Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler were expected to put on an amazing fight in the opener of the main card of UFC 268 Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Somehow, though, they may have exceeded expectations.
The highly ranked lightweights went after each other like hungry pit bulls, delivering insane amounts of punishment to the delight of the sell-out crowd.
Chandler had Gaethje hurt badly in the first. Gaethje dropped Chandler in the second and it appeared briefly that he may have finished him. And they just threw out all pretense of defense in the third as they tore into each other.
Gaethje won a unanimous decision by scores of 29-28 twice and 30-27. Yahoo Sports had Gaethje 29-28, giving him the last two rounds.
It was an epic battle that met the moment of one of the biggest cards of the year with, potentially, a title shot hanging in the balance. None of it surprised Gaethje, though.
“I knew exactly what that was going to be,” an exhausted Gaethje said in the cage afterward. “He is a warrior. We are living in the wrong times. Let me tell you, me and him should have been fighting to the death in the Coliseum. That’s what should have happened.”
Gaethje destroyed Chandler’s lead legs with kicks, and he opened cuts all over Chandler’s face. But Chandler never once backed off and never once did anything other than go toward Gaethje and look for a battle.
Once, Gaethje nearly dropped Chandler with an uppercut and followed it with a right cross. Chandler raised his hands and waved Gaethje in.
It was a remarkable display of heart, durability and toughness by both men. By the end of the first, they’d each taken as many big shots as they would normally get in a five-rounder. But they fought at a furious pace throughout.
The win should land Gaethje a shot at the winner of the lightweight title bout between Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier next month.