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Michael Chandler responds to Justin Gaethje, clarifies ‘anti-vaxxer’ narrative

Michael Chandler didn’t intend to become the center of controversy last month when he revealed during an Instagram Live chat that he wasn’t going to be vaccinated for COVID-19 ahead of his Nov. 6 fight against Justin Gaethje at UFC 268.

Chandler divulged his stance as a response to new COVID-19 vaccination mandates implemented in New York which require residents to show proof of vaccination upon entering restaurants, gyms, and indoor entertainment venues. In his initial comments, Chandler said that he was uncertain if his bout with Gaethje, which is set to take place at Madison Square Garden, would be put in jeopardy because of the New York mandates.

It wasn’t until afterward that Chandler realized his words had taken on a life of their own.

“The funny thing about the vaccination thing was, I didn’t come out, I didn’t do one story to tell people about it, about the vaccine,” Chandler said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “I didn’t get on your show and start talking about the vaccine. I was in a private Instagram Live session with a couple thousand people or whatever it was. Five minutes after I hit ‘End Live,’ one of the MMA media outlets come out and said Chandler isn’t getting vaxxed, and then I got labeled an anti-vaxxer.

“I don’t personally have the vaccine right now. I don’t know if I ever will get the vaccine. Personally, I just believe that we live in the greatest country on the planet. I believe that this is the greatest country on the planet because of our individual liberties and our individual choices, especially when it comes to our bodies and our medical history and our health. So that’s where I stand on it. And it wasn’t a heel turn whatsoever. It was just the people who labelled me an anti-vaxxer obviously thought I was a heel, when really I was just answering a question.”

The comments reached all the way to Gaethje, who recently said on UFC Unfiltered that he believes Chandler “was just seeking attention” by taking a private health matter and volunteering it up for a public space.

In his original Instagram Live, Chandler said that he was “not going to get the vaccine until it’s 100 percent FDA approved,” however after he later backtracked on that claim once the FDA approved several of the most common vaccine strains, stating that he did not want a COVID-19 vaccine “FDA approval or not” and writing on Twitter in response to a fan that “we all change our minds numerous times a day.”

When asked about Gaethje, Chandler said he isn’t exactly sure how Gaethje reached the conclusion he did considering the method in which Chandler started the conversation.

“If I had hopped on and done a media tour about how I’m not taking the vaccine or if I was telling everybody that the vaccine was garbage or something, of course that would be me seeking attention,” Chandler said. “I was in a private Instagram Live, on my own IG Live with my followers and a couple thousand people that were asking questions about it — and then the article broke and came out. So that was the funny thing too, which, that’s completely fine, it’s a hot-button issue. It’s a hot topic right now. People are 100 percent against it, people are 100 percent for it, and then there’s a lot of people in between who don’t know what to think, so it’s just a huge issue on a world stage.

“So if I had done that, yes, I would be 100 percent OK with Justin Gaethje saying I was seeking attention. But the fact that it was on an Instagram Live and a media outlet picked up my words and put them out there, that shows you right there that it was a private [discussion], no different than me and you having a private conversation at a restaurant and someone overhearing it and then acting like, hey, since I have this huge platform I shouldn’t be talking about it. Well, wait a second, I was talking about it basically in a private forum.”

In the end, the entire discussion proved to be much ado about nothing. New York’s new vaccination mandates don’t even apply to athletes competing at UFC 268, and as far as Chandler knows, his bout against his fellow lightweight contender is locked and loaded for Nov. 6.

“We’re all systems go for Madison Square Garden on November 6th,” Chandler said. “Obviously it’s just become a world right now where a lot of things are up in the air. You never quite know. You never know if you’re fighting at Madison Square Garden until you’re there, the event starts, and they call your name and you’re walking to the octagon. So that’s the state of the world that we live in, [but] as of right now, all systems go and I couldn’t be happier to fight in Madison Square Garden under the UFC banner. It’s going to be a huge show and a phenomenal card that they put together.”

That’s good, because Gaethje vs. Chandler is set to be an important bout for the lightweight division. The two men are both ranked inside the top 5 of MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings, with Gaethje currently perched at No. 3 and Chandler sitting at No. 5.

The winner will propel themselves back into the UFC championship picture following failed title challenges by both men in their most recent bouts, and Chandler is excited for the opportunity to test himself against one of the most exciting all-action fighters the division has ever produced.

“I think you always prepare for a long, drawn-out war,” Chandler said. “I think you always prepare for a guy that you just can’t finish, a guy that just continues to come forward with everything you hit him with — and Justin Gaethje is that. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that Justin Gaethje is not just violent and not just skilled, but man, the dude has cardio and heart in droves. So I’m preparing for 15 hard, hard minutes. The hardest fight of my life.

“But I think best-case scenario I land one pretty darn hard on his temple or his chin and put him out. But that’s what every fighter wants. You want the knockout and you want the quick, easy paycheck, of course, but you’ve got to be ready for that 15-minute war. And if I had to guess, I think if there’s a finish it’s happening later on, second or third round, because I think both of us are just not going to get hit with anything too crazy clean in order to get finished. But that’s what I’m preparing for. We’ll see.”

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