Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler headlines UFC 262 this May 15, 2021 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. At stake is the vacant UFC lightweight title, up for grabs following the retirement of Khabib Nurmagomdov.
One sentence summary
Phil: Action fighter archetypes from opposite ends of the MMA spectrum meet in the middle
Record: Charles Oliveira 30-8-1 NC | Michael Chandler 22-5
Odds: Charles Oliveira -127 | Michael Chandler +117
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: This feels like a section we should have been talking about years ago. ‘At last, years of just the right matchmaking has smoothly developed Oliveira’s game into a real contender, etc.’ But no. It’s the UFC. And here we are talking about Oliveira’s game finally coming into focus, eleven years later. Some might say ‘well development can be a marathon not a sprint.’ Maybe. That’s no excuse for the matches Charles drew early in his career, but we’ve been here, and said all that. Ultimately I’m not sure what we’re getting in Oliviera’s final form. Eight wins in a row is impressive. And surely a reflection of his talents. But I’m not sure he’s developed into an elite fighter so much as internalized all that experience and simply become an excellent fighter in spite of the UFC’s development curve. It’s a funny inverse of prospect development. But he’s an excellent fighter and that’s why we’re here.
Phil: If nothing else, Chucky Olives could make a case for a title shot off sheer entertainment value, much as Carlos Condit did for his second title shot against Robbie Lawler. He has racked up must-watch fights for over a decade in the UFC, starting out as a gawky young man just out of his teens and being tossed into an absolute blender of tough outs, gatekeepers, prospects and future champions right from the start, and never failing to put on a fight which was entertaining in one way or another, even the ones where he violently imploded. That being said, there’s no need for the caveat: he’s got this shot on pure merit, having racked up a 8 fight streak over quality competition, capped with a businesslike decision over Tony Ferguson that might as well have been accompanied by a written note saying “I AM A MATURE TITLE CONTENDER NOW.”
David: There’s probably some sort of metaphysical connection I’m missing here between Charles and Michael. Whereas Oliveira was a prospect never strictly developed, Chandler might be the prospect who probably got a little overdeveloped. I mean, everyone thinks of Chandler as this shiny new wrecking toy for the division, but he’s 35. His debut against Dan Hooker was impressive, but I think a lot of that is owed to the matchup: Hooker was always gonna stand in front of him and get hit. It was just a question of whether Hooker could take the punches and grind the fight out. He couldn’t, and so here we are. Chandler’s definitely not the next Paul Daley, but he could be the next Eddie Alvarez: a shortlived, but successful import.
Phil: Much like Oliveira, Chandler’s main claim to fame (apart from the whole multiple time Bellator champ thing) is that he has been in consistently fun fights for what seems like an impossibly long amount of time. He was a force of nature in that first bout with Alvarez, where he overwhelmed the Underground King and tore his championship away. If there’s a consistency with those kind of physical phenoms, it’s that they don’t last that long: they can’t sustain that sort of pace, and even if they can, then their body can’t. So, there were a lot of times when I thought Chandler might be done: that weird TKO loss to Will Brooks, his leg falling off against Brent Primus, even the one-and-done against Good Pitbull. Every time, Chander has stood back up and turned up to his next fight looking about as endlessly violent and physical as he ever has.
What’s at stake?
David: I’m not sure clarity is the best word to use in the context of, ‘one of the two becoming champion.’ Because Dana, despite all the available evidence that should have forced his hand from the get go, took so long to finally conceded Khabib’s retirement, that’s how this fight feels: like not a title fight.
Phil: This fight crowns the new lightweight champion, and it will take a while for that to settle in. Khabib is the biggest shadow over proceedings, but he ain’t coming back. The next thing is obviously the fact that Dustin Poirier wisely elected to take the money fight with McGregor over a title shot. So, whoever wins this one is going to be the Lightweight Champ, but it’ll take a fight or two before that title is worn comfortably.
Where do they want it?
David: Something my favorite British MMA writer once said (obviously I’m talking about Anthony Burgess, not Phil MacKenzie) about Dustin Poirier, who more or less took that next step with a shift in composure more than technique and strategy, also holds true of Oliveira. That pressure intuition was always there for him, but it was how he was able to manage those offensive gamestates with defensive ones that he could never really harmonize. He could too easily be tilted. Now that’s not a problem. Now he bends, but doesn’t break. His wrestling has always been good, but I think the perception now is that it’s better than it is because of how he dumpstered Ferguson. Part of that’s owed to his composure: being more comfortable breaking into the zone with kicks, and punches. And that’s where I think the difference won’t matter much against Chandler, who is quicker to reset, and has a much more focused gameplan than someone like Ferguson, who was probably simply indifferent to getting taken down.
Phil: Like Poirier, I think one of Oliveira’s revelations was that he wasn’t just a swiss army knife of offensive tools: it was the realization and technical development of him as a genuine puncher. This hasn’t quite translated into the same collection of KOs that Poirier racked up, but it has dramatically changed the calculus of Oliveira’s fights. No longer is he trapped into kicking his way into clinch exchanges and selling out on wrestling and clinch offense. Instead he has a consistent jab and left hook game, which allows him a calmer and more functional approach, while still allowing him to engage the low kicks or clinch at will. The flinchy aggression of his younger self is gone, and he’s much more of a calm sniper who works behind his range. He retains some of his earlier flaws, of course- pretty much everyone does. Most notably is that he stands extremely tall, and his concessions to defense are pretty much a high guard and stepping away from strikes. Other than that, it’s still his offense doing the heavy lifting.
David: Chandler kicks it a little old school with a very minimalist style. He’s just always looking for that right hand. Unlike most fighters who have power, and look to either spam it, or chamber it, Chandler uses it like a scalpel. Whether angled wide, straight down the center, proactive or reactive, he excels at finding and creating openings with it. And the leverage he gets on his right hand with so little movement is nothing short of astonishing. It’s not his only weapon, of course. He does pump the jab (not always consistently), and his scrambling ability is, I think, first-rate (at least offensively). But he knows how the game works for his game, which is why he’s had so much success.
Phil: On Heavy Hands this week I compared Chandler to a hyperathletic Dan Henderson: someone with a fairly pared down game who nonetheless spends a lot of time in preparation for his opponents, getting that minimalist approach tuned in a way specific to the man in front of him. I was impressed when I heard Chandler breaking down his potential opponents when he first came to the UFC, with a clear-eyed assessment of strengths and weaknesses. In terms of his approach, Chandler has shifted more towards pressure in recent years- he’s still looking for the big rear hand shot, but can shift so that it’s thrown from the left or right side, and will set it up with the jab or body punches (the latter of which is such an obvious approach to employ that I am almost sure we will see it). More than that, he’s constantly using the threat of that shot to push opponents towards the cage, where he knocked out both Hooker and Ben Henderson. He cuts down the direction the opponent can go in, and then blasts through space to clock them as they escape, like inverse Tyron Woodley. As a wrestler, he is again all power, willing to flub an initial shot if he can drive through on the followups. Like Oliveira, he is also not a defensive mastermind. Given the reach disparities, the difference in attritional tools, and the fact that he’s not much of a counterpuncher, he does not want to spend much time at range with Oliveira.
Insight from past fights
David: My instinct for this fight is that Oliveira, who has limited to no head movement and stands straight up, just gets iced by the first punch. It won’t speak to the improvements Oliveira has made to his game, or to the lightweight hierarchy, but I could see it happening. Conversely, Chandler has taken a ton of damage in his career. And it’s not always the obvious stuff hurting him either. Even in fights he won comfortably, Benson Henderson dropped him with a jab in their first bout, and Brent Primus caught him with a light (looking) check hook. It’s hard to imagine given his sturdy, powerful frame and intimidating presence on the feet, but Chandler not only doesn’t move well backing up, but he can ‘get got’, and always has. I compared this matchup in the picks post to two MTG combo decks fighting each other, and I consider that as accurate a nerd analogy I can think of. And just like in MTG, the question is now: who can access their sideboard?
Phil: Yeah, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that people who have leaped across space with power shots against Oliveira have kind of... been able to do that? Swanson clubbed him, Edgar hit him many times, even Kevin Lee (a bigger but slower fighter) tagged him up a bunch. On the other hand, while Chandler’s career has been astonishingly physically consistent, its also been marked by weird mid-fight injuries- the damage to his foot against Primus, or the way he lost track of where he was against Brooks. Finally, of course, there’s the getting KOd clean by a career featherweight (who isn’t even big for that class!). I am unsure that Chandler is in his prime, but one of the key questions which you’ve alluded to is: does he need to be?
Phil: As said, both weirdly fragile fighters in their own way. Will something fall off Chandler? Will his leg hold up to two or three hard low kicks? On the other hand, will Oliveira just fold if the fight isn’t going his way?
David: I forgot about that weird leg injury in the first bout with Primus. If ever we’re gonna get a double KO in the UFC, this is the fight for it.
David: I keep going back and forth. Oliveira has a better variety of tools to beat Chandler, and he’s been using more tools to beat better fighters while Chandler has used less tools to beat lesser fighters. He’s also coming off one of his biggest career wins. And there are even subtle things that favor Oliveira, like the way Chandler gets out of position, and how he scrambles during heated exchanges. I’m picking Chandler based on the logic of viscera: I just can’t imagine a universe where Oliveira eats one of Chandler’s punches flush, and somehow comes back that. Michael Chandler by KO, round 1.
Phil: I am very glad one of us is picking Chandler KO R1, because the more I’ve thought about it, the more the possibility looms in my mind. Chandler is smart and focused and Oliveira’s offensive improvements have masked that he is just not great on defense and is probably uniquely vulnerable to Chandler’s punch of choice. However, I will stick with my Heavy Hands pick: while Chandler finished Henderson in the rematch, he got kicked up a bunch before he landed the KO, and needed the fence to do it. Oliveira is hard to force backwards, and should buzzsaw Chandler in neutral space exchanges, and I don’t trust Chandler’s body to hold up to the onslaught. Charles Oliveira by submission, round 3