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UFC 268 preview: Can Justin Gaethje maintain his record bonus pace against Michael Chandler?

Get the lowdown on the main card fights of UFC 268, featuring a highly anticipated lightweight showdown between recent title challengers Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler.

Justin Gathje fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254
Justin Gathje fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Am I the only one wondering why the UFC didn’t book Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler for a five-round contest? The most recent lightweight title challengers who came out on the short end of the stick, it can’t be said they aren’t main event caliber fighters. Some may say they don’t believe the fight will go five rounds, but we watch fights because we don’t know how things are going to play out. There have been plenty of fights that went three rounds that I would have loved to see go two more rounds... and I have a hard time believing Gaethje-Chandler wouldn’t be one of those. I get the feeling I wouldn’t mind seeing Shane Burgos and Billy Quarantillo potentially go five rounds either, but I’m not foolish enough to believe they would have enough sway to make that happen. Regardless, the main card non-title fights for UFC 268 are well worth dropping the PPV price for... and that’s not including the title fights.

For my prelims preview, click here.

Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler, Lightweight

It could be argued Gaethje is the greatest action fighter in the history of MMA. In a feat that may never be replicated, Gaethje secured a Performance Bonus in his first seven UFC fights, that streak being snapped in his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Despite that, he still averages more than one bonus per fight given the multitude of times he has collected multiple bonuses. Choose your Gaethje highlight. Maybe this one. Or this one. This one is good too. There’s good reason why I wanted to see this fight go five rounds....

Chandler doesn’t have quite the same reputation as Gaethje – no one does – but he’s been known to turn in some entertaining scraps himself, everyone remembering his all-time classic against Eddie Alvarez in 2011. Of course, that fight was a decade ago and Chandler has been in several battles in that time. Thus, Chandler’s durability has seemingly declined significantly since that point.

In order to combat his increasingly fragile chin, Chandler has taken a far more cautious approach than he used to. Even though he was finished by Charles Oliveira, his first two UFC fights illustrate his approach on the feet perfectly. While he still tends to get in his opponent’s face with pressure, he’s selective with the punches he throws while threatening with takedowns. When those punches land, they land with enough force that his opposition tends to have a very adverse reaction to them, often being put on their ass. If that’s the case, his killer instinct has been refined to the point that surviving his onslaught is no small feat.

It’s hard to believe Chandler can’t find success with this approach. Gaethje isn’t the reckless fiend he was upon his UFC entry, but he’s still no defensive savant. For all the talk of Gaethje being a great wrestler, he still hasn’t completed a takedown in his UFC run while being taken down by the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson. If those two can take Gaethje to the mat, why not Chandler? Chandler doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to keep opponents down. Brent Primus isn’t on the level of Gaethje, but he is a talented ground fighter and Chandler shut him down with a ground based approach.

If this fight was five rounds, I’d be picking Gaethje in a heartbeat. I struggle to see Chandler finishing Gaethje with strikes as it’s typically attrition that wears on the former WSOF champion and I don’t think Chandler can put that type of pace on Gaethje without exposing his own chin to Gaethje. But can I see Chandler potentially grinding out two rounds out of three? Plausible, but I’d say still unlikely. Gaethje has improved his fight IQ since his losses to Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, tightening up his striking technique in the process. Gaethje can still get reckless, but I’d still be willing to bet he’s more likely to land a clean shot than Chandler. Gaethje via KO of RD1

Shane Burgos vs. Billy Quarantillo, Featherweight

If this fight wasn’t on the same card as Gaethje and Chandler, it would be highlighted far more. The better known quantity of the two is Burgos. With four FOTN bonuses in nine UFC fights – a ratio of nearly half his fights – he’s established himself as one of the most consistent action fighters on the roster. Burgos established a reputation of being willing to take a shot in order to deliver one or two and it paid off for him as he was making his way up the UFC ladder. As he has been facing tougher competition in recent fights, he’s been the one taking one or two shots to land his one... and that competition has also been hitting harder. Thus, while no one will ever question the toughness of Burgos, his durability has been showing some major cracks.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe Burgos will be changing things up as he’s expected to have a significant advantage standing against Quarantillo. Quarantillo wasted little time establishing himself as one of the better action fighters in a division full of them. Though he’s primarily known for his ground work, Quarantillo has proven he can more than hold his own on the feet against several fighters who were thought to be the more skilled strikers in their contests. Despite that, most would agree Burgos is the most dangerous striker he’s faced thus far in his UFC run.

Quarantillo isn’t known for his wrestling, but he’s smart and crafty, utilizing trips and timing to do what his mediocre athleticism and physicality can’t accomplish for him. Once the fight does hit the mat, Quarantillo’s ability to chain submissions together keeps things exciting. His supreme conditioning has made him a better scrambler than expected too. However, will he be able to get Burgos to the mat? Given Burgos habit for throwing down, most tend to forget he’s got a more than adequate ground game in addition to being a huge pain in the ass to take down.

I’m not as sold on this fight as I would have been a year ago. Burgos being stopped by Edson Barboza last May was one of the weirdest stoppages I’ve ever seen and leaves me wondering about the long-term durability of Burgos. Quarantillo doesn’t hit nearly as hard as Barboza, but damage accumulates and it tends to take less to put away a fighter the deeper their career goes. Despite that concern, I’m still picking Burgos. He may not have Conor McGregor-like power, but there’s plenty of pop in his punches. However, it’s Burgos pace that is his best weapon. While Quarantillo is well conditioned, he was tired by the end of his fight with Gavin Tucker as the Canadian expertly mixed in takedowns and body shots with his attack. That would be the safest route to victory for Burgos, but I’d probably still pick him even if he elects to just trade fisticuffs with Quarantillo. Burgos via decision

Frankie Edgar vs. Marlon Vera, Bantamweight

There’s no denying Edgar is a legend in the sport of MMA. Not only did he hold the lightweight title for nearly two years, he arguably the second-best featherweight in the world for about a half a decade. Some would say he’s finally plying his trade at the weight class he should have been fighting at from the beginning at bantamweight. The problem is, as what usually happens when a fighter is deemed a legend, he’s been fighting for so long that he’s on the clear backside of his career at the age of 40.

In his bantamweight debut, Edgar showed he still has one of the deepest gas tanks of any fighter in the sport, despite actually having a serious weight cut for the first time in his career. He showed he’s still got a solid wrestling game as well and even if his speed isn’t what it was in his prime, it’s still passable despite fighting smaller and quicker opponents. However, his sophomore bantamweight contest also shed further light on an issue many had already questioned: his durability. Given the knee Cory Sandhagen landed on him would have stopped an elephant, it’s fair to argue Edgar durability hasn’t completely evaporated, but to go 13 years without being stopped in a fight to having that happen three times in three years – and each time in the first round – makes it difficult to maintain that position.

Vera might have that issue someday, but for now, he appears to be as indestructible as Edgar was in his prime. It’s hard to think of anyone who has been able to utilize that to better effect than Vera as he has endured a lot of punishment in several contests only to find a heat seeking punch or a brutal head kick that puts his opponent away. To his credit, Vera has improved his ability to win rounds, in part because he’s doing a better job of starting out of the gate. Of course, not consistently backing himself into the cage has helped too. The problem is, unless Edgar’s speed has declined immeasurably, he’s unlikely to outpoint Edgar. Thus, Vera’s going to need a finish... and Edgar’s decline in durability makes that a distinct possibility.

Edgar has never been submitted and hasn’t been taken down since his first fight with Benson Henderson nearly a decade ago. Thus, while Vera’s ground game is underrated, it doesn’t look like that will be a path to victory for the native of Ecuador. Edgar’s in and out movement doesn’t appear to be as difficult to time as it once was and that was never as difficult to deal with as many made it out to be. I can see Edgar securing a decision with several takedowns and his darting offense, but Edgar seems to get hurt in just about every fight he’s been in over the last several years. Thus, I see Vera catching him at some point. Vera via TKO of RD2