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Michael Chandler won’t ‘ever get as excited’ to fight Islam Makhachev as he would’ve for Khabib Nurmagomedov

UFC 268: Gaethje v Chandler Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Long before Michael Chandler was a UFC fighter, he always considered himself the toughest possible matchup for Khabib Nurmagomedov.

With a wrestling pedigree, heavy hands, and seemingly never-ending gas tank, Chandler felt like he presented issues for Nurmagomedov that no previous opponents had managed. Sadly, Chandler never got the chance to be proven right or wrong because Nurmagomedov retired from the sport just as the ex-Bellator champion started his career with the UFC.

Since hanging up his gloves, Nurmagomedov has put most of his focus on promoting through his organization Eagle FC, while also dedicating a lot of time to coaching — including his work with pupil Islam Makhachev, who many believe to be the second coming of the former UFC lightweight champion.

While Chandler has the utmost respect for Makhachev and the 10-fight win streak he’s put together in the division, he still can’t quite compare him to Nurmagomedov, especially when gauging his interest in a potential fight between them.

“Me personally, it’s not even close,” Chandler told MMA Fighting. “I think for me, you just saw the way that Khabib carried himself — he was a star, he was undefeated. Obviously, Makhachev only has one loss but he has a blemish on his record. Khaibb was undefeated. Khabib dominated people. Khabib beat numerous guys inside of the top 10 and then won the title and then held the title and looked unbeatable. Barely looked like he ever lost a quarter of a round, let alone losing a round to a guy.

“That’s what Khabib brought. And do I think Makhachev has that potential? I do think he has that potential, aside from the fact that he’ll never be undefeated again obviously. That’s kind of my thought process on it. I don’t think I would ever get as excited about fighting him as I was when I came into the UFC or even years before I came to the UFC, how I believed I would give Khabib the best test in the lightweight division. That’s kind of where I’m at with it, and it looks like Khabib will just have to win coach of the year.”

As much as Makhachev appears to be the heir apparent to Nurmagomedov, Chandler still pumps the brakes when it comes to anointing him as the best lightweight in the sport.

Beyond the fact that Makhachev isn’t the UFC champion, Chandler knows from personal experience how tough the fights can be at the top of the division, and that’s simply not a test that the Dagestan native has faced just yet.

“We bring our criticisms of Makhachev only because he hasn’t been here for a very long time,” Chandler explained. “As he has been here and his star has started to rise, it was so much connected to Khabib and he hadn’t fought anybody inside the top 10. Now he fought Dan Hooker, got a win, got a finish.”

Makhachev hoped to settle all those debates when he was scheduled against Beneil Dariush back in February, but an injury derailed the fight from actually happening. All signs are pointing towards the matchup being rebooked later this year, and Dariush brings with him a wealth of experience as well as a seven-fight win streak, with four of those wins coming by way of knockout or submission.

If Makhachev can get through Dariush like he’s done his past 10 opponents, then Chandler will gladly become a believer.

“Dariush, he’s on a streak,” Chandler said. “He’s been a top-10 guy now for a very long time, and as of late, after beating Tony [Ferguson] and solidifying himself in the top five, the guy’s got knockouts, he’s got submission wins, he’s got hard, hard-fought, grueling ground-and-pound type of fights where he goes out there and just dominates guys like he did with Tony.

“I think it’s a phenomenal test. I think it’s a big test. I think him fighting Dariush does definitely solidify him.”

As he prepares to face Tony Ferguson at UFC 274, Chandler anticipates that a win will put him right back into the hunt for the title at 155 pounds after he previously fought for the championship in 2021.

On that night, Chandler had current champion Charles Oliveira badly hurt in the opening round before the Brazilian came storming back in the second. Now Oliveira is looking for his second straight title defense when he faces Justin Gaethje on Saturday, and that’s another fighter Chandler is intimately familiar with after they clashed in the 2021 Fight of the Year.

If Chandler handles Ferguson the way he expects, he hopes that he’ll get some consideration to potentially face either Oliveira or Gaethje next, although he knows there’s still a lot to be settled before anyone is declared the No. 1 contender in the division.

“I beat Tony, [there’s] the winner of Makhachev and Dariush and then you’ve got Conor [McGregor] coming back, who will obviously always want a title shot right away, and I think the UFC would always oblige,” Chandler said. “There’s going to be three people jockeying for that fight no matter what. Conor, the winner of Makhachev and Dariush, and then myself, granted if I beat Tony of course. It’s going to be an interesting summer.”