UFC 268: Gaethje and Chandler Meet in Critical Crossroads Bout

Justin Gaethje UFC 268
Justin Gaethje, UFC 268 ceremonial weigh-in Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

UFC lightweights Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler will meet in a high stakes lightweight bout that will be critical to their futures as title contenders at UFC 268.

A little over a year ago, Justin Gaethje was the one poised to flip the entire lightweight division on its head.  “The Highlight” had stopped three opponents in the first round and had ended the 12 fight win-streak of former interim champion Tony Ferguson.  Gaethje had the interim title, and stylistically was seen as the one who might possess the right recipe to end the undefeated streak of Khabib Nurmagomedov.  It was not to be as “The Eagle” submitted him in the second round and retired immediately afterward.

Still considered one of the best fighters in the division, most figured he would be on the short list for a shot at the vacant title.  Instead, the UFC elected to go in the direction of having Charles Oliveira face promotional newcomer Michael Chandler.  Gaethje states that he began initial preparations for a fight with Chandler before the announcement was made and that he was waiting for the right time before accepting another bout.  He now finds himself in a precarious position: With a victory, he is expected to be the next title challenger for the winner of the bout between Oliveira and Dustin Poirier.  A loss would tumble him down the rankings after his long layoff and place him firmly behind other surging contenders who would take his place in the title picture.

While a UFC championship would be the crowning achievement of Michael Chandler’s career, it has become quickly apparent that his move to world’s biggest promotion was more than that.  He left Bellator at 34 years old as the former holder of many their all-time records with the hopes of making a run at the UFC belt in what are assumed to be the final years of his competitive prime.  However, he has quickly become a darling of the promotion in already appearing as an analyst on the pre and post-show as well as their weigh in program.  It should be noted, his ambitions for such roles in Bellator were rarely discussed despite his holding a far more prominent role there.

In May, he had the opportunity that he left the comforts of his former home for and faced Oliveira for the lightweight championship.  It was an important event, and one that would have ignited discussions about the strength of the UFC roster versus Bellator and the like.  Despite a strong start, Chandler was stopped in the second round and now faces a difficult task.  A victory would keep him in the mix in the highly competitive division.  A loss would relegate him to the middle of the pack.  While that is not the end of the road, it is reasonable to wonder if such a position is something he is interested in after all the highs he’s enjoyed for the past decade and the prospect of focusing on his burgeoning broadcast career.

Chandler’s timing and shot selection will be paramount against an explosive and well-rounded threat such as Gaethje.  “The Highlight” has displayed a more efficient and conservative attack in recent years and Chandler should take advantage by mixing up his attack to the head and body early to create openings for a takedown.  While Gaethje has respectable takedown defense himself, takedown attempts will open up Chandler’s offense as it makes him more unpredictable.  Gaethje should look to use his moment and initiate the exchanges as forcing Chandler to work off his heels will keep him from being able to use his explosiveness to full effect.  Gaethje has displayed the more multi-faceted striking attack and he should utilize all of it in order to stay ahead of Chandler in the fifteen minute fight.

It is clear that the future for the winner will be determined by the outcome or timeline of the lightweight title fight between Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier next month.  A Justin Gaethje victory figures to make him the immediate next title challenger regardless of who holds the belt.  A Chandler victory could result in another shot at the belt with a Poirier victory in December.  An Oliveira victory or the UFC schedule however could lead to Chandler facing another top contender such as Islam Makhachev or Beneil Dariush.