Michael Chandler always believed he’d find himself fighting for the UFC lightweight title someday. He just didn’t think it would come so soon after his debut with the promotion at the beginning of the year.
“I did not, absolutely not,” Chandler told The Post over the phone recently.
Nonetheless, that’s the enviable situation in which Chandler (22-5, 17 finishes) finds himself, preparing to face Charles Oliveira to decide who will become the next champ at 155 pounds following the retirement of former unbeaten title holder Khabib Nurmagomedov last October. The two will vie for the vacant crown in the ESPN+ pay-per-view headliner of UFC 262 on Saturday at Toyota Center in Houston.
Making such a big impact in his UFC debut certainly played a part in getting to this point, even in one of the most top-heavy weight classes in the sport. Back on Jan. 24, Chandler announced his presence to those who weren’t familiar with the former Bellator lightweight champion with an emphatic TKO of Dan Hooker exactly halfway through the first round. It was Chandler’s 13th first-round victory of his career. Doing so on the pay-per-view co-main event immediately preceding a Conor McGregor fight ensured maximum exposure, too.
Perhaps the biggest reason Chandler is here this weekend is a choice made by the man who knocked out McGregor that evening in Abu Dhabi: Dustin Poirier. Despite sitting atop the UFC’s promotional rankings as well as independent lists throughout MMA media, Poirier passed on a title fight and chose a lucrative rubber-match with McGregor in July to settle their best-of-three.
“I am just the benefactor of a certain set of circumstances, which is Khabib retiring, and Poirier and Conor both tied up with the trilogy,” Chandler said.
“There’s no doubt Dustin Poirier is the No. 1 guy in the world as we speak right now,” Chandler said, before adding a caveat. “He deserves that title shot, but he passed up on the title shot to fight the Conor fight. That’s his decision to make, so now everyone turns their eyeballs to me and Charles Oliveira.”
If it sounds like Chandler, 35, perhaps views Poirier as the man to beat at 155 pounds even after a non-lineal champion is declared on Saturday, forget it. As far as he’s concerned, “whoever holds the title is the champion.”
“I believe I was a top guy coming into the organization [last September],’” Chandler said. “That was proven by my performance against Dan Hooker, who was top five. Poirier couldn’t finish him in 25 minutes [last June]. Paul Felder couldn’t finish him in 25 minutes [last February]. I’m the only guy in his career to finish him with strikes to the head. So my skill set and my résumé outside the UFC and now here in the UFC speaks for itself.
“I will be the No. 1 guy in the world. I will be the champion. And if Poirier can get past Conor, then I fight Poirier, and I beat him.”
While few would second-guess Poirier’s decision to chase a third fight against McGregor, which figures to offer by far the biggest financial upside of Poirier’s career, Chandler points out the potential downside.
“If Poirier loses to Conor, Poirier made a bad decision by not fighting me for the title in May,” Chandler said. “So there’s a lot of pressure on him to beat Conor because you don’t want to pass up a UFC title shot. At this point, he has never been a champion. He was an interim champion. So I think that is something that may haunt him for years to come.
“But that was a decision that he made, and I think a lot of people would have made that decision,” Chandler continues, striking a more understanding tone. “If you get the opportunity to fight Conor, you fight Conor. Whoever wins that fight July 10 is most likely gonna be my first title defense sometime before the end of the year.”
Clearly, Chandler already envisions himself emerging from Houston with UFC gold slung over his shoulder. But he knows he’s got a major challenge in front of him in Oliveira (30-8, 27 finishes), who like Chandler has been fighting for more than a decade in major MMA promotions. The Brazilian debuted in the UFC at 20 years old in 2010, splitting his career between 145 and 155 pounds in the years since. Although he holds the UFC record for wins by submission (14), he suffered through down periods from 2010 through 2013 (2-4, 1 no contest) and 2015-2017 (2-4).
But Olivieira, 31, has found new life since a TKO loss to Felder at the end of 2017. He’s won eight in a row, with seven victories coming inside the distance and a dominant decision over former interim champ Tony Ferguson last December. He even picked up a pair of (T)KO victories in 2019, his first since his pre-UFC days.
Chandler made sure to “commend” Oliveira on earning his way to the title after all his ups and downs, especially as someone familiar with going through a rough stretch in the cage.
“I think you see two guys who have built a blueprint for working hard, winning a lot of fights but also taking your losses, learning from your losses and moving forward with your losses and not losing the enthusiasm and the steam needed to eventually become a champion, because all the hard work eventually pays off,” said Chandler, who weathered a three-fight losing streak between 2013 and 2014. “You just still have to be standing there when it does.”