Michael Chandler could have gone in any number of directions after his UFC 262 loss to Charles Oliveira in May. He chose the high road.
That’s rare and admirable, but not surprising from Chandler, a man many believed would leave the Octagon with the UFC lightweight championship belt around his waist that night in Houston. But even now, nearly six months after the defeat, the 35-year-old refuses to make excuses.
“I know I did everything possible during training camp in preparation, I know that I have a champion's mentality, I know I was prepared, I know my coaches got me prepared, I know the fight was going well, and I got caught.”
In this sport, that’s all it takes, and after a strong first round against the Brazilian, Chandler got tagged by Oliveira and finished 19 seconds into the second stanza. It hurt, but the Missouri native refused to let it deter him from one day getting another crack at the crown.
“I've been really thinking about this after this last fight and I've said it a couple times - you can't enjoy the spoils and the fruits of your labor and the bright lights and the platform and the money and the lives we get to live - you can't enjoy all of that and take all that in stride without also taking in stride the fact that you're gonna fall short, the fact that you're gonna lose here and there, the fact that even if everything fell perfect and the script couldn't have been written any more perfect for me.”
He pauses, realizing that if he beat Oliveira, it would have been the culmination of an MMA journey that began in 2009, saw him become a Bellator champion and one of the best fighters competing outside of the UFC, and then when he came to the big show, a first-round knockout of Dan Hooker landed him one win away from a world title.
“This was supposed to be my fairytale accomplishment,” Chandler continues. “But even though everything was perfect, there's always a chance that it's not gonna work out. So you can't take the good things in stride without also taking the bad things in stride. I love this sport, I love the UFC, I love fighting for the UFC, I love the opportunities that I've had over the last 12 months, so I'm just enjoying it and enjoying the process, and I can't wait to go out there and compete again.”
On Saturday, he gets his chance in one of the most highly anticipated fights of the year (or any year, for that matter) against fellow 155-pound action hero Justin Gaethje. For most, it would be a 15-minute opportunity to erase the memory of a painful loss, but Chandler doesn’t want to forget the setbacks. He wants to use them as an opportunity to learn and grow. Those are important lessons, not just for him, but for his son Hap.
“I think it's extremely important,” said Chandler. “And obviously I am gonna teach him so many things. I want to teach him how to be a great man, I want to teach him how to be a great leader, I want to teach him how to work hard and operate with integrity. But the most important things that I'm gonna teach him are going to be the things that he sees me do. The way that I react, the way that I respond, the way that I impact people. And even more important than my words are the words that are spoken from other people that were impacted by my work - the fans, the followers, the support system, my close friends, people who have never even met me. Whenever my son runs into them, I want them to say great things about me because those things are more important than the things I can tell him. I can tell him I'm the best in the world, I can tell him I'm Superman, but it shows that you're really walking the walk when everybody else tells him that. I want my son to fail early and often. I want him to fail almost every single day because I do think that you can only find success through failure. I know that there is an amazing calling on his life and he's gonna do something really, really impactful. He's gonna speak to nations, he's gonna lead his generation and that is going to put him into positions where he is daring greatly and he is taking a large amount of risk and he will fail at times. So I think if this big masterpiece that I'm painting brushstroke by brushstroke isn't always wins - sometimes it's gonna be losses - I think it's all going to impact him a lot.”
It's true, and let’s face it, no one likes perfect. Perfect is boring.
“That's why Rocky is so popular,” he said. “They didn't love him because he won all the time, they loved him because he pulled himself back up and won.”
Chandler has risen from the ashes before, and if there is any perfect storm for another comeback from “Iron,” it’s a fight against Gaethje on a stacked UFC 268 card in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. This is a fight fan’s fight, through and through, and it’s got people excited. Really excited.
Why? Well, let one-half of the bout tell you.
“Number one, this is happening at the exact right time,” said Chandler. “Justin Gaethje is world-class and had the opportunity of a lifetime (against Khabib Nurmagomedov). I believe I'm world-class and I had the opportunity of a lifetime. We're both coming off of those opportunities that seemed like they were about to be our storybook accomplishment and you couple that with the hunger and the desire to get back in the win column after losing a world title fight, and couple that with the fact that I don't care if I'm fighting at Madison Square Garden on pay-per-view or if I'm fighting in a shoebox in Alaska, I come to bring entertainment, action and violence, and Justin Gaethje does the exact same thing. The guy doesn't care about the money, he doesn't care about the bright lights; he's there to entertain fans and he's there to make them feel something. And on November 6th, when me and Justin Gaethje step inside the Octagon, people are gonna feel something.”
Oh yeah, that’s as good of a guarantee as you’ll get in sports, or anything in life. It’s a fight that has to deliver, and if it does, that means Chandler and Gaethje will be nursing plenty of bumps and bruises the next day. That’s not easy for the fighters, and it’s just as difficult on their families. I ask Chandler what his wife Brie thinks of the idea of him and “The Highlight” throwing hammers at each other this weekend.
“I think a lot of people forget sometimes that yeah, we're some of the toughest dudes on the planet, and yeah, we're world-class athletes, but we're just human beings trying to do something great and we do something that's pretty outside the norm of what most people's jobs are,” he said. “So my wife is like, yeah, it would be nice if you could get an easy fight, but we made that decision two years ago whenever we knew we were gonna leave Bellator or at least explore free agency that the opportunity to come to the UFC didn't come with skirting around the Top 10, Top 15. I wanted to come in and make a statement and fight all the best guys. I want to fight Gaethje, I want to fight (Dustin) Poirier, I want to fight Conor (McGregor), I want to fight all the biggest-name guys right inside that Top Four, Top Five. So in order to do that, Justin Gaethje is next on the list, I think it's a phenomenal matchup and it's a fight that excites me because I know he's dangerous, I know he takes damage and keeps on coming, he's got phenomenal cardio, he's violent, and he's the perfect opponent for me to go out there and put on a show like I love to do. I would love to get into a dogfight and he's the perfect opponent for that.”
It takes a unique individual to compete in mixed martial arts for a living. It takes even more to fight like Chandler does, willing to leave it all in the Octagon in search of a win. And just as he’s accepted that this is who he is, he also accepts that people don’t want to see him in a wrestling match. And he’s fine with that.
“That's what we love,” he said. “When you're an MMA fan, that's what you want. You want action, you want hard-fought fights, you want ups and downs, you want ebbs and flows. So, of course, that's what the fans want to see and I don't take any offense to it. They wouldn't be MMA fans if they didn't want that. No MMA fan ever wants to see a one-sided domination or a boring fight - they want to see back-and-forth, ups and downs, and I never intentionally put myself in bad positions, but it happens, and I'm there to entertain and sometimes make ill-advised decisions in the moment because I'm just going off what I think is the best decision in that scenario, which often ends up being a really exciting fight.”
Yeah, it’s safe to say that we’re going to remember Michael Chandler a hundred years from now. Not because of any belts he’s won, but because of the way he made us feel. Again, he’s fine with that for a legacy.
“Once I got past 30 and realized I was closer to the end of my career than I was the beginning of my career, I really started analyzing and looking at my career and how I wanted to make an impact, and the UFC has given me the biggest platform possible in the sport of mixed martial arts and now it's just about capitalizing on every opportunity and continuing to work hard,” he said. “I'm a small guy from a small town who was taught to do small things by my surroundings and where I came from, and somehow, I ended up continuing to believe in myself and continued to pull myself back up from losses and failures and setbacks, and if that can help people along the way, that's championship enough for me. I want the UFC title, I believe I'm gonna win the UFC title, but I also know it's not the most important thing. The things that last in life are the things that don't tarnish. And that 12 pounds of gold and leather is gonna tarnish on a shelf somewhere. But the way you make people feel, the legend that you create, the reputation that you create, and the impact that you make, that can really change people's lives.”
Don't miss a single strike of UFC 268: Usman vs Covington 2, live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on ESPN+ on November 6, 2021. Prelims begin at 6pm ET/3pm PT, main card starts at 10pm ET/7pm PT.