Michael Chandler understands the long game.
Just one fight into his UFC career, the three-time Bellator lightweight champion made a huge impact when he demolished Dan Hooker inside the first round in his debut at UFC 257 in January. Afterwards, Chandler was already calling for a shot at UFC gold while also taking aim at every other top-ranked lightweight who could potentially oppose him next.
Right now, Chandler’s management team is deep into discussions for his next fight but his end goal remains the same as he seeks to become champion while still holding out hope that given enough time, he can eventually convince Khabib Nurmagomedov to come out of retirement to face him.
“I think he’s got unfinished business,” Chandler said about Nurmagomedov when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I think 29-0 is not enough for him. He wants 30-0 but it’s got to be the right challenge. That really is kind of the interesting aspect.
“He’s already beaten [Justin] Gaethje. He’s already beaten Conor [McGregor]. He’s already beaten [Dustin] Poirier. He’s already beaten essentially everyone in the top-five aside from me and [Charles] Oliveira.”
While Chandler has long considered himself the biggest threat to Nurmagomedov’s dominant run through the lightweight division, the facts remain the same — Nurmagomedov is still retired from active competition.
That said, UFC President Dana White has been adamant about trying to convince Nurmagomedov to return and he claims the undefeated Russian would fight again assuming there’s a challenge worthy of his attention. It doesn’t appear anyone in the lightweight division has accomplished that goal just yet but Chandler is far from giving up hope.
“I do think my body of work speaks to that,” Chandler said. “I do think that my wrestling background speaks to that. I do think that my resume of almost 50/50 when it comes to knockouts and submissions, top control, damage and submission game, that I bring to the table, but I’ve got to go out and beat whoever they put in front of me.
“Whether it’s for the title or not, then I’ve got to win the title, maybe defend it once, show that I can knock people out. Show that I can grapple and wrestle people, wrestle with the best of them and I think showing that complete fighter will be enough to entice Khabib to come out and try in his quest for 30-0. But I have a sneaky suspicion that he will end up 29-and-Chandler.”
Another untested option available to Nurmagomedov would be Oliveira, who is currently riding an eight-fight win streak including a lopsided decision over former interim champion Tony Ferguson. As much as Chandler appreciates the streak that Oliveira has put together, he just doesn’t see the Brazilian as the kind of imposing threat that would make Nurmagomedov convinced that he has to come back for one more fight.
“The only question I would pose about Charles Oliveira is he’s not a large 155’er,” Chandler said. “He’s not a very powerful guy. He’s not a very physically strong guy or overly athletically gifted guy. I like Charles Oliveira’s style in the fact that he trots forward, his striking has gotten better, he’s extremely slick with his jiu-jitsu. But when you talk about Khabib, when you talk about the strongest guy in the division, the strongest wrestler, the strongest grappler, the strongest submission artist you’ve seen in the last Justin Gaethje fight plus the guy isn’t afraid to come forward into a firefight, these are all the questions that needed to be answered when you talk about Khabib.
“Is there anybody that can match the strength, match the power, athleticism wise, body awareness wise, plus the cardio, plus the tenacity to be able to go into the deep waters. Get taken down, get back up. Take him down and he gets back up. Just this constant grind match of a 25-minute championship level fight in the unified rules of mixed martial arts. I don’t think Charles Oliveira has that physically.”
Obviously, Chandler has aspirations to eventually coax Nurmagomedov out of retirement but he feels like the real key to that goal will be patience. At 32, Nurmagomedov is still young enough to take time off and still return to action at a later date once there’s a challenge worthy of his attention.
That’s why Chandler knows he may not fight Nurmagomedov next and it may not even happen in the next year but given enough time, he feels like the reigning UFC lightweight champion will take notice of him.
“It’s just going to take some time,” Chandler said. “Put a couple more people in front of me, I’m going to knock them all down and keep calling him out. If he comes out of retirement, he can go for that 30-0 and that question can be answered. I may be wrong but I think I’m right.”