When Michael Chandler walked to his corner at the end of the first round of his bout for the vacant lightweight title with Charles Oliveira on May 15 at UFC 262, he seemed only moments away from completing an improbable story and winning the title.
Seven seconds into the second round, he was floored by an Oliveira left hook. Twelve seconds after that, referee Dan Miragliotta was pulling Oliveira off Chandler as Oliveira finished him with ground-and-pound.
It was a shocking, stunning and swift conclusion to a remarkable fight.
“That’s MMA,” Chandler said, sighing.
Chandler faces Justin Gaethje on Saturday in the pay-per-view opener of UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden in New York in a key lightweight bout that both men need to win to stay in the title hunt. It figures to be one of the best bouts of this, or any, year.
It’s as can’t miss of a fight as the UFC has ever put together.
“How can this fight possibly suck,” UFC president Dana White said, laughing. “It’s impossible for this fight not to be incredible.”
Chandler concedes as much, though because he’s made such an impression in his two UFC bouts since signing as a free agent after an illustrious career with Bellator, he doesn’t have to do as much convincing.
He stunned Dan Hooker in his debut in January, then had the momentous fight with Oliveira for the title in May. His third fight this year will pit him against a guy known as "The Highlight" for his fan-friendly style.
Chandler, too, has that kind of approach, so he knows the decibel levels will be in the dangerous range for much of the fight.
“I do think so,” Chandler said when asked if he thought his fight with Gaethje would be Fight of the Year. “The goal is for every fight to not make it a Fight of the Year because you want to go out there, make quick work of your opponent, collect your paycheck, kiss your wife and move on to the next one.”
Chandler is a well-educated, intelligent guy who is thoughtful and passionate when he speaks. But when he gets into the cage, he changes.
Much the same is true of Gaethje, who has been described as “crazy” by several of his peers and as a “mad man” by his friend, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
Chandler says "crazy" no longer has the same negative connotation within the sport that perhaps it once did.
“You know, I think crazy is becoming more and more normal,” Chandler said. “I think if you want to do anything in life, you’ve got to be a little bit crazy. It’s kind of what I say. I just came out with some merch and I put ‘Stay dangerous’ on it. The way I describe it is, if you want to accomplish anything in life of some real gumption, of some real weight that’s going to make people feel something, you’ve got to be a little bit dangerous.
“You’ve got to live a little bit dangerously. You’ve got to embark on the danger of rubbing people the wrong way and not being everybody’s cup of tea. I think crazy is kind of the same way.”
It’s how Chandler — a +175 underdog at BetMGM to the -225 Gaethje — lives his fighting life. He embraces risk because that risk comes with a significant reward. He said it’s why many fighters will speak in a manner that makes them seem like they want that lifestyle, but only a select few truly live it.
He does. Gaethje does. And they’ve been successful at it and made themselves into significant factors and names within their sport.
“When people say things like, ‘I’m willing to die in there, I’m willing to go to deep places, deep, dark places; I love to pull out the darkness, I love to break people; I love to hurt people,’ most of the time, that’s all bluster,” he said. “When Justin Gaethje says it, I think he truly believes it. That’s a scary opponent. That’s a dangerous opponent. And it’s an opponent who wakes me up a little bit early.
“I’ve woken up before my alarm more times this training camp ready to hit the ground running, ready to get my day started more than I have in my entire career. That’s what you want in an opponent.”
Chandler’s got it. So has Gaethje. It has all the makings of an epic battle, a fight for the ages.
As Chandler said, “I can’t wait.”