Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler lock horns at Madison Square Garden as the lightweight rivals jostle for prime position to face either Charles Oliveira or Dustin Poirier… with Islam Makhachev on the rampage, the Americans MUST deliver at UFC 268
- The scramble for the lightweight title continues at UFC 268 in New York City
- Justin Gaethje (#2) and Michael Chandler (#4) do battle at Madison Sq Garden
- Gaethje has been forced to watch from the sidelines over the past 12 months
- Chandler has empathised with his rival’s position ahead of their huge clash
- With Islam Makhachev breathing down their necks, a statement win is needed
Where there was confusion, now there is clarity. Just over one year ago, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement turned the lightweight division on its axis and onset a scramble for the Dagestani’s vacated belt.
The past 12 months has seen that battle smoothen out somewhat, with Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier the outright champion and No 1 contender after a stellar 2021 for both men.
The Brazilian and American go to war at UFC 269 in December, with the victor declared the undisputed king of the 155-pounders, yet there remains a fight among a handful of contenders looking to put themselves in pole position for a tilt at UFC gold in early 2022.
Justin Gaethje (R) and Michael Chandler (L) lock horns at UFC 268 in New York on Saturday
Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler are both fully aware of what is expected of them at Madison Square Garden this weekend.
This is not a new experience for either man. In fact, Gaethje, ranked No 2, and Chandler, ranked No 4, have been on the receiving end of momentous victories that have propelled them towards a title shot.
In May 2020, Gaethje stepped in on short notice to upset Tony Ferguson and book his title fight against Nurmagomedov, only to lose out to the Dagestani via second round submission on Fight Island.
Chandler made a sensational UFC debut at UFC 257, securing a first-round knockout win over Dan Hooker to announce himself on the big stage having signed from Bellator.
Khabib Nurmagomedov sent the lightweight division into disarray when he retired last year
The American wrestler went a whisker away from clinching the lightweight strap, pummeling Oliveira in a huge first round before the Brazilian rallied and knocked out the 34-year-old to dash his hopes of championship status across two organisations.
It is fair to say that Gaethje is feeling pretty frustrated heading into this UFC 268 contest. The Highlight has been forced to bide his time while the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slot into place, despite being earmarked as a strong favourite to fight for the title after Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
Gaethje is adamant that he will get the title shot with a victory over Chandler, and has warned that bedlam will ensue if he is denied a tilt at the lightweight belt.
‘Even if he (Chandler) wins, they probably won’t give him a title shot,’ Gaethje told reporters at UFC 268 media day on Wednesday. ‘The only reason he got the first one was because it was perfect timing.
The division has gained clarity with Charles Oliveira crowned the new champion last May
Oliveira will face Dustin Poirier at UFC 269 with the Diamond the outright No 1 contender
‘But, yeah, I already said it: If I don’t get the shot, we riot. We go to war. I have to be biased when it comes to this. I’m not going to be around here for much longer, so if I were to get snubbed again then, yeah, I’d have to do something about it. Whether that’s causing ruckus.
‘I have to let my manager do his job. I got the best manager in the game. We all know what’s supposed to happen if I get this win on Saturday night, so hopefully you all riot with me.’
Gaethje has not been shy in expressing his disappointment at being left out of the lightweight picture while Poirier, Oliveira, Chandler and Conor McGregor have been in action in 2021.
Chandler – in a move that flies in the face of UFC trash talk convention – has sympathised with his rival’s position and admits he would feel similarly aggrieved had he been forced to endure the same lull.
Gaethje has experience of propelling himself to a title shot, having defeated Tony Ferguson
Chandler has also dazzled under the bright lights, beating Dan Hooker on his UFC debut
‘I will sit here and admit whenever Khabib retired and there was a pool of all of us, Justin Gaethje might have deserved to fight for the title more than me, more than Charles Oliveira,’ Chandler told MMA Fighting.
‘I think there’s some resentment there, which is fine. Completely warranted. I would have thought the same thing. I think he was in some contract negotiations. I know obviously Dustin [Poirier] and Conor [McGregor] were tied up so there were only so many options that the UFC had at the time.
‘With the debut that I made, I had a ton of momentum and I was willing to say yes. That’s one thing that I’ve done. I’ve said yes. I said yes to Justin Gaethje numerous times, whether the fight was actually offered to him or not, I know that fight was being worked on for Jan. 23. Maybe for May, I don’t know, there was some talks of it.
‘When you’re in the UFC lightweight division, everybody’s so good and everybody’s got such a big name that there’s going to be some jockeying for position. He was left out of that one so I’d be just as mad as he is, which will in turn make you want to throw jabs at people. It’s part of it. Either way, we will let our fight do the talking.’
Gaethje has had a frustrating year and Chandler has sympathised with his rival’s turmoils
There is no doubting that Gaethje and Chandler are primed for a shot at the winner of Oliveira and Poirier’s title fight, but there is one resurgent lightweight breathing heavily down the quartet’s necks.
Islam Makhachev is on the rampage. The Dagestani is Nurmagomedov’s protege and was trained by the Eagle’s late father, Abdulmanap as well as AKA chief Javier Mendez.
Nurmagomedov has long claimed that Makhachev is the heir to his throne and fans caught a glimpse of the 29-year-old’s title credentials after he obliterated Hooker at UFC 267 last weekend.
Makhachev made light work of the Kiwi to secure a first-round kimura submission and send a strong warning to the 155-pound division. In the Dagestani’s eyes, he should be ahead of Gaethje and Chandler in the pecking order for a title shot.
A big performance is needed with Islam Makhachev pushing for a shot at the lightweight title
Dana White may accelerate plans for the Dagestani if he is unimpressed on Saturday night
‘Before it was top 11, top 15, this guy is top 6, now we have to talk. Nine fight win streak, I am ready for title fight. Anyone, it doesn’t matter. This division now, little bit sleep now it’s my time to work this division,’ he said after his victory.
‘These are all old guys [Gaethje and Chandler], they have fought for the title many times, they fight for business. I am here to keep this belt for many years.’
UFC president Dana White has insisted that Makhachev needs one more win before he gets his title shot, but a lacklustre showing from Gaethje and Chandler may accelerate plans and put the Dagestani next in line.
But Makhachev will know, deep down, that this one will be anything but a snooze-fest. Gaethje is blessed with dynamite power with 19 of his 22 victories coming by way of knockout. Chandler, too, is dangerous with his hands – just ask Hooker.
This three-round affair has fireworks written all over it. Blink and you’ll miss it.
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