The loser of their lightweight bout on the main card of UFC 274 on Saturday at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona, can likely kiss a future title shot goodbye, while the winner will at least remain in the running.
Their approaches, though, are so dramatically different that it’s almost as if they’re in different universes.
Chandler, who spent the majority of his career fighting for Bellator, can barely contain his giddiness about being in the UFC. One doesn’t even have to prod him to get him to unleash a string of superlatives about the promotion and its personnel.
He raves about the way he’s been treated, from UFC president Dana White down to Hunter Campbell, the company’s chief business officer, to the general staff.
“I love this sport, I really do,” Chandler said when asked if it will be tough watching Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje, the men who defeated him last year, fight for the belt in Saturday’s main event. “I love the opportunities that the UFC has given me since signing with the organization. I came in and told Hunter Campbell, ‘I want to be a good thing for your organization. I’m going to say, 'Yes.' And I’m going to go out there and put on great performances.’ And I believe I've tried to do that every single time."
At the UFC 262 pre-fight news conference last year, when Chandler fought Oliveira for the vacant title and Ferguson met Beneil Dariush on the undercard, Ferguson was chiding Chandler and uttered one of the great lines ever.
He was complaining about not getting his shot and was unhappy that Chandler, then in his second UFC bout, was fighting for the title.
“You got this s*** handed to you,” Ferguson said to Chandler, who was seated at the opposite end of the dais. “You’ve got Dana White privilege.”
But at Wednesday’s media day when a reporter joked about that, Ferguson was in no laughing mood. He hasn’t fought since UFC 262, when he was beaten by Dariush to suffer his third consecutive loss.
He laid into the UFC and White in particular, complaining about pay and said that White runs the company like a drug kingpin.
“I don’t think that s*** is very funny,” Ferguson said when the White privilege line was brought up. “You do maybe. I don’t think it’s very funny. Everybody is looking at it, they’re smiling and laughing at it but nobody’s saying s***.
“I’m the one up here with Dana Brown privilege or whatever the f*** you want to call it. I don’t think it’s very funny anymore. I don’t think you should think that’s very funny. So I’m taking this weekend very f***ing seriously. So I’ll kick this Dana White boy’s ass.”
Ferguson then went off on the UFC pay structure. It’s been a repeated topic over time and Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza made an issue of it again recently when he was chiding UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman for seeking a boxing match with Canelo Alvarez.
Espinoza got into the middle of a Twitter beef between Alvarez, Usman and Usman's manager, Ali Abdelaziz, by making an issue of the pay disparity. Top-end boxers make far more than the majority of the top-end UFC fighters, though the UFC has a thriving middle class of fighters that does not exist in boxing.
“UFC fighters want that boxing paycheck but don’t understand that boxers have the autonomy to choose opponents,” Espinoza tweeted. “It’s not about not wanting ‘smoke.’ It’s about professional self-determination, a foreign concept to those who let the kickboxing instructor choose their fights.”
There is no doubt that the UFC regularly puts on better, deeper and more evenly matched cards than any boxing promoter does. That’s indisputable. But it’s equally as indisputable that fighters like Alvarez make the kind of money, in the tens of millions, that even makes McGregor jealous.
Ferguson, who has long been one of the division’s leading talents, let loose on the UFC and on White in a long rant on Wednesday.
“I think we’re underpaid, personally,” Ferguson said. “I’m going to be real. I’m not going to say too much. Dana said something the other day ... talking about how boxers are overpaid. I asked Dana to box. He said, ‘F*** no.’ I’m like, ‘Why? I want to go play baseball, I want to go do other pro sports.’ I’m an athlete. I grew up doing different pro sports at a very high level. I won a state championship in football. We were 27-1. I come from Grand Valley State University as a wrestler. I want to go do wrestling. I’ve got Uncle Brock [Lesnar] who’s right there watching me.
“I want to go do all these couple things but then I have this guy right here acting like a f***ing drug dealer, telling me I can’t go do this s***. I want to go make more money for my family.”
Ferguson is expected to make in the neighborhood of $500,000 on Saturday to face Chandler, a not-so-bad payday for a guy third from the top on the card on a three-fight losing streak.
The answer to the dilemma, of course, is simple. A fighter’s union would be the best bet if it had the majority of fighters involved and supporting it. But because fighters are independent contractors who have vastly different interests, it’s hard to get the top stars to support unionization efforts. And without the top stars, the union has no teeth, which is why attempts to unionize the fighters have repeatedly failed in the UFC.
Ferguson and Chandler will be long gone by the time a union ever comes to the UFC, if it ever does.
But though they’ll be gone, they’ll be remembered fondly for as long as MMA fighting is still a thing.
Because despite their differences in approach, there have been few fighters more exciting than Tony Ferguson and Michael Chandler. A match between them is one that should blow it out of the water and be talked about for ages.
Along, of course, with the fierce and ongoing dispute about fighter compensation.