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The alternate, part 1: How Michael Chandler matches up with Justin Gaethje

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A critical wrestling evaluation of former Bellator champion and current UFC lightweight alternate title challenger Michael Chandler.

In this 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.

A Division I All-American wrestler for the University of Missouri, Chandler’s absurd physicality and love for explosive Dutch kickboxing techniques have made him one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world for nearly a decade.

This article will focus on how Chandler may fare against the challenger, Justin Gaethje.

How will Michael Chandler’s wrestling match up against interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje?

While Gaethje shares the distinction of All-American honors earned during his collegiate career, he has opted to almost exclusively stand and strike for the majority of his MMA career. Chandler is the much more dedicated offensive wrestler of the two, and he would be wise to push that advantage in a potential match-up.

Chandler’s Collegiate Career

For a state runner-up from Missouri, Michael Chandler had an incredible trajectory in Division 1 competition at the University of Missouri at 157 pounds.

He qualified for the NCAA championships in four out of four seasons, notching at least one national tournament win every year.

Chandler’s style was hard-nosed and high-paced. He preferred short entries off the collar or swift re-attacks from close range. Chandler was extremely physical for the weight and got to the legs regularly, but he often got caught up in scrambles and had to fight hard to finish his takedowns.

It’s also worth noting that he competed in an era of excellent mat wrestlers at 157 pounds. Chandler was excellent on top, but paled in comparison to the likes of Jordan Leen and Gregor Gillespie.

As a freshman, he received a first round bye before defeating Matt Lebe - a dominant high school wrestler in Pennsylvania who placed 7th at the NCAA championships. He was then knocked out of the championship bracket by Ben Cherrington, that year’s title-winner. Chandler lost his consolation match to the eventual 7th place-winner Brandon Becker.

Chandler’s path as a sophomore was even less forgiving - he was paired with phenom and future NCAA champion Bubba Jenkins in the first round. Jenkins was just a freshman at the time, but he would win Junior World gold that summer and placed second in the country the next year, taking out opponents like Jordan Burroughs and Lance Palmer.

It should be clear at this point that Chandler was competing in an era of unparalleled excellence at the middleweights - 157 pounds was an absolute shark tank.

During his junior season, Chandler notched a career best NCAA championship win over Cyler Sanderson, a two-time All-American and brother of the legend Cael Sanderson. Unfortunately, Chandler soon hit another folkstyle hammer in Illinois’ Mike Poeta. Poeta was a three-time All-American and two-time national finalist. On the backside, Michael Chandler was again defeated by Brandon Becker, who placed fourth for his third All-American finish. Chandler eventually scored regular season wins over Becker.

By his senior season in 2009, Michael Chandler was in his most competitive bracket yet. The 157-pound class featured monsters like Jordan Burroughs, Mike Poeta, four-time All-American and eventual national champion Gregor Gillespie, returning NCAA champion Jordan Leen, eventual NCAA champion J.P. O’Connor, three-time All-American Jason Welch, two-time All-American Cyler Sanderson, and two-time All-American Chase Pami.

Also competing was Northern Colorado’s Justin Gaethje, a sophomore who would go 0-2 at the tournament. Gaethje turned it around in the following season, becoming his school’s first All-American.

Chandler’s first match was a 4-3 win over Indiana’s Kurt Kinser - a four-time All-American who was consistently ranked in the top 20. In what was probably the best NCAA tournament win of his career, Michael Chandler then took out the following season’s national finalist Chase Pami of Cal Poly, 6-0. Pami would soon go on to place 4th at the Olympic Trials.

The returning champion Jordan Leen brought an end to Chandler’s title hopes, but his impressive run was far from over. He put up two straight wins on the backside to qualify for All-American honors, including a 13-5 victory over Minnesota’s Tyler Safratowich, an All-American with regular season wins over countless top 10 opponents and over 100 career wins. Chandler was knocked down a peg by Edinboro’s Gregor Gillespie, but Chandler continued to battle, winning 5th place honors with a win over Matt Moley - a top three ranked wrestler and two-time All-American with over 120 career wins for Bloomsburg.

In the Missouri wrestling program, Michael Chandler is remembered for his impeccable work ethic and constant improvement. He competed tooth and nail with some of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers of his era, leveraging his pace and physicality.

Michael Chandler’s offensive wrestling game

After years of working with camps like Xtreme Couture and now effective striking coaches like Henri Hooft, Michael Chandler has developed a powerful and competent attacking style on the feet.

While his ability to hurt his opponents and pressure at a high pace for multiple rounds makes him dangerous enough as a contender, Chandler’s offensive wrestling game is still his bread and butter.

Take a look at how his ringcraft and pressuring tactics have evolved from the 2013 Eddie Alvarez rematch to his recent vengeful performance over Brent Primus in 2018.

Chandler’s aggressive pursuit on the feet often leads him to the cage, but his ability to cut off lateral exits has been an area for improvement. Bellator’s circular cage really raises the bar for cagecraft in MMA, it’s much harder to cut someone off in an octagon where there are steeper changes in direction on the boundary.

Against Benson Henderson in 2016, Chandler demonstrated his understanding of open stance matchups by smashing his rear straight and round kick to the body all night, cutting off retreats to his right. Against Eddie Alvarez in 2013, Chandler showed off some of his craft in closed stance matchups.

Michael Chandler cutting off the cage vs. Eddie Alvarez

Here you can see Chandler demonstrating a basic understanding (at the very least) of how to cut off the cage. It’s a simple matter of strike selection, but this is a skill that is missing even at the higher levels of MMA. Chandler is extremely rear-hand happy, which made it difficult to track down an opponent like Eddie Alvarez who utilizes springing lateral movements extremely well.

Chandler showed his ability to adapt after their first bout, loading up on his left body kick and explosive left hook to cut off Alvarez when he circled left, immediately shooting once he had broken his momentum.

When he isn’t hyper-focused on pressure, Chandler can pull off some pretty neat setups in open space.

Not unlike his teammate Kamaru Usman, Chandler has added a persistent rear body straight to his arsenal.

The beauty of this technique for a wrestler is that it requires a step in and a level change.

Michael Chandler sets up his takedown vs. Brent Primus

Against Brent Primus, Chandler used the body straight in succession to learn his opponent’s reactions before committing to the shot. Oddly, Primus looked to intercept Chandler’s explosive forward motion with a straight right up top every time, so it was an easier entry than it should be conceptually.

But Michael Chandler doesn’t always get clean entries in MMA. It’s been a weakness of his, one that we’ll look into more closely in a later section, but it’s not the end of the line if he can’t get off a clean leg attack.

Chandler is extremely comfortable with wrestling through situations, extending them to find his offense.

Check out this well timed entry that doesn’t quite pan out for Chandler.

Michael Chandler chain wrestling vs. Eddie Alvarez

A great wrestler in his own right, Eddie Alvarez was able to react quickly and sprawl his hips back while turning in the left side of his hips to blade his stance. Chandler attempted to circle to keep shooting square on Alvarez, but by that time Alvarez had found the space to crossface and peel Chandler off of him.

Normally, this is where a wrestler would either be stuffed flat or bail on the takedown to stand up into a clinch situation.

Chandler approached it a bit differently.

He never stopped pressuring into Alvarez. Now, if Alvarez wanted to continue to wrestle and cover up in front headlock or re-attack, any sort of counter offense or positionally stable defense, it would have been easy. But then he would be wrestling with Chandler. He wanted to disengage entirely, which is what allowed Chandler to stick to him without needing any real stability.

Michael Chandler chain wrestling vs. Eddie Alvarez

This is not only an impressive display of trip and core strength, it also shows Chandler’s knack for tenaciously extending wrestling exchanges. In the longer clip at the beginning of this section, you can see how often Chandler needs to continue driving (especially along that annoying circular cage) to actually get some traction on his shot.

Favorable looks vs. Justin Gaethje

While it’s likely that a breakdown of the striking matchup between Gaethje and Chandler would not reflect well on the Bellator transfer, looking at the potential wrestling dynamic is much more forgiving.

Gaethje is more of a stalking pressurer, he can cover great distance on his entries, but lately has been keeping his stance more contained and drawing out offense to counter in combination. Chandler, on the other hand, is still intensely aggressive with his forward motion. They would likely collide fairly early, which could probably result in some wrestling.

From the little evidence we have to go on for Gaethje’s wrestling in MMA, he prefers to concede rear-standing and get right up, also using granby and funk rolls to create scrambles to disengage quickly.

We’ve seen Chandler squash similar attempts fairly often, both in his collegiate career and MMA. On top of that, rear standing is a position in which Chandler is extremely comfortable hitting mat returns and even flashier back arches.

Gaethje’s first layer of takedown defense - preventing someone from getting to his legs in the first place, is largely untested in this most recent chunk of his career. Given Chandler’s tenacity and horsepower, it doesn’t seem unlikely that he would be able to get Gaethje to the mat early in this fashion.

If Chandler isn’t crashing into Gaethje right from the jump, he’s most likely bouncing in and out of mid-range, waiting to explode into a power combination. While Gaethje’s defensive competency makes it unlikely that Chandler would land with any kind of consistency with this strategy, it is decent bait for low kicks.

Gaethje is a very persistent and dangerous low kicker, but Michael Chandler has a hair-trigger when it comes to catching kicks.

The difference in efficacy in this clip is almost entirely a factor of fatigue. Early on when Gaethje kicks from range, it’s reasonable that Chandler could catch one and get into a wrestling situation.

Before giving a more official prediction at the conclusion of this article, let’s briefly take a look at the challenges Chandler faces as a wrestler in MMA.

Offensive wrestling limitations

We discussed Chandler’s ability to fight through bad positions and still turn “failed” attacks into real offense. Of course, that means that there are plenty of situations where Chandler isn’t getting through on his attacks.

This is largely a byproduct of shallow setups. It’s something that Chandler has certainly worked on over the years, but in the Alvarez fight you can see how little he used his striking to set up leg attacks at times.

Chandler operates as a volume shooter, he’s someone who likes to break his opponents with pace. That often means forcing action without taking the time for a more thoughtful setup. Feinting a double jab into a shot from space isn’t terrible, but Chandler’s best setups have always been off of committed attacks.

Against someone like Justin Gaethje, it would be unwise to waste energy on attacks that are going to give him confidence and wear on your own conditioning. The less time Chandler spends on the feet with Gaethje, the better, which is why he should avoid engaging until he has a higher percentage setup in store.

Chandler has progressed a great deal since the Alvarez fight, it’s been rare to see him take attacks without a secure path or clever setup. However, as he gets tired, those habits start to come out more and more.

Even though he may be a couple of years post-physical prime, Michael Chandler is still one of the most intimidating forces at lightweight. He packs ridiculous power, has a ton of confidence, and as identified in this article, his offensive wrestling game is both forceful and effective. His defensive striking depth is not quite there, and he does often trade in on durability to get through more even exchanges. Accurate power punchers like Patricio “Pitbull” Freire have certainly exploited that.

I do believe that Chandler would find success wrestling against Justin Gaethje early on in a potential five-round fight. As we’ll see in part two of this article, Chandler’s guillotine and other aspects of his top game can be fairly threatening, so it isn’t as if Gaethje isn’t in any real danger if he’s taken down, especially if he’s immediately trying to scramble or give up rear standing.

However, it seems unlikely that Chandler would finish Gaethje in those early stretches, and the attritional work of Gaethje, combined with his comfort on the feet, would eventually see him as the fresher man when they head into championship territory. It would become harder and harder for Chandler to convince Gaethje to respect his striking, which in turn would make his takedown attempts less effective. It’s likely that Gaethje would take over, and perhaps finish the fight once Chandler has slowed down and become less careful with his process.

In the next part of this article, I will apply this same process to a potential matchup between Michael Chandler and Khabib Nurmagomedov - focusing on Chandler’s defense. His case for a competitive fight in that bout may be even more compelling.