With many high profile promotional debuts in 2021, the year hit the archives as a memorable one. Many registering successful spells of competition throughout the 12 months. Whether from the regional ranks or fellow major organizations, plenty of fighters made the switch. None quite came close to Michael Chandler.
A multiple time Bellator champion, lightweight Michael Chandler signed a multi-fight deal with the UFC in 2020 after years of negotiations. Despite being in his mid-thirties, he believed the timing was right, aiming for nothing short than undisputed gold. And within a few months, opinions would be capsized…
Chandler was quickly matched with the well-respected Dan Hooker, a man known for his chin and ability to weather the storms of adversity. As well as a top opponent, he’d take the co-main event spot at UFC 257 in a pay-per-view headlined by Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. With all eyes watching, all that was left to do was perform.
Heading into the fight, multiple things were clear from the bounce. For Hooker; his best bet was to play the range game, sticking to low kicks, constant jabbing and sharp knees up the middle. To say these would be a threat to Chandler is an understatement. The former Bellator poster-boy has had previous issues with lower leg kicks, and his routine of dipping between exchanges makes him prone to knees. Although its easier said than done, Hooker winning through these tactics wouldn’t be surprising, as the Kiwi entered the January 23rd bout the betting favorite.
Michael’s methods to victory were very different. Known for his grinding wrestling style, he’d have more than enough skill to dump him to mat and work from full guard or a position as dangerous as top mount. Even without relying on wrestling, his power alone would warrant a big enough threat for Hooker to second-guess initiating and surrender control of the cage. The latter would come to fruition, granting Chandler more time to operate as he forced his foe into a trap.
Chandler immediately shifted towards Hooker, bobbing in and out of kicking range. His wide stance, which seemingly left his lead leg vulnerable, may have been a temptation for his opponent. Yet doing so ups his chances of successfully checking any leg kicks coming. With Hooker nibbling on the numerous feints and level changes, Chandler had the green light to press onwards, soon to up his output.
Single-shot body punches were the tool of choice, as “Iron” landed a number of straight rights to the midsection. The idea was to gradually lower and manipulate the guard of Hooker, which worked, as when Chandler rushed forward with a body feint (that would turn into a right hook upstairs). He resorted to a panicked, one-armed long guard (though not covering his face).
While he doesn’t connect cleanly, Chandler does what we just spoke about.
Hooker decided it’d be wise to use more leg kicks in order to keep the bout at his range, aiming to stop Chandler’s incessant pressure and cage cutting. In response, Michael upped this pressure. Although he did shift out of range when fearing a kick, he closed the distance well and worked around Hooker’s long, extended arm. He mainly stuck to single-shots, switching between the head and body.
Above, you can see the effect a single shot has as it forces Hooker against the fence. The attempted 1-2 causes him problems, too, and shows a visibly confident Chandler beginning to let his hands go.
Chandler dips to bring down his opponents lead hand and garners the exact reaction he was after. Now given the green light, he repeats the dipping action while firing the aforementioned body shot, except this time, he ties a left hook to the sequence. The decision to do so was simple yet fantastic, as the iron-chinned Hooker had been circling in its direction all night.
The message was clear – Michael Chandler had arrived. To run through a man of Dan Hooker’s calibre is impressive enough, let alone in under three minutes. Big things were expected to follow, but none could predict the opportunity that’d await the now ranked lightweight.
Four months later he’d meet Charles Oliveira in the Octagon with UFC gold on the line. In spite of coming up short, he gave a good account of himself, proving he belongs amongst the best in the world. His year wasn’t finished there, however. In November, Chandler battled in a three-round war with Justin Gaethje, a contest many regarded as Fight of the Year.
Even with a promotional record of 1-2, his career in the UFC has been a successful one. Debut of the Year isn’t so bad, after all…