Michael Chandler is the single most exciting fighter to watch. Arguably, he rivals Mike Tyson in his ability to keep you on the edge of your seat. This is partly due to Chandler’s sheer physicality. He is one of the most athletic fighters in the UFC. He is unmatched in his explosiveness and his ability to pressure. However, he is on a bit of a losing streak. I find this tragic because, with a few tweaks, he can dominate the division, including the current champion Islam Makhachev. Here’s what Michael Chandler needs to fix in order to win the title.
Chandler’s the kind of guy who goes balls to the wall from start to finish. It’s not always the smartest thing to do, but it’s respectable. He is generally the shorter but stockier fighter. Fighters with this physique are most in danger at a distance, where the taller fighter can touch the shorter fighter, but not the other way around. By default, every fight and every exchange begins with this disadvantage. The onus is on the shorter fighter to close the distance and this is the foundation of such a fighter’s strategy; Michael Chandler, Henry Cejudo, and TJ Dillashaw are some examples.
This is why some fighters with this body type adopt a wider Karate-like stance, when at a distance, to allow them to move in and out quickly. The wider the stance, the greater the mobility. The closer they get, the more square the stance becomes to allow for hooks, clinching, and grappling.
Closing the Distance
This is the 1st challenge. How do you get in without taking damage. The problem Chandler faces is his opponents’ linear strikes which have the effect of keeping him at bay. The jab is something Chandler struggles with. He often eats a jab to get in range. This is the 1st flaw of Chandler’s striking. He is defensively irresponsible and needlessly takes damage on the way in.
By adding a simple tactic to his striking arsenal, he can make a joke out of the jab, enhance his ability to pressure, and increase his ability to read his opponent. This tactic may sound counter-intuitive to some, but it’s called offensive counter-punching. Counter-punching is often associated with taller, more passive fighters who use distance and trickery to make an opponent miss which creates the counter-punching opportunity. As such, counter-punching is usually part of a defensive strategy. But it doesn’t have to be.
One can walk forward and do the same. In boxing, Mike Tyson’s peek-a-boo style is a very good example of this. In the early UFC days, both the peek-a-boo style and Karate were negatively viewed due to their inability to translate into kickboxing. In the case of Karate, the stance’s susceptibility to leg kicks and its limited ability to engage in boxing were major deterrents. However, George St-Pierre (GSP) demonstrated that, in MMA, some aspects of Karate do translate, especially when tweaked. For example, GSP did fight with a wider Karate-like stance but he was less bladed than a true Karate stance to allow for proper boxing. That still left him vulnerable to leg kicks to his lead leg because a wide stance doesn’t allow for checking (taking the kick on the shin). As such, GSP adapted by catching kicks to his lead leg where he could use his wrestling. Henry Cejudo and Michael Chandler, both of whom are short-stocky wrestlers, have taken MMA-Karate to another level with the use of Karate-like footwork, specifically the in-and-out distance management.
As with Karate, boxing’s peek-a-boo style is also criticized, the latter for its head movement patterns which leave openings for getting kneed or kicked in the face. In recent years, shorter stockier wrestlers have taken an interest into the peek-a-boo style, due to its footwork patterns which create advantageous wrestling opportunities. Notably, TJ Dillashaw already uses a variation of the tik-tok head movement and Henry Cejudo (who fights with a Karate stance) can be seen below learning to tik-tok with Mike Tyson. Let’s look at why that is, but before we do, notice how Henry, at the 3:30 mark, follows up the peek-a-boo combo with a single leg and, at the 4:40 mark, follows up by taking the back:
Footwork is what makes tik-tok-ing work. Without it, you would awkwardly dangle from one side to another like a stiff and upright metronome. The legs are what determine the level (altitude) and tik-tok-ing requires a lowering of the level, to some degree. Wrestlers are not only more accustomed to a lower level and but they also have an affinity to it as it provides easier access to the opponent’s legs.
There is another footwork pattern which also lends itself very well to MMA wrestling: the shuffle. Below, Henry Cejudo can be seen learning a combo which utilizes the shuffle step (the big shift in weight that creates the angle).
And below, you can see Aliev faking the overhand right, and following with a shuffle step which gives him access to Magomedov’s torso from the back. Then, Aliev capitalizes on the opportunity by performing a suplex, which is something Michael Chandler loves to do.
The common theme between the tik-tok and the shuffle step is how conducive they are both to wrestling and to closing the distance. Of course, some will raise the objection that tik-tok-ing, as with most forms head movement which lower the head, expose it to kicks. This is absolutely true with the “pure boxing” tik-tok used by Mike Tyson and the like. In MMA, however, the tik-tok can be tweaked to fix that problem.
The tik-tok has the interesting property that it does not slip punches at the waist because, again, it’s the legs that do the work. With the tik-tok, slipping left requires the left leg to step left and forward; slipping right requires the right leg to step right and forward. This ensures a balanced weight distribution once the slip is performed, but the same cannot be said for other forms of slipping which bend at the waist.
In boxing, the tik-tok allows one to slip to one side and still have enough weight to shift for a counter-punch with the opposite hand. For example, you can slip left and follow up with a powerful overhand right. Or you can slip right and follow up with a powerful stiff jab with the left. Although it was more common for Tyson to use the slip as a way to load up a hook with the same hand (like the gazelle hook), Mike Tyson does have a knockout with the technique I’ve described in one of the later fights of his career; I can’t find the video but, if memory serves me right, his opponent throws a left uppercut and Tyson slips right then clips him with a stiff left jab (which created the opening for Tyson to finish him). To contrast, bending at the waist ensures that there is no more weight left to shift, such that if a follow-up punch is attempted, it will have no power behind it.
In MMA, not only can the tik-tok slip be followed by a counter-punch with the opposite hand, but it can also be followed by parrying a kick (also with the opposite hand) or even a thai kick (with the opposite leg). In other words, you can slip to one side and parry a kick. Kamaru Usman, a wrestler, would not have been knocked out if he had performed a tik-tok slip the way I’ve described. Below, you see that Usman slips the regular way (by bending at the waist). In fact, he did attempt to parry the kick with the opposite hand. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of reaching for the kick which is why he missed it on the way up. But even if he hadn’t reached, his parry would have little power behind it. The kick would still rattle him.
Daniel Cormier, who is also a wrestler, suffered the same fate.
As far as closing the distance goes, Chandler would easily be able to close the distance without having to eat jabs on the way in by incorporating the “MMA tik-tok”. Both the MMA tik-tok and the shuffle create wrestling opportunities which plays to Chandler’s strengths.
The Gas Tank
Some have correctly noted how tired Chandler gets at the end of his fights and how his recent losing streaks can be attributed to him giving opportunities away because of his stamina issues. Both of these arguments are true. However, some have taken this further to imply that Chandler has bad cardio. This is absolutely false. The real issue is that he is not efficient with his use of energy.
Chandler has a very high volume of strikes and much of it gets blocked whereas some don’t land at all. Given how Chandler throws most shots with full power, he ends up spending a lot of his energy with no return on his investment. This can work for him if he manages to land the knockout early. But it will work against him in the later rounds. It’s quite ironic that Chandler’s the one who gets gassed because, generally, the one who fights walking backwards is the one who gets gassed first (creates a burning sensation in the quads).
Thankfully, there is an easy fix for Chandler. Pressure fighting does not require every strike to be a real strike. The only requirement is to create desperation in the opponent. Pressure is a way to convince the opponent that he absolutely has to react to what’s coming because he can’t take the risk of not blocking or evading, given the power of the strike.
By default, beginners already operate under this false assumption and that’s why they are so easy to beat: by reacting to fakes (often with a hands-up eyes-shut flinch reflex), they effectively give you clean targets. In fact, this is why fighters can beat much heavier opponents if they are beginners. Professional fighters, however, are a lot more picky as to what they react to… until desperation sets in.
Most of the cool highlight reels you’ve seen of one fighter accurately predicting the other fighter’s move and responding with the perfect counter are sections of a fight taken only after desperation set in. What the highlight reels don’t show you is what came before.
Desperation sets in when the brain’s reward system expects pleasure and gets punishment instead. The unexpected causes the brain to distrust potential opportunities and that has the effect of creating offensive passivity and over-defensiveness in the fighter. How does a fighter act in an unexpected way? Fakes.
The brain’s reward system can be thought of as a kind of learning machine. As with any learning system, it takes in a dataset, identifies patterns, and uses those patterns to make predictions. When a fighter correctly predicts the opponent’s strike and reacts successfully, dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter) is released. The brain’s mesocorticolimbic system associates pleasure with that which is rewarding; the fighter is thus motivated to chase the dopamine hit by doing it again.
When a fighter makes a false prediction, no dopamine is released and the reward system ceases to associate the technique he had planned with pleasure. But what happens when a learning system works with a tainted dataset? Incorrect predictions and, thus, unexpected results.
That is the role of fakes in striking. As part of a dataset that is a fighter’s movement, fakes represent statistical noise. Their purpose is precisely to taint the dataset so as to force incorrect predictions in the opponent and, in turn, to receive unexpected punishment. The more the unexpected punishment, the lesser the fighter’s trust in his ability to predict. Such is the mindset of the beginner: “I don’t know what he’s going to do so I have to react to everything”. Here, the word “everything” is a gift to the other opponent’s reward system as it is the cleanest pattern possible. With clean patterns come high predictability.
GSP can be seen below talking about his use of fakes against the faster BJ Penn to “overload his nervous sytem”.
The interesting thing about fakes is they require little energy but have the same effect of an actual strike with respect to pressuring. Not only would fakes save Chandler energy, but they would give him the ability to create desperation in his opponents.
Due to Chandler’s very worrisome and imposing striking, his opponents are much more concerned with what’s happening with Chandler’s hands. This is why Chandler has a high takedown success rate. However, wrestling is very energy-intensive. As such, the wrestler absolutely has to make it count. Otherwise, he will be on his feet and out of breath. Once on the ground, wrestlers can take a few seconds to catch their breath if needed.
Chandler has at times found himself in precisely that scenario. And as I mentioned before, inefficient energy expenditure is a major problem for him.
To ensure that the takedown attempt is successful, wrestlers engage in chain wrestling, i.e. to always have a follow-up. Chain wrestling is what distinguishes the best wrestlers from the rest. In fact, to a wrestler, the first attempt is merely the beginning of the scramble. It is literally assumed that the first attempt will be defended. 90% of wrestlers can defend the first takedown attempt, 50% the second, and only the most advanced can defend the third. An even fewer number of them can counter-wrestle effectively.
Below, you can see every takedown in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s career. Much of his attempts are initially defended.
In addition to securing the takedown and making the most of his energy investment, Chandler would further benefit from chain wrestling if he increases his number of takedown attempts per round. This is because wrestling can be used towards striking-oriented ends. It is not uncommon for wrestlers to hurt strikers while standing up. This is because wrestlers have an additional method of creating desperation that strikers cannot and that’s the level change.
The level change implies that the wrestler is about to shoot for a leg attack. The opponent has to respond by moving the lead leg back and preparing to sprawl. This exposes the defender’s chin. See below how Khabib drops Conor. One of Khabib’s favorite entries is the jab to single-leg. Here, he jabs, lowers his level (which makes Conor prepare to sprawl), and instead follows up with an overhand right. Of particular note is how Conor’s attention is entirely upon Khabib’s left hand (the grabbing hand, in this case).
The wrestling threat enhances the ability to strike to such a degree that Khabib, who would get destroyed in a striking sport, was able to out-strike and walk down one of the UFC’s best strikers.
One thing of particular interest to Chandler is Khabib’s footwork in the sequence above. Notice how Khabib loses balance after the overhand and gives Conor the time to get up and reset. Now, imagine if Chandler were to do the same, only he would follow-up the overhand with a shuffle step. Man, oh man, the opportunities that Chandler is losing out on… and how (relatively) easily he can fix these issues.
I specifically chose the subtitle “ground work” rather than “Jiu Jitsu” because the solutions to Chandler’s problems on the ground are not (usually) taught in Jiu Jitsu class. Instead, they are ground-and-pound techniques which are only applicable to MMA.
Chandler’s first problem is his lack of octagon control. He only cares about getting the takedown. To contrast, it matters to Khabib where he gets the takedown. Depending on whether or not Khabib wants his opponents to have a fence, he will take his opponent down to the fence or away from it.
Once the takedown is secured against the fence, Khabib’s modus operandi is to wrap the legs (i.e. the “leg mount”) and secure a Dagestani handcuff (where Khabib’s arm locks the opponent’s arm into place). This leaves Khabib free to pound away while his opponent has only one poorly-positioned arm to defend. This is known as the art of smeshing.
The leg mount and leg riding, in general, are completely absent from Chandler’s ground game. These techniques are necessary if Chandler wants to keep the pressure up when on the ground. Instead, Chandler hangs around in full or half guard. Those are positions where the opponent can relax, breath, defend strikes with minimal effort, and setup a way to either get up, sweep, or submit. Since Chandler is a pressure fighter, the last thing he needs to be doing is letting his opponent compose himself. Instead, he needs to smesh.
Another problem is that he seems to have bought into the idea of submissions from the back, as a reliable strategy. Of course, submissions from the back are possible, but they are rarely ever going to work in MMA, due to the strikes involved and also because it takes 1 tenth of the effort to be could at defensive Jiu Jitsu as it takes to be good at offensive Jiu Jitsu. Firas Zahabi, GSP’s head coach, has made similar statements. Chael Sonnen went as far as to say that “[in MMA, ] Jiu Jitsu from the back is a myth.”
When Chandler knocked Charles Oliveira down, he did not dare follow Oliveira to the ground; Chandler ended up losing that fight. When Makhachev knocked Oliveira down, he followed Oliveira down into half guard; Makhachev, the wrestler, submitted Oliveira, the Jiu Jitsu black belt. The results speak for themselves.
Chandler can turn his career around and I hope he heeds this advice. Nothing I have suggested fundamentally changes Chandler’s overall game plan and he will actually feel much more comfortable doing what he already does with the fixes I have outlined.