LightweightsNo. 6 | Dan Hooker (20-9, 10-5 UFC) vs. NR | Michael Chandler (21-5, 0-0 UFC)
ODDS: Hooker (-125), Chandler (+105)
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s potential retirement has the top of the UFC's lightweight division in flux, and there is a surprising new challenger in the mix to try and take advantage of that void, with Chandler making the jump to the Octagon. It is hard to believe that it has already nearly been a decade since Chandler’s breakout performance: a “Fight of the Year”-level war in which he unseated Eddie Alvarez to take home Bellator MMA’s lightweight title. Unfortunately for Chandler and Bellator, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua put on a similarly epic performance on pay-per-view to overshadow the fight on the same night. Still, Chandler—a former standout wrestler at the University of Missouri who quickly displayed some knockout power—had now established himself as a top-tier lightweight. From there, Chandler was firmly one of Bellator’s top fighters and a homegrown standout, even if he never quite got to unquestioned kingpin status. Whenever Chandler looked like he had fully ascended to being the permanent “man” for Bellator, there would be a setback, whether it was against Alvarez, against Will Brooks or in a controversial injury stoppage against Brent Primus. After regaining his title from Primus, Chandler suffered a loss to Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire, but “Iron Mike” comes to the UFC riding a wave of momentum, blasting Sidney Outlaw and Benson Henderson for quick and brutal knockouts. The UFC certainly seems to be banking on Chandler affirming himself as an immediate title contender. He served as the backup for the Nurmagomedov-Justin Gaethje title fight in October, and he gets thrown immediately into the fire here against Hooker.
There might be some concern that Hooker has plateaued as a gatekeeper to the lightweight elite, but frankly, it is worth appreciating how far he has come to even get to that point. The “Hangman” did not come into the UFC with any sort of hype behind him; in fact, it seemed as the promotion only signed him for some local flavor when it came to New Zealand in 2014. A win there over Ian Entwistle started a middling run at featherweight for Hooker. He showed flashes of some effective weapons, mostly in the grappling realm but looked to be too unathletic and slow of foot to keep up with his competition at a certain point. To that end, Hooker’s subsequent move up to lightweight made sense, even if early returns were a bit uninspiring. His wins over Ross Pearson and Marc Diakiese were not going particularly well until Hooker scored late finishes. However, what initially looked like aimlessness soon gave way to versatility. After a pressure striking approach that had delivered wins against Jim Miller and Gilbert Burns instead got him obliterated by Edson Barboza, Hooker showed an ability to pivot as much more of a range striker to beat Al Iaquinta and Paul Felder. While his main event fight against Dustin Poirier in June raised some long-term issues—namely whether Hooker has the athleticism or cardio to make it to a true championship level—it was still one of the best performances of his career, as he held his own in an all-out war. While getting the last win or two to become champion will be tough for Hooker, spoiling Chandler’s UFC debut would go a long way towards getting him right back in that mix.
This figures to be a war where Chandler can make his name as an exciting fighter, but if the intent was for him to get a big statement win, the UFC certainly gave him a tough test. Chief among Hooker’s positive traits may be his horrifying level of durability, so it seems unlikely that Chandler can earn his third straight first-round knockout. In general, Hooker should make this a difficult fight. His long frame should serve him well against a stocky powerhouse like Chandler, and it would not be a shock to see the Kiwi pick apart, frustrate and keep the promotional newcomer at a distance. It worked against fighters like Iaquinta and Felder, but the difference here is that Chandler is a much more explosive athlete. He might have trouble getting inside on Hooker early, but he should also be able to cause some impactful damage in the moments where he does. Also, Hooker tends to tire when playing that outside range game, though that is much more of a concern in a five-round fight. While Chandler is no cardio king himself, any slippage should allow Chandler to at the very least start controlling moments of the fight with his wrestling, which should serve as a steady fallback. Chandler is also not above getting sparked, so there is a concern he could run himself right into a sharp counter from Hooker. In general, though, it is difficult not to bank on the much stronger and quicker athlete to overcome some stylistic difficulties. The pick is Chandler via decision.
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