Why is Conor McGregor fighting Michael Chandler?

There is no fight date, no venue, and no determined weight class, but we are led to believe that Conor McGregor is back.

Rumours had swirled in recent weeks that the Irishman would feature as a coach on the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, a UFC television show pitting teams of amateur fighters against each other before a clash between their coaches, and the swirls have now settled. It is a show tied to McGregor’s past, with the 34-year-old having coached opposite Urijah Faber in 2015, and now it is one that will feature heavily in his future.

Saturday’s news that McGregor and Michael Chandler will be opposing coaches on the programme, which will run from 30 May until 15 August, was an admittedly unnecessary reminder of the Irishman’s star power; recent weeks have seen numerous announcements around significant UFC returns – including those of Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal – and tantalising title bouts, yet no contest has conjured conversation like Conor McGregor’s.

Whether it be in August or September, at lightweight or welterweight, in Las Vegas or elsewhere, the former dual-weight champion is set to compete for the first time since suffering a broken leg in a defeat in July 2021. But, as ever in scenarios such as these, more important than the when, where and how is the ‘why’. Why is McGregor fighting Chandler, and why involve a television show?

There are satisfying answers to both questions, thankfully, and the answer to the latter comes more easily. McGregor, at his age and level of (in)activity, does not have many fights left, so positioning him on weekly, episodic television and highlighting his every one-liner in social-media posts is an ideal way of maximising his increasingly rare presence in the UFC.

Furthermore, McGregor addressed rumours of his appearance on the show by admitting, “It is full immersion which is needed,” as he prepares to return from his longest ever lay-off. There were 23 months separating his 2016 lightweight title win and subsequent return in 2018, when he was submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov in the biggest fight in UFC history. Fifteen months out of the Octagon followed, before McGregor returned to stop Donald Cerrone in 40 fleeting seconds, marking his only win of the last six years. Another year away ensued before “Notorious” took on Dustin Poirier – a man he had stopped in 2014 – and suffered a first ever knockout defeat, and his refreshingly quick turnaround for their trilogy bout in July 2021 ended with McGregor on the mat, clutching a broken leg and sporting a searing scowl. Even if McGregor’s match-up with Chandler plays out at the earliest opportunity, in August, he will have been out of action for 25 months.

And so The Ultimate Fighter should offer McGregor the ‘full immersion’ he needs, as he aims to earn a long-awaited, much-needed win, and as he seeks to distract himself from the very distractions that have led to numerous brushes with the law in recent years. But why Chandler specifically?

Because the American represents the saccharine spot between a beatable opponent and a chastening challenge.

Chandler’s knockout of Tony Ferguson last year is deemed one of the greatest in UFC history (USA TODAY Sports)
Chandler’s knockout of Tony Ferguson last year is deemed one of the greatest in UFC history (USA TODAY Sports)

Chandler’s pedigree is unquestionable; “Iron Mike” is a former three-time lightweight champion in Bellator, where he was the face of the promotion until finally making the switch to the UFC in 2021. While holding a title multiple times involves losing it multiple times, Chandler exhibited rare resilience to come back on each occasion and regain the gold. Then, in his UFC debut, on the undercard of McGregor’s knockout by Poirier no less, Chandler nearly erased Dan Hooker from existence, knocking out the fan favourite with a hellacious right hand in Round 1. Last year, Chandler’s front-kick KO of former interim champion Tony Ferguson was widely deemed knockout of the year and one of the greatest in UFC history. Chandler is ranked in the UFC’s top five at lightweight, and a win over him could catapult McGregor straight into another high-profile fight – potentially even for the 155lbs title.

But as is often the case in fighting, the importance lies in the in-betweens, and between those impressive wins, Chandler has been found wanting against the lightweight elite. In his second UFC bout, with the vacant belt on the line, Chandler succumbed to defeat while on the inviting verge of victory, as Charles Oliveira dragged himself back from the brink to knock out the American. In Chandler’s next outing, he had Justin Gaethje on skates but his compatriot somehow slipped away to win a fight of the year contender on points. Last time out, Chandler similarly had Poirier in great peril but could not land the decisive strike; instead he was submitted to fall to 2-3 in the UFC.

As competitive as Chandler was in those defeats, he is – like McGregor – 1-3 in his last four fights. He is also – like McGregor – past his prime, even if it is still visible in the rear-view mirror. Chandler will be 37 by the time he takes on McGregor, who will be 35. While Chandler withstood brutal, sustained barrages of strikes by both Gaethje and Poirier, his loss to Oliveira proved he is not impervious to one well-placed punch.

McGregor suffered a broken leg in his last fight, a defeat by Dustin Poirier in July 2021 (Getty Images)
McGregor suffered a broken leg in his last fight, a defeat by Dustin Poirier in July 2021 (Getty Images)

And on many an occasion, that is all McGregor has needed. It is perhaps for that reason that the Irishman is the slight favourite here, though it is easy to envision Chandler dragging his opponent into uncomfortable depths with draining wrestling exchanges. Following Poirier’s knockout of McGregor, it is also now easier to picture Chandler connecting with at least one of his trademark overhands or hooks. In fact, that is exactly what Chandler has envisioned.

“I always visualise a big overhand right or a left hook,” he told ESPN on Sunday. “That’s the shot that I really want to land every single time, and that’s the shot I’ve seen put guys down so many times in my career. I believe I wear [McGregor] down a little bit and land a big shot in the second round and take him out.”

It is entirely plausible. However, if McGregor can produce the incisive striking and faultless timing that once seemed to transcend the realms of possibility, it is very much in those same realms that Chandler can fall short as he has done in crucial moments before.

There is no moment as crucial as this: the one the entire fighting world has been waiting for.

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