Michael Chandler has had two direct run-ins with Dustin Poirier. One was before he was in the UFC, the other was when he was in the UFC, and he believes the difference in vibe between them explains everything about where they are today.
“I think that’s where this whole Dustin stuff happened at [UFC 276],” Chandler said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “Basically, I was very respectful and nice to him, which I meant every word, and once we both got in the same organization, tensions started rising and [he thought], ‘I don’t know if I like that guy as much as I did, because now, he’s a competitor of mine.’”
And so UFC 281 approaches with Poirier and Chandler being cast as rivals, a characterization Chandler just shrugs at. It’s not a personal fight for him, though he can’t speak for his opponent.
It looks very personal for Poirier, if their second meeting is any indication. Chandler remembers crossing in front of the octagon at UFC 276 in July and hearing someone scream at him. Soon, he realized it was Poirier.
“He had a moment to say it to my face, and he said what he said, and I said, ‘Alright, dude,’” Chandler said. “‘Cool. I’ll see you when we fight, if we fight.’”
By then, Chandler was no longer an upstart import from Bellator, where he held the lightweight title on three different occasions. He’d just knocked out ex-interim champ Tony Ferguson with a highlight-reel front kick at UFC 274 and called out McGregor in a note-perfect pro-wrestling promo.
Chandler subsequently no-sold Poirier as his next potential opponent in interviews. But he did that, he said, because he still wanted to fight Conor McGregor, who hadn’t booked his next fight after suffering a broken leg in his trilogy with Poirier. Ex-interim champ Poirier didn’t want to fight McGregor a third straight time, so there was Chandler’s opportunity.
Poirier didn’t like that, he let Chandler know.
“I’ve made fights personal in the past, and it’s never worked out really well,” Chandler said. “But truthfully, I think those moments or scenarios warranted somewhat of a personal beef, if you will. I really honestly have nothing against Dustin.”
When Poirier took the stage after upsetting Conor McGregor at UFC 257 and said he wouldn’t fight Chandler, who’d knocked out Dan Hooker earlier on the card, Chandler didn’t take it as an insult. It was more about what he represented at that moment.
“I think it’s personal because of me, but not toward me, if that makes sense,” he said. “I think Dustin’s been the guy for a very, very long time, and I was the guy who came in and have done what I’ve done. I don’t think it’s necessarily directed toward me personally, just this figure of this guy who is me stepping inside the cage.
“Would I have taken the fight against Dustin had he been in Bellator for however many years and came over and I was a top-five guy? Would I have fought him? I probably would have, but I can’t say for certain that I would. Would I have said the same things he said about me? Possibly, if I was thinking I’d cut my teeth in the biggest organization in the world for 15 years like he did. So I can’t put myself in his shoes, but it’s not personal.
“People want it to be personal. He and I will, as we always do, go out there and bite down on our mouthpieces and get into a hard-fought scrap, and it will be entertaining, and like Dustin said, somebody’s most likely getting sparked out. So we’ll see what happens.”
Chandler hopes the UFC will capture this dynamic in the promotion for the fight, which takes place at UFC 281 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden. The UFC can use footage from Chandler’s teammate, one-time welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns, who just happened to catch the UFC 276 fracas. That will sell better than the footage that might be had from their first meeting, just before he fought Benson Henderson at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Back then, Chandler was a Bellator fighter, a former champ looking for bigger opportunities after serving the last fight of his contract with the promotion. He hadn’t knocked out Henderson in the first round, and he hadn’t taken a phone call from the UFC.
Basically, Chandler wasn’t a threat. That footage wouldn’t sell for this UFC grudge match.