFC lightweight champion and fan favorite in Poirier. It’s a fight that Chandler has had his eyes on for years and he couldn’t be happier that it’s taking place in “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Putting on a show at MSG is nothing new for Chandler, though, as he fought Justin Gaethje at MSG last November. That fight won the 2021 award for Fight of the Yea,r and even though Chandler didn’t get the win, his performance spoke volumes.
“I think I had proven how tough I am in the past, outside of the UFC, but doing it inside the UFC on that platform and just showing people the heart and determination I have from the bell to bell when that cage door closes, I’m a different guy. I think Justin Gaethje saw that; I think obviously the whole MMA world saw that and I think Dustin Poirier will see that on Saturday night,” Chandler said. “You want to limit those kinds of wars in your career because those definitely don’t bode well for the future, but it sure does kind of stake your claim and plant a flag for the rest of the guys you fight that they know you’re a certain kind of guy and you’re a different kind of animal.”
UFC 281 FREE FIGHTS: Zhang Weili vs Joanna Jedrzejczyk 2 | Dustin Poirier vs Justin Gaethje | Carla Esparza vs Rose Namajunas 2 | Israel Adesanya vs Paulo Costa | Michael Chandler vs Tony Ferguson | Alex Pereira vs Sean Strickland
Chandler bounced back from that defeat to Gaethje with a stunning front kick knockout win over Tony Ferguson. Four celebratory backflips followed by an Octagon interview for the ages placed Chandler right back in the thick of the lightweight title picture.
With the belt switching hands from Charles Oliveira to Islam Makhachev at UFC 280, this weekend’s bout between him and Poirier has high stakes.
“I have another huge opportunity against a very game, tough veteran in Dustin Poirier. The title implications are real,” Chandler said. “I do think if I go out there beat Dustin Poirier, my name is in the hat to go out there, fight Islam and win the title.”
Chandler can’t help but get excited at the prospect of fighting Makhachev for the lightweight title. He loves the stylistic matchup between his wrestling and Makhachev’s grappling.
“I think I’m the best wrestler in the division,” Chandler said. “I think he needs to get through a lightweight before we talk about him fighting a featherweight [Alexander Volkanovski] even though they are both at the top of pound-for-pound list, but that’s not up to me.”
With the UFC’s plans for the lightweight title out of his control, all of Chandler’s attention is lasered in on “The Diamond”.
Chandler sees Poirier as another one of those fighters who lives a champion’s lifestyle, who does the little things right, is a technician and, most of all, is always looking to be the best version of themselves.
“You’re getting two see two guys at the pinnacle of their careers at the mecca of combat sports, and the emotions and the feeling are going to be high,” Chandler said. “The pace is going to be breakneck, and you got two guys that want to get a finish; two guys that don’t want to fight fifteen minutes. I want go out there and I want to finish Dustin Poirier and he wants to finish me inside fifteen minutes. May the best man win, one of us is going to get our hand raised, and I also think that you’ll see mutual respect after the fight.”
Entering a fight with the expectation that he’ll have to lay it all on the line is nothing new for Chandler.
It’s exactly what he’s done his whole athletic career. It’s how he went from a small-town kid to a walk-on at a D-1 school to competing for world titles in the UFC. It’s what has made Chandler great and it’s why he believes that this fight with Poirier is his time to shine.
“I’ve prepared with my team, training partners, and coaches, and I honestly just think right now is my time. I really believe that the ups and downs, the wins and the losses since I came into the UFC, have prepared me and fashioned me for this moment. Right now, with Islam being the champion, I think things are just working out perfectly. That’s my true belief.”
“I think when that cage door closes, Poirier is going to look across the Octagon; he’s going to see me; he’s going to know what he’s in for and I get my hand raised.”
UFC 281: Adesanya vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 12, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!