Newcomer Michael Chandler has told critics he deserves a UFC title shot but admits he is the “beneficiary of some interesting circumstances”.
The American, who turned 35 last month, joined the UFC last September after 10 years with rival promotion Bellator.
And in just his second UFC fight in Houston on Saturday, Chandler faces Brazilian Charles Oliveira, 31, for the vacant lightweight title at UFC 262.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
After being a three-time world champion with Bellator, Chandler joined one of the most competitive divisions in the UFC, with one of its most dominant champions in Khabib Nurmagomedov. Yet suddenly the lightweight division opened up.
Nurmagomedov retired unbeaten after stopping Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 last October, Oliveira beat Tony Ferguson in December and Chandler announced his arrival by knocking out Dan Hooker at UFC 257 to go straight to fifth in the lightweight rankings.
Top-ranked Dustin Poirier then turned down the chance to face Oliveira in favour of completing his trilogy with Conor McGregor in July, allowing Chandler or Oliveira, who is getting his first title shot after 10 years in the UFC, to succeed Nurmagomedov as lightweight champion.
“I’m blessed to be in this position,” said Chandler. “I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, that I’ve got another couple of years of having a blast here in the UFC.
“I said I was going to showcase my skills and prove what I’ve been saying over the last decade – that I’m the best lightweight on the planet – and on Saturday I get to prove that.”
Chandler rewarded for ‘keeping his work boots on’
After competing in wrestling at college in Missouri, Chandler made his professional mixed martial arts debut in 2009, joining Bellator in 2010.
He went on to demonstrate his explosive striking power, beating former UFC lightweight champions Benson Henderson and Eddie Alvarez along the way.
Chandler became a free agent for the first time in 2020 and a month after UFC president Dana White snapped him up, he travelled to Abu Dhabi and made weight in case Nurmagomedov or Gaethje had to withdraw from UFC 254.
Then on the same night Poirier won his rematch with McGregor in January, Chandler blew away Hooker in the first round to pocket the Performance of the Night bonus.
“Making that leap [from Bellator] wasn’t an easy decision,” Chandler added. “There was a couple of sleepless nights, but it’s paid off in droves.
“I told Dana that two years ago, four years ago, I wouldn’t have been the man, the competitor, the champion that you deserve to have under your banner.
“Now I am that guy, and I think my performance at UFC 257 and the way I’ve handled everything thus far has proved that. I did in two-and-a-half minutes [against Hooker] what Dustin Poirier and Paul Felder couldn’t do in 25.
“I showed up with my work boots on, just like my dad’s done as a union carpenter for 40 years. I’m a working man and I’m going to say yes when you call. I came in and said yes to every opportunity right away.”
Former interim lightweight champion Ferguson is facing Beneil Dariush in the co-main event and at the pre-fight news conference in Houston, he told Chandler “you got this handed to you, you’ve got Dana White privilege”.
White burst out laughing but earlier said: “This guy’s done everything asked of him since he walked in the door. Timing is everything in life, and it’s worked out for him to get this title shot.”
Chandler goes in with a 22-5 record and says that, in terms of grappling, Oliveira will be the most dangerous opponent he has faced yet.
The Brazilian holds the record for most submissions in UFC history (14) and is now 30-8, with one no contest. Since losing to Paul Felder in 2017, he has racked up an eight-fight win streak and has now earned the second-highest number of UFC bonuses (16).
“This is about my legacy,” said Oliveira. “I want to prove I can hang with these guys, that’s what I want to do here.”
Who else is fighting at UFC 262?
The event will feature the UFC’s second capacity crowd since lockdown restrictions were lifted, with 17,000 fans expected at a sold-out Toyota Center.
UFC 262 will feature four top-10 lightweight contenders with Ferguson facing Dariush, 32, the Iran-born American on a six-fight win streak, including three first-round finishes.
Ferguson, 37, briefly held the interim title while compiling a 12-fight win streak before losing to Gaethje and Oliveira in 2020.
“God put so much on my plate last year it fixed me up for 2021,” said the American. “This is my year.”
American Katlyn Chookagian, 32, is the women’s number two-ranked flyweight and faces Brazilian Viviane Araujo, 34, who has won seven of her last eight fights.
The preliminary card sees English featherweight Mike Grundy take on American Lando Vannata, 29, who has only won two of his last eight.
Grundy, 34, made his UFC debut with a win over Nad Narimani in March 2019 and has fought once since, with defeat to Movsar Evloev last July leaving the Wiganer with a 12-2 professional record.