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Michael Chandler addresses Eddie Alvarez’s previous warning about fighting Justin Gaethje. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

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Dustin Poirier and the UFC’s Michael Chandler problem

The UFC has a rare and interesting opportunity in 2021, but whether or not they can capitalize on it seems a lot less clear.

“That doesn’t really interest me at this point,” Dustin Poirier told reporters following his victory at UFC 257, after being asked about a potential title fight against Michael Chandler. “I’m going to sell hot sauce if that’s the case.”

From a fighter such a strong reputation as one of the UFC’s tried and tested ‘good guys’ – a fight-everyone-and-anyone kind of action talent – those words felt like a shock. Dustin Poirier would rather retire than fight Michael Chandler? It’s a hell of a stance to take against what seems like a fight that could be in a lot of people’s interests to see happen.

Michael Chandler has provided the UFC with a rare opportunity, and if history is any indication, that opportunity is only going to get more tenuous down the line.

The world’s largest mixed martial arts organization has, over the years, become something of an insulated system. No matter how good a fighter is, no matter how storied a career an athlete has had outside the promotion, just about everyone enters with dues to pay. That kind of rigid structure lends the whole thing a certain sense of fairness (although other internal factors can detract from that), but it also caries a lot of risk.

UFC Fight Night Brazil Weigh-in Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For every fighter like Justin Gaethje – who got tripped up by Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier soon after his debut, but battled his way back into title contention a couple years later – there’s a Ben Askren or a Jacare Souza or a Gegard Mousasi; fighters who clearly had everything it took to be title contenders upon their entry to the UFC, but found themselves instead treading water at the top of the division—taking losses until that UFC title shot seemed thoroughly out of reach.

This isn’t to suggest that Chandler will, by default, be gone from title contention if he has to wait a year or two to get there. He’s got a brash, bold personality, he knows how to cut a promo, and he’s clearly a powerhouse athlete who can compete both standing and on the mat. But, he’s also an aggressive risk taking fighter, not averse to putting himself in harm’s way to create the kind of highlights that fans love to see. The upside is 13 first round finishes. The downside is that, at 34-years-old and with a couple KO losses already, his stock might never be higher than it is right now.

Chandler has achieved a rare thing in the MMA world of 2021. He’s captured even some small amount of notoriety and hype entirely outside of that UFC ecosystem. He was, for years, the de-facto face of Bellator, a walking, talking, Dave & Buster’s themed, marketing campaign for the Viacom-owned promotion’s elite class. That kind of status tends to create its own spark of interest. Just how well can Michael Chandler perform against the UFC elite? The kind of hype that the UFC were quick to jump on with Gilbert Melendez on the tail of his Strikeforce career, but have struggled to pull that same trigger with nearly everyone else.

Nate Diaz faces Leon Edwards at UFC 263 in Glendale, Arizona Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For Poirier, he’s trying to sell his lack of interest as a fairness angle. He had to pay his dues, so Chandler does too. But, his “hot sauce” statement came with a call-out of Nate Diaz that offers a much more honest perspective of what he’s aiming for. For good reason, it’s all about the money. Chandler may or may not be at the height of his drawing power right now, but that doesn’t make him the biggest fight Poirier can get.

A trilogy with Conor McGregor would unquestionably bank more for the Lafayette native. And a fight with Nate Diaz (or maybe even Jorge Masvidal) has unquestioned curb appeal, given Diaz’s long running and seemingly untiring fanbase as an elite B-side PPV draw. Poirier may still only be 32 years old, but he’s put some serious city miles on that body and deserves to make some bank as he hits the third act of his career.

I get it. The ‘Diamond’ has to look out for himself here. Lord knows no one else in this sport will. But, that includes me, and – I’d argue – it should probably include the UFC.

There’s other money to be made with McGregor than throwing him right back at the man who just knocked him cold. And another big loss for the Irishman could truly cause long-term damage to his stock as the UFC’s only current and active surefire PPV star. Running straight back into the rubber match feels like truly a high-risk/high-reward situation.

A fight with Chandler would offer Poirier his own chance to become the A-side draw in what should be a fascinating matchup. An opportunity to capitalize on a rare moment of momentum that certainly might come around again, but absolutely is not guaranteed.

Strike while the iron is hot, make hay while the sun shines, get after it while the getting is good. Book Michael Chandler in the Octagon with Dustin Poirier with a belt on the line, see what Chandler can do straight away, before the brutal lightweight division has a chance to undercut his opportunities for success.

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