UFC lightweight contender Michael Chandler has his hands full on Saturday night, to be sure, but that isn't stopping him from taking a look at what might come next with a win.
Chandler (23-7 MMA, 2-2 UFC) faces former interim lightweight champ Dustin Poirier (28-7 MMA, 20-6 UFC) in a highly anticipated matchup at UFC 281, which streams live on ESPN+ pay-per-view (10 p.m. ET) from New York's Madison Square Garden. Given the styles of the two participants, the matchup has clear potential to be "Fight of the Night," but Chandler believes there's more at stake than just bragging rights.
"Everything has led to this once again, the biggest stage I could possibly ask for: UFC, Madison Square Garden, and Dustin Poirier – arguably, I think, the most decorated lightweight we have on the roster," Chandler said at Wednesday's media day in support of the event. "Knock him off, get my hand raised, continue to stake my claim as the best lightweight in the world in progress.
"I've believed for years that I'm the best lightweight in the world. I've had some ups and downs and some losses, but everybody does, and I believe knocking off Dustin Poirier puts me in line for the title."
Chandler enters the matchup at No. 5 in the UFC's official lightweight rankings, with Poirier at No. 2, so there is certainly real meaning in the matchup outside of the fireworks it's expected to deliver. However, UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, currently ranked as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the promotion's official rankings, has expressed an interest in moving up to 155 pounds to challenger for double champ status.
So serious is Volkanovski about his goal, he recently served as a backup opponent at October's UFC 280, when new champ Islam Makhachev secured the belt by submitting former champion Charles Oliveira in Abu Dhabi.
Immediately after his impressive victory, Makhachev also expressed his interest in the matchup, stating he'd be willing to travel to Volkanovski's home nation of Australia for the pairing, pointing towards February's UFC 284 in Perth as the perfect destination.
Chandler admits Volkanovski deserves the right to challenge for a second title but also believes Makhachev should defend the title once against a true lightweight before taking any superfight offers.
"If there's a guy out there who deserves to move up, I think it is Alex Volkanovski," Chandler admitted. "Obviously, the selfish part of me says I don't want that to happen.
"You know, I understand how it makes a ton of sense from a promoter standpoint. From the UFC standpoint, you've got the No. 1 pound-for-pound guy in the world vs. the No. 3 pound-for-pound guy in the world, but I also think that Islam has proved himself to be our champion. He is our champion, and we have to accept that, and I think he's a phenomenal talent. I also think he needs to have his first title defense against a lightweight. He needs to get through another lightweight before they start talking about superfights."
Poirier can render all of this discussion moot at Saturday's event and is currently favored to do so at SI.Sportsbook.com as a -213 favorite, while Chandler returns as the +175 underdog.
But Chandler boasts the superior wrestling game and the power to end a fight at any moment, as another former interim UFC champ, Tony Ferguson, found out in May.
"We put together a gameplan to be able to get our hand raised, and I believe I can match him strike-for-strike," Chandler said. "I believe I've got more power. I think I'm more of a pressure fighter. He's already said that he's going to be the matador, so he expects the pressure. You can expect the pressure. You're going to expect the speed. You can expect the power. I think it's just a little bit different when you actually get in there and you have to negotiate and navigate the exchanges with a guy who has an indomitable will and is, I believe, faster and more powerful than him."
It's certainly not a given, but should that prediction prove prophetic, Chandler believes it could shake up the UFC's current plans and see him and Makhachev paired for an intriguing showdown.
"Once again, I don't say that to say that the UFC is making a bad decision or the wrong decision if they make that decision to let Volkanovski move up," Chandler said. "But I think when I handle business on Saturday night, I think it'll be undeniable that they're going to want to see good, old fashioned, passionate American wrestling vs. Dagestani sambo, Dagestani grappling. That's what I hope we get to see."
This story first published art SI.com/MMA.