Michael Chandler takes on Tony Ferguson this weekend at UFC 274. After he announced himself in the UFC with a first-round knockout of Dan Hooker, Chandler went on to lose his next two contests. He was competitive in both of these bouts, but ultimately came up short. Now, he seems to be on the verge of losing his place in the title picture. Will he be able to remain in the title hunt?
Chandler received his first UFC title shot much quicker than even he would have anticipated. Khabib Nurmagomedov abruptly announced his retirement, following his victory over Justin Gaethje in Oct. 2020, and the lightweight title was vacated. Following Dustin Poirier’s knockout victory over Conor McGregor at UFC 257 in Jan. 2021, he was expected to face the surging Charles Oliveira for the vacant title. However, Poirier made it clear in the aftermath that he wanted to pursue the trilogy fight with McGregor. This opened the door for Chandler to face Oliveira for the title at UFC 262 in May 2021.
Despite having Oliveira hurt in the first round, Chandler ended up losing by TKO in the second. He would later face Gaethje at UFC 268 in Nov. 2021. Just as in the Oliveira fight, Chandler came out quickly and hurt Gaethje with a barrage of power punches. However, just like his previous fight, Chandler’s opponent recovered and got the better of the Missouri native for the rest of the bout. However, Chandler did have success in a fight that would be widely regarded as the “Fight of the Year”. The 36-year-old left the Octagon that night battered and bruised, but also with his reputation greatly enhanced.
Despite admirably fighting Gaethje after sustaining a great deal of damage, Chandler ultimately did lose and is on a two-fight losing streak. This Saturday he faces former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, who is on a three-fight losing streak. Both men have struggled to get in the win column recently, but Chandler has been heavily favored by many in the MMA community to win this contest. This is due to the contrasting nature of the defeats that the two men have experienced. Chandler has hurt his last two opponents and has come close to winning. Ferguson, on the other hand, has been completely dominated in his last three outings.
Ferguson was on the receiving end of one of the most one-sided beatdowns in UFC title fight history, against Gaethje, and, following this, he was controlled on the ground for almost the entirety of his contest with Oliveira. Ferguson’s most recent loss played out in a similar fashion to the Oliveira fight, as he was dominated on the ground by Beneil Dariush. Ferguson seems to be having an inexorable decline. Physically, the 38-year-old has looked like a shell of his former self.
On paper, this appears to be a favorable match-up for Chandler, and it could allow him to get back on track in the lightweight title picture. However, Chandler’s own shortcomings have been exposed in his last two contests. After having both Gaethje and Oliveira hurt in the first rounds of those bouts, Chandler fatigued badly. This seemed to be the consequence of the Missouri native over-exerting himself while trying secure the finish. In both cases, his aggressive, fast-paced strategy backfired, as his opponents were able to recover and capitalize on his fatigued condition. Chandler’s approach has brought him a great deal of success throughout his career, but it may not be conducive to success as the very highest level. Several fighters at the top of weight class are renowned for their durability and excellent conditioning. Chandler has recognized his previous mistakes in the build-up to this fight, and he cannot afford to overlook Ferguson.
Some of Ferguson’s physical attributes may have deteriorated, but his trademark durability and toughness still appear to be intact. The former interim Champion endured a beating from one of the biggest punchers at lightweight in the aforementioned Gaethje, yet he was not dropped once. That fight ended with referee Herb Dean calling it off with Ferguson wobbled on the feet.
Oliveira had an armbar locked in on Ferguson and then hurt the 38-year-old’s arm even more by tucking it under his own arm and pulling it to gain more leverage. Incredibly, Ferguson still did not tap. Against Dariush, Ferguson was put in a heel hook, which caused him to writhe in agony, yet once again, he showed incredible resolve to not tap. The former interim champion endured the submission attempt for long enough for Dariush to start to tire, and the hold was eventually released.
Chandler has spoken about how he deviated from his game plan against Gaethje, attributing this to adrenaline and the crowd reaction. The former Bellator champion must avoid making this mistake against a man who has made a career out of overwhelming opponents with his pace and pressure. Chandler takes great pride in his ability to entertain fans by delivering knockouts and stand-up battles, but he could have an easier path to victory by implementing his wrestling. The 36-year-old has a wrestling background, and he could use his ground game to neutralize Ferguson in the way that Oliveira and Dariush did.
In the past, Ferguson has submitted opponents after he inflicted damage on the feet and forced them to attempt rushed and sloppy takedowns. The D’Arce choke has been his most potent weapon in this department, as he has registered three victories by this method. Chandler must be wary of this if he decides to wrestle. Executing takedowns at the beginning of the fight seem to be the best approach against Ferguson, as it does not give him time to hurt his opponents on the feet and force them to engage with his strong jiu-jitsu game.
Chandler has often talked about having excellent “Anti Jiu-Jitsu”, a term which he has described as his ability to avoid submissions despite admittedly not doing Jiu-Jitsu training. In these scenarios, his wrestling base undoubtedly helps him, allied with his tremendous physical strength and explosiveness. This was most evident when he faced Oliveira, who has the most submission victories in UFC history. Chandler was able to escape with a fresh Oliveira on his back in the first round of their encounter.
Chandler has often used the threat of his takedowns to set up his power right hand to knock opponents out. Ferguson will undoubtedly still have fresh memories of the struggles he had against Oliveira and Dariush on the ground. Consequently, if Chandler elects to feint a takedown, Ferguson may lower his hands and present an opportunity to land the knockout blow.
Chandler could also target Ferguson’s legs. The California native’s mobility was severely restricted in the Gaethje fight after he received a barrage of leg kicks. This set up Gaethje’s power punches, and he proceeded to hurt Ferguson in a manner that had never been seen in his career. Chandler was effective with kicks early on against Gaethje, but neglected them as the bout went on.
Heading into UFC 274, this contest is seen by many as a crossroads fight for Ferguson. While that may be the case, the same could be said for Chandler. When Chandler first joined the organization, he made it clear that his UFC run would not be particularly long. Losing to what many consider to be a diminished Tony Ferguson, would see his title hopes evaporate and could accelerate his exit from the sport. With Oliveira and Gaethje competing for the Lightweight title in the main event, Chandler will look to make a statement. Being able to knock out a man as durable as Ferguson would certainly do that.