folding selling of Strikeforce to the UFC, it has become painfully obvious that the best fighter outside of the UFC resides in Bellator.The only question is whether it's Lightweight champion Michael Chandler or Featherweight kingpin Pat Curran.
Since no one wants to talk to me about esoteric second tier MMA champion comparisons in real life (and it's late and I might be half in the bag) I'm going to break it down Dr Jack (and unfortunately Bill Simmons) style.
Let's jump right in!!!!!!
Striking: This one is obvious as Pat Curran is one of the better strikers in all of MMA. But I would argue that Chandler's stand up is underrated.
Power: Michael Chandler hits pretty fricking hard, as evidenced by when he dropped Eddie Alvarez multiple times before finishing him with the RNC, and during his Lightweight Tourney run where he dropped quite a few guys. He also blasted out an old, aged and over the hill Akirho Gono in 56 seconds as well, for whatever that is worth. Curran while an amazingly technical striker doesn't have the same power in his hands, as Chandler. He makes up for it by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at opponents.
Talk about mixing it up. Pat Curran will hit you with super high level boxing, knockout head kicks (don't trust me ask Marlon Sandro) and vicious knees. He's also great at switching it up. He was getting outboxed by Marlon Sandro before stealing his soul with that head kick. He fought an entire 5 round title fight against Patricio Friere as a boxing match. And he brutalized Joe Warren with uppercuts, and knees to snatch the Featherweight title in one of the worst beatings I've ever seen someone take, no thanks to referee Jeff Malot. While it's close, Curran's ability to knock opponents out with punches, kicks and knees gives him the advantage over Chandler who is mostly a boxer. It is worth noting however that in 11 fights Chandler has 3 KO/TKOs while Curran only has 5 through 23 fights.
Defense: Here's where "Paddy Mike" is going to start pulling away.
Curran's defense is amazing. It can almost act to his detriment as when he fought Eddie Alvarez and lost a decision as he refused to abandon his defense to open up in the 4th and 5th round. Curran feints opponents into engaging but he is MORE than happy to not engage and instead hand fight, trap, or slip and weave if he doesn't feel he has the counter striking advantage in the exchange. He keeps his guard high, his chin down and always makes sure to keep one hand glued to the side of his head. He's also a master of defensive angles, you'll never catch him running straight back to the fence.
'Chandler on the other hand... Not only does Chandler keep his hands low and his chin high. He has a bad tendency to move straight back, rather than at angles. He actually got walked right back into the fence with a jab-jab-overhand right combo that Curran avoided many times during his bout with Alvarez. During the same 3rd round sequence Alvarez had Chandler out on his feet before the Missouri product found that extra gear champions have and came back. Still nobody is going to confuse Chandler's defense for Curran's.
Big Advantage: Curran.
Grappling: Both men have wrestling backgrounds and submission skills.
Wrestling: Curran was a stand out wrestler in high school in Florida but didn't have a standout college wrestling career. Chandler on the other hand was the captain of one of the better wrestling teams in the country (Missouri,along with UFC fighter Tyron Woodley) an All American in 2009 and a Big 12 championship runner up in both 2008 and 2009.
Curran tends to use his wrestling defensively in the mold of Chuck Liddell to keep the fight standing where his defense and diverse array of strikes give him the advantage against almost any other featherweight in the world. He did use a great takedown defense whizzer to jump into a Arm in Guillotine in his latest fight against Shahbulat Shamhalaev. He doesn't tend to shoot a ton of doubles or use the clinch much even when he has a wrestling advantage.
Chandler on the other hand is a beast, as well as being a much better technical wrestler than Curran. I couldn't find exact takedown percentages(if you can please leave em in the comments), but in my very unscientific watching of his last 4 fights I only remember him being stuffed by Alvarez once. He shoots doubles, he throws guys down from the clinch and just straight powers guys down with pure athleticism in a way that reminds me of GSP. Of all the Missouri guys Chandler has shown the best use of MMA wrestling using sharp strikes to set up takedowns and demonstrating a great awareness of when to use takedowns to steal rounds as he did against Lloyd Woodard and Patricky Freire.
Big Advantage: Chandler.
Submission Grappling/Jiu-Jitsu: Both of these guys can tap an opponent out but they go about it a little differently, and I'll explain how. Curran has trained jiu-jitsu under his cousin and ace trainer Jeff Curran since he was 17 years old. He probably has better technical jiu-jitsu than Chandler. However he doesn't tend to take it to the ground as much as Chandler. In fact through 12 more career fights, Curran only has 1 submission more than Chandler. Curran definitely has shown a very CREATIVE submission game as evidenced by his use of that crazy arm in guillotine in his recent title defense against Shamhalaev, and the rarely seen Peruvian necktie against Luis Palomino. Curran is definitely more of a technical finesse submission artist than Chandler and would probably win if they fought a straight jiu-jitsu match.
Chandler doesn't have the most technical jiu-jitsu game, but as with his wrestling makes up for it with his uncanny power, and athleticism. Watching the dude rip Rick Hawn backwards like he was caught in a rip tide and tapping him like he was a white belt was extremely impressive. He's also got a pretty impressive list of scalps in his submission wins. Hawn was an olympic judoka, Eddie Alvarez is one of the best lightweights in the world, and Marcin Held is a jiu-jitsu whiz kid who who was ripping through this year's Bellator tournament with leg locks. They also have all tapped out to Chandler (Well not Held he passed out). He's used less diverse submissions than Curran but has finished with Arm triangles, Rear Naked Chokes and even a standing guillotine against Chris Page.
Small advantage: Chandler.
Intangibles: Now I want to talk about a few other factors that didn't really fit in anywhere else.
Size: Both fighters have fought in 2 different weight classes. Chandler as a Welterweight and Curran as a Lightweight. Curran advanced all the way to the finals in the Bellator Lightweight tournament before falling to Eddie Alvarez, and deciding to move back to his original 145ILBs. Chandler won his first two fights at 170 before deciding to drop down to 155.
Curran is very tall for 145 but not the biggest, strongest guy in his weight class. Just think about him standing next to Chad Mendes.
Chandler is a huge Lightweight. He's physically imposing at 155 like Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson are. In fact when he fought Rick Hawn he looked markedly bigger than Hawn who also fought at 170 for quite awhile.
Athleticism: Both guys are great athletes obviously, but Chandler stands out athletically.
Curran has great reflexes, good speed, flexibility, overall athletic ability. He's very fluid in moving between striking and grappling and doesn't seem to be at an athletic disadvantage in Bellator. But I don't think he's the same kind of athlete as Jose Aldo, Cub Swanson or the aforementioned Mendes. While he's a good athlete by professional standards he doesn't make your jaw drop like some guys.
Chandler I would argue is one of the guys who makes your jaw drop. He's big, he's fast, he's strong and he just seems like a thoroughbred. You know a great athlete when you see them. I remember watching Jose Aldo for the first time against Cub Swanson like it happened yesterday. Same thing with Jon Jones VS Stephan Bonner. Sometimes fighters stand out and Michael Chandler stood out to me when I saw him fight Patricky Freire. I would love to say I predicted he would beat Eddie Alvarez but I definitely was less surprised than everyone who'd never seen him fight before. Big
Heart/Will/Killer Instinct: Both guys are champions and are mentally strong, but Curran has never really been tested and had to survive and Chandler hasn't lost and had to come back yet.
Curran is a stone cold killer. Since dropping back to featherweight he has finished 4 of his last 6 fights with two submissions and two ko/tkos. He calmly dismantled Joe Warren without getting anywhere close to exhausted until the ref eventually stepped in and stopped it. Pat Curran shows no mercy, he choked Shamhalaev unconscious, and knocked Mike Ricci into next week. The dude has a finisher's instinct and jumps on guys when they're hurt on the feet or make a mistake on the ground. The one thing we haven't seen from Curran is his heart. He was losing to Sandro but finished him so quickly and suddenly that he never really had to dig down deep and will himself back into the fight. There's also the issue of the Alvarez fight when he refused to really go after Alvarez even though he was clearly down 3 rounds heading into the 4th. No major defects for sure, but there are a couple of remains to be seen.
Chandler fought one of the greatest fights I've ever watched a fighter fight against Alvarez. Not only did he come out showing 0 fear of Alvarez, dropping him early and often on the way to his submission win. (Ironically in the exact opposite way of Curran, whose striking is superior). Not only that but he also had to come back from being out on his feet and not only won but finished the fight. Chandler has a confidence about him as well that the great ones have. In his book "The Fighters Mind" Sam Sheridan talks about the great Andre Ward's religion and how he used that to fuel his confidence. Chandler has a similar thing going on.
From A Fighter's Mind: " I am reminded of some of the thoughts I'd first had about Dre, about his faith-it's a way forward for him without ego. If you are so much faster than everybody else, if you can see that power as being for a reason not for your own glory but for something larger than yourself it must be a great relief. A powerful tool."
I'm not religious so I don't know if that's how Michael Chandler feels but it makes sense to me when I see him or some of these other extremely gifted, extremely religious athletes. Maybe it's just another mental tool, a way of seeing your gifts that helps you stay hungry. Either way that's what Chandler's confidence looks like to me. The only question about Chandler's mentality is what will happen if/when he loses and how will he come back. Fighter's feel invulnerable until they lose for the first time and oftentimes they can lose a few in a row (Like Kamal Shalarous who used to train at the same gym as me right after his first loss, who went on to lose 3 straight after his first loss.)
Ok, let's break it down, by a score of 4-2 Michael Chandler is the best fighter outside of the UFC. But hey don't believe me, ask Eddie Alvarez, he's fought both these guys.