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The Alternate Part 2: How Michael Chandler matches up with Khabib Nurmagomedov

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A critical wrestling evaluation of former Bellator champion and current UFC lightweight alternate title challenger Michael Chandler, and his chances against the lightweight king.

In the case that either Khabib Nurmagomedov or Justin Gaethje are forced to withdraw from their UFC 254 title fight, former Bellator lightweight world champion Michael Chandler is set to step in. Regardless of whether he seems worthy of that shot or not, Chandler presents an interesting stylistic matchup for each fighter.

Previously, I broke down Michael Chandler’s offensive wrestling game, which would be a key to a potential victory over Justin Gaethje. That article also contains a breakdown on Chandler’s amateur wrestling credentials, for those interested in diving deeper into his pre-MMA bonfides.

This week, I’ll be taking a look at Chandler’s defense, which would no doubt be tested against the UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov—should they face off. For a deeper look at some of the tendencies and possible weaknesses in Nurmagomedov’s wrestling game, check out Wrestling for MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov.


Open-Space Shot Defense

Michael Chandler’s striking style is all about aggression and burst offense. The extent to which he deliberately pressures varies from fight to fight. Sometimes his intensity and the mere threat of his power is enough to allow him to walk fighters down. Sometimes opponents stand their ground and he bounces in and out at mid-range to time explosive entries.

The ringcraft and footwork of Eddie Alvarez was enough to test Chandler’s defense on the backfoot and against the cage, but most other opponents are forced to contend with Chandler in open space or with their backs to the fence.

An immediate concern with Chandler’s style of bursting in with offense is the threat of reactive shots. He typically leads to the head, meaning his hips are exposed and the momentum carrying him forward is extremely useful for someone looking to shoot.

Say what you will about Chandler’s striking defense, but his habit of bringing his hands back to his chest and hips works wonderfully for defensive wrestling. He’s great at reading shots and reacting quickly, creating barriers like frames and crossfaces to keep opponents from getting to his hips.

Michael Chandler’s reactive shot defense vs Eddie Alvarez

It doesn’t hurt that Chandler is brutally strong and applies tremendous force in everything he does. Chandler has the motor to keep up that level of intensity for the majority of even five-rounders, but of course there is an eventual drop—we’ll get to that.

When Chandler can’t immediately shut down attacks with his head-hands defense, he still has a deep well of techniques and motion that allow him to stay safe. ‘Iron’ Mike’s defense against single legs is by far his most fine-tuned. Against a higher-level shot, Chandler quickly whizzers and fights the hands—often pushing the head inside so he can turn and limp leg out. The hand that changes the head position becomes a strong post with which Chandler can create separation.

Michael Chandler’s limp leg single defense vs Alvarez and Henderson

If an opponent takes a lower leg attack, like Benson Henderson did so many times, Chandler can transition immediately to stuffing the head and hitting his limp leg escape. This is one of the most important looks to notice when predicting a match-up vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.

In open space Chandler is rock-solid against leg attacks. Against the cage, he prefers to commit to underhooks on one side, peeling off the arm, wrenching it up and turning in to face his opponent. Readers may recall Dustin Poirier opting to commit both arms to one side for double underhooks against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The difference in Chandler’s defense is that, instead of holding to try to prevent the attacker from changing levels, he’s trying to rip off that grip entirely and give himself an escape route.

Michael Chandler digs underhooks vs. Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson

Chandler excels at utilizing underhooks to angle away from the cage and create separation.

With regard to Chandler’s defense of reactive shots and double legs, we saw him work a nasty ten-finger guillotine several times off the shots of Benson Henderson. Dustin Poirier was able to get to the neck of Khabib Nurmagomedov a few times—but that was obviously a huge strategic error to guillotine and pull guard, instead of attempting to defend the shots. What I like about Chandler’s guillotine is that he hips in and arches his back to finish it, I’ve never seen him pull guard. Aside from crossfaces and frames, a guillotine grip with hip separation is a great way to shut down a shot, assuming the fighter can safely transition into front headlock or work the choke to put their opponent on their back.

Check out this breakdown on Pedro Munhoz to see how the guillotine can be safely used for takedown defense.


Built-In Defense

Offensive ringcraft and strike selection should play well for Michael Chandler against Khabib Nurmagomedov when it comes to neutralizing the ‘Eagle’’s wrestling game.

Now, I’m not going to argue Chandler is an elite cage-cutter, but he certainly prefers to push forward and has nice tools – like his rear body kick, left and right hooks – that allow him to close off potential lateral exits. Chandler’s explosive rear straight is also worthy of note, it’s definitely his weapon of choice once he has his opponent cornered.

The extent to which a fighter has to be “perfect” with their pressure vs. Khabib is determined by how vulnerable they’re going to be in open space. In this case, it’s likely okay to lose track of the champion a few times during a consistent pursuit, because Chandler is so physical and well-schooled when it comes to defending open space leg attacks from range.

As long as Chandler is closing in, he’ll only have to contend with Nurmagomedov’s high double attempts on the backfoot and his diving low single from space. Nurmagomedov has had shockingly little success getting clean shots off while being actively pressured. He much prefers getting his attacks off on the cage or hitting that open space single. With regard to strike selection, Chandler loves to show a level change before exploding back up into his rear uppercut—the Chad Mendes special. That kind of offense should dissuade Nurmagomedov from attempting to intercept his forward motion with level changes of his own.

While it’s certainly possible Nurmagomedov will be able to get Chandler’s back on the fence, Chandler isn’t a void in that position. He’s extremely physical and displays urgency in escaping control positions, his years of training with Kamaru Usman have likely only further developed that skill.

All told, Chandler approaches fights with a style that should limit the opportunities a fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov has to get to his best positions. That is a serious implication.

Chandler is no master technician on the feet – I’m sure he would be touched up by the jab of Nurmagomedov quite a bit – but the competency, speed, power, and dogged determination to fight his fight make Chandler a threatening contender for Nurmagomedov.


A Matter of Urgency

If Michael Chandler is going to win a fight vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, he’ll have to push his advantages immediately. His style is high octane. And while his gas tank is certainly impressive for the energy he expends, eventually, it runs out. The same can be said for Khabib Nurmagomedov, but the champion seems to have found a more comfortable approach, where he can ‘cruise’ for a round and store up energy for another explosive flurry of wrestling and grappling.

Chandler will not have that luxury. If he is not pushing his fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov will be on him, putting him against the cage, taking his back, likely finishing the fight.

While Chandler probably is not going to become helplessly exhausted at any point, any amount of fatigue will only lead to more and more technical and tactical slip-ups. Take a look at some of the more troubling moments of the fights we’ve examined thus far.

The two times Chandler has looked vulnerable as a wrestler and grappler were in the second half of his war with Eddie Alvarez in 2013, and in the 5th round of what was largely a thrashing vs. Benson Henderson in 2016 (funny enough, the judges were split in their decision).

In part 1 of this evaluation, we saw how Chandler could be a bit careless and sloppy with his wrestling offense vs. Alvarez in their fight—at least once he became fatigued. The same thing can be said for his defense. Watching the above clip shows just how Chandler broke his stance and allowed Alvarez to cut an angle and gain the rear-standing position.

For similar reasons, Chandler was shot back into the cage and taken down by Alvarez. Chandler’s preference to give up his back to base up and stand is not inherently an issue, but when he’s tired he tends to go for higher risk maneuvers like the granby roll instead of fighting hands to break the position. This was seven years ago, of course. But, if that habit is intact, it would be a grave error vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.

The isolated incident vs. Benson Henderson is almost more concerning, however. As Henderson utilized a setup we’ve seen from Khabib Nurmagomedov many times. As Chandler backed into the cage, Henderson launched forward with a flying knee—which caused Chandler to push back further and stand tall to avoid the strike. Henderson was able to land in a stance and quickly transition to a shot against the cage, taking advantage of Chandler’s weak posture.

Chandler looked for a switch, knowing his base was compromised, but this only allowed Henderson an avenue to take the back and put his hooks in.


Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

Should Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje move forward (and I sincerely hope it does) many of these same dynamics will be important for Gaethje in his path to victory.

Pressure will be essential. I have much less faith in the depth of his wrestling defense than I do in Chandler’s. So, he absolutely needs to put Khabib Nurmagomedov on the backfoot and limit him to his least effective wrestling attacks.

Gaethje is a much more dangerous and competent striker in open space than Chandler, and his low kicks should be a great tool to break down the champion’s base and force collisions. His ring-cutting weapons are effective and deadly, as seen in his hook knockout of a circling Edson Barboza. Gaethje has been since hitting shifting combinations in training, it’s likely he’s going to look for heavy damage in those transitions when Khabib looks to escape laterally.

Just like Chandler, I’m worried about Gaethje’s preference for the granby roll or even funk, instead of fighting hands or technical standups from bad positions. In summary, I have more faith in Chandler to keep the fight standing, but I have more faith in Gaethje to have meaningful success on the feet.

For an evaluation of a potential Chandler vs. Gaethje matchup, check out part 1.