LAS VEGAS — Jared Cannonier has a secret weapon he can rely on when he meets the champion Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title Saturday in the main event of UFC 276 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
It’s not a punch he’s worked diligently to develop, nor is it flash submission.
Since joining the UFC as a heavyweight in 2015, Cannonier has been improving this weapon for exactly this moment. He knows very well the challenge he faces in Adesanya, one of the elite pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
However, that’s where Cannonier’s secret weapon comes in handy. He has beaten four former UFC champions and a former interim champion in his 13 fights in the promotion. It has prepared him in a unique way for the moment when he will step into the cage against one of the greatest fighters of this generation.
He has lost to former light heavyweight champions Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz and former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. He defeated former middleweight champion Anderson Silva and former interim middleweight champion Kelvin Gastelum.
Winning a belt changes a fighter for the better in many ways. They know what it takes to win at the highest level because they’ve done it, and their confidence is often through the roof. Cannonier learned from them what to do to get past Adesanya on Saturday.
“It’s definitely a confidence boost,” Cannonier said of the stiff opposition he faced. “It definitely boosts your ego when you realize, ‘Hey, I’ve only lost to champions and former champions and, you know, title challengers’ and things like that. Other than one, Shawn Jordan, who just a big animal, a big bear of a man anyway But you know it’s a bit of confidence, a bit of an ego boost Good stuff It feels good to know I’ve only lost to the nose of the salmon.”
Jordan, a former LSU soccer player, is the only fighter Cannonier has lost in the UFC and has not at least fought for a world title.
All those experiences have helped Cannonier earn his spot in this title fight. Unlike some, he got here by taking the hardest road imaginable.
He is 5-1 in his six fights since moving from light heavyweight to middleweight, where he probably should have been all along. His only loss during that period was to Whittaker and, well, there’s even a story behind it.
Whittaker threw a kick to Cannonier’s head in the opening seconds of the fight, which blocked Cannonier. But in doing so, he became nearly useless the rest of the way. He broke his forearm. For a guy who is a striker, that’s a bit of a problem.
Cannonier went to great lengths and put in a believable performance, but it wasn’t what he wanted. But as always, he said, he took some of it with him.
“It was a good learning experience,” Cannonier said. “I realized I wasn’t really addressing him in the way I needed to get the job done. And it was hard to do it with one arm, you know? But still, it’s still a lesson I learned from that: moving to really get my hands on my target. But man, it wasn’t fun doing that shit. I don’t want to go through that again.”
Arguably the best striker in the UFC, Adesanya is a master of distance control. Cannonier said the loss of Whittaker showed him that he just can’t let the fight go the distance Adesanya wants and expect good things to happen.
So while he’s not going to take crazy risks, he’s not going to sit back and play Adesanya’s game either.
“His control over distance and range is exceptional,” Cannonier said. “The only person who has ever done that, not exactly like him, but to some degree in a championship, is Jon Jones. There are a few guys in the smaller weight classes who do it too, like Max Holloway. His boxing is just on point. He reminds me of one of those tall, skinny, tall boxers who can touch you and then move and then touch you from a great distance.
“I’ve learned over time that footwork defines time and space as far as martial arts is concerned. So if that guy is like Doctor Strange up there with his footwork, then I have to deal with that. But if he’s Doctor Strange, I am Baron Mordo. So we must fight.”