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Michael Chandler makes his Octagon debut in Abu Dhabi this Saturday at UFC 257, meeting Dan Hooker in a fight that will help shape the top contenders for the lightweight championship.
The lightweight belt still belongs to Khabib Nurmagomedov, who announced his retirement last year, but the title is yet to be vacated and it now seems there is genuine hope for his return. UFC 257 is headlined by the Conor McGregor–Dustin Poirier lightweight fight. If McGregor wins, a rematch against Nurmagomedov would be a massive draw for the UFC. Another strong contender is Charles Oliveira, who is coming off a lopsided victory against Tony Ferguson, and Chandler will also find a place in that discussion for a title fight if he convincingly defeats Hooker (20-9).
Chandler (21-5) is a three-time Bellator lightweight champion, and there is a great deal of anticipation over his UFC debut. Hooker has won seven of his past nine bouts and he stands as a major test for Chandler.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Chandler discussed his opportunity at UFC 257, the potential of a fight against McGregor, and whether a win instantly vaults him into the title picture.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Justin Barrasso: All eyes are on Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier heading into 257. But this is also an opportunity for you to use the platform as a showcase in your first UFC fight. What excites you most about your fight against Dan Hooker?
Michael Chandler: As fighters, we spend so many hours at the gym and within the quiet of our own minds, exercising discipline and just working so hard. Whenever you get the opportunity to compete, you want it to be on the biggest stage possible. That’s why I came to the UFC, it’s the biggest stage possible. And the UFC has really done right by me, giving me the opportunity to be on the biggest card possible. To be the co-main event on the Conor-Dustin card at UFC 257, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s the biggest platform I could have asked for, and that’s not to mention it’s headlined by lightweights, so my name immediately gets thrown in the mix as a possible opponent for either of those guys down the line.
Dan Hooker is a formidable opponent, but the opportunity is there for me to steal the show. We’ll see. All I know is that the groundwork has been laid, the stage has been set, and I have every opportunity to go out there and become a household name and a mixed martial arts superstar. Now it’s up to me to go out there and compete.
JB: After fighting exclusively for Bellator since 2010, does this fight further validate your decision to test free agency and start a new chapter in your career with the UFC?
MC: This is the perfect opportunity for me. Doors always stay closed for their own reasons, until they’re ready to open. This opportunity wouldn’t have been the right time two years ago or four years ago. Each time that my previous contract with Bellator ended, it never seemed like the right opportunity to test free agency and sign with the UFC.
This all happened at the perfect time. God has had me in the palm of His hand since day one in every single one of the decisions that I’ve made. I’ve worked extremely hard, and I have got to where I am through that blue-collar work ethic as a small kid in a small town in Missouri, and now I’m on the biggest stage I ever could have asked for.
It only gets bigger than this if I’m standing across the Octagon from Conor McGregor. It remains to be seen if that will happen. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will eventually happen sometime down the road.
JB: Hooker isn’t someone you take lightly. What do you respect most about your opponent?
MC: He’s a fighter’s fighter. All of us fighters that are in this division, and in the UFC in general, we respect the guys that talk the talk and walk the walk. Hooker fights hard and he takes damage. In his fight against Poirier [last June], he showed great technique and that willingness to take damage. His length, his height, his reach, the power in his hands, the power in his kicks—he can put it on, he’s great everywhere. He’s a tall task, literally and figuratively, for myself. I’m excited, it’s the biggest opportunity of my life. I can’t wait to go out there and compete.
JB: Hooker seems to have a chin made out of metal, but those eventually crack. Knowing your history in the cage, is the goal to finish him?
MC: Anybody that knows my body of work knows I’m looking for the finish. I feel like it’s a failure if I don’t get a finish or if I get a win off the official scorecards. Anything less than a finish, and preferably a knockout of Dan Hooker, is going to be somewhat of a letdown. But any time you can get a win in your UFC debut against a top opponent, that’s always a positive. But I will be gunning for the finish.
JB: Does a win in this fight instantly put you in title contention for the lightweight championship?
MC: I believe so. Anybody in the top five is in that title picture.
With a division as crazy and energized as the UFC lightweight division, I’m realistic to know it’s an uphill battle for me. I don’t have the household name recognition as some of these guys that have been fighting in the UFC for years. But there is something to be said for being the new guy. If I do my job against Dan Hooker, it’s going to be a primed and ready storyline for me to go from outsider to insider to champion within a 12-month calendar year. With a win, McGregor or Poirier are likely to get the next shot, but after that, why shouldn’t it be me?
JB: Is the plan to call out McGregor after you win?
MC: Everybody calls out Conor. It’s hard when you talk about Conor. You get asked about Conor, then you answer the question, and all you hear is people say, “Oh, this guy doesn’t deserve to fight Conor.” You get all the hate ‘cause it sounds like you’re trying to clout chase or poke the bear, when really you’re just answering the question. I would expect the possible call-out. It’s hard to call out a guy when he’s in the back getting focused for his fight, but we’ll see what happens. Chances are those chances are a little higher than they normally would be.
JB: For those that don’t watch Bellator and are just getting to know you in the UFC, what should people know about your Sanford MMA team?
MC: This is an individual sport, and we talk a lot about me, me, me, I, I, I. But without the we, these performances don’t come together.
I’ve been training under Henri Hooft, Kami Barzini, Greg Jones and Corey Peacock for the last five years in Florida. Without great leadership, you can’t put these performances together and string together wins. We’ve got something really great going on, and we’ve got myself and Gilbert Burns, who is going to be fighting for the Welterweight belt in February, Robbie Lawlor, Jared Gordon, Chas Skelly, Logan Storley—high-level guys in organizations across the world. We keep it simple and keep it devastating, going out there and getting wins.
JB: Since you’re new to the UFC, do you have an extra edge coming into your debut at 257?
MC: I’m just trying to water this down as much as possible to curb my nerves. It’s a huge card. There were will be millions of eyes watching me fight. In order to not get too hyped, I’m trying to stay in the present.
I’m not thinking about what being a dark horse means or anything that Dan Hooker has said. I’m going to focus on the task at hand. I’ve done this 26 times in my career, this will be my 27th, so I’ll keep it business as usual. My goal is to go out there, compete, and get that win.