Michael Chandler could be the focus of attention on Saturday. Or, more likely, he’ll be just a footnote to history.
The former Bellator lightweight champion sits in a bizarre purgatory, one of the sport’s class acts having to hope that something happens to one of two other fighters so he gets his chance to make his UFC debut.
Chandler is the backup for the main event on Saturday, which will pit champion Khabib Nurmagomedov against interim champion Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi for the undisputed lightweight title.
He’ll go in if either Nurmagomedov or Gaethje miss weight, get injured, are sick or for some other reason can’t fight.
He’s cutting weight and preparing as if he’ll fight. Odds are, though, that he’ll do it for nothing. If all is well with Nurmagomedov and Gaethje, and chances are that it will be, he’ll just be another spectator at the Flash Forum.
His choice to serve as the backup shows what fighters think of the UFC championship belt. He’s flown halfway around the world, is spending two weeks away from his family, going through the torture of a weight cut and is almost certainly not going to fight, just on the off-chance an opportunity at the title arises. If he makes weight, Chandler will be paid for his effort, even if he doesn’t get to step into the Octagon.
It’s great on the one hand that the UFC even bothers to consider a backup. In boxing, if the main event of a PPV card falls out, the card itself is canceled more than 99 percent of the time.
Having a backup ensures that there will be a quality fight atop the card. Who wouldn’t want to see either Chandler versus Nurmagomedov or Gaethje versus Chandler? Both are potentially outstanding, compelling fights.
But it also would be nice to be talking about Chandler’s UFC debut after a decade of excellence in Bellator, and whether it was Dan Hooker or Tony Ferguson or Dustin Poirier or Islam Makhachev or Charles Oliveira, there was a lightweight on the roster who could have made a compelling fight with him.
He said he was willing to take on someone this weekend, but for reasons no one is willing to disclose, it didn’t work out.
So he prepares not knowing either if he’ll fight or, if he does, against whom. He said, though, it isn’t as hard as it seems getting ready for two guys at once.
“If you look at Khabib as an extreme grappler and you look at Gaethje as an extreme striker, really if you mold them together, you have to prepare for a guy who is great on the ground and great on the feet,” Chandler said. “That’s essentially who I prepare for every single time. Every single time I prepare for an opponent, I want to prepare as if I’m fighting a grappler like Khabib because he’s arguably the best grappler in the world and then a guy like Gaethje who is arguably one of the best strikers in the world. He’s an absolute warrior out there.
“So for me, the preparation has been pretty cut and dried: Be the best and most well-rounded fighter I can possibly be.”
Harris in a good frame of mind
UFC heavyweight Walt Harris was a huge emotional favorite when he fought Alistair Overeem in May. It was only a few months since the murder of his daughter, Aniah Blanchard.
Harris got off to a great start and was on the verge of a finish, but Overeem rallied to get the win.
Five months later, Harris is back and prepared to fight Alexander Volkov on the main card on Saturday. He said time has made a huge difference.
“I’m definitely in a different place emotionally going into this one,” Harris said. “It’s not per se about returning and the comeback and the build-up from everything that I was going through at that point in my life and, frankly, that I’m still going through,” Harris said. “I’ve gotten a full camp. There have been no interruptions. For 13 weeks, I’ve been preparing for this fight. My focus has been laser for this moment and I think that every time I come off of a loss, you see a different me.
“You usually see a more focused, more hungry, more driven me. I think that Saturday night, you’re going to see the best me, which I know for a fact coming back last fight, I wasn’t 110 percent myself.”
Keep an eye on Rakhmonov
Shavkat Rakhmonov will make his UFC debut on Saturday on the preliminary card when he takes on veteran Alex Oliveira in a welterweight bout.
Rakhmonov is 12-0 and has scored a number of significant wins, including a second-round rear naked choke of Jun Young Park, who impressed last week in a win over John Phillips in the UFC at middleweight.
He’s finished 11 of his 12 fights, and matchmakers pitting him against a quality veteran like Oliveira shows what they think of him.
Lauren Murphy at -220 to win over Liliya Shakirova.
Khabib Nurmagomedov at -340 to win over Justin Gaethje. I also like Nurmagomedov to win by decision.
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