LAS VEGAS — Jared Cannonier knew deep in his soul that he wanted to be a martial artist and he was going to let nothing get in his way of achieving that dream.
And in his case, that really and truly means nothing. The UFC middleweight contender, who fights Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 34, was laser focused on being a martial artist from the time he first discovered the sport.
He worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in Anchorage, Alaska, but that wasn’t his career. He needed to make money while he found his way in the martial arts.
“The FAA was essentially a means to be able to do it,” he said of starting a martial arts career. “Of course, with the support of my wife, I was able to put in all those hours. I had this drive to do the martial arts. It wasn’t necessarily mixed martial arts, but I always had the drive to be a martial artist from being a kid watching them on TV, but especially from the Army where I got my first real taste of martial arts.”
He loved it as he thought he would and wanted to make it his life’s work. Anything — or anyone — that got in the way of fulfilling that dream had to go.
“It was something I was going to do and I was willing to sacrifice a lot to do it,” Cannonier said. “If my wife wasn’t going to support me, bye. If my work wasn’t going to support me, bye. My work supported me, but now I’m at the point where I can support myself.”
He’s made himself into one of the best fighters in the world. He joined the UFC in 2015 and his first fight was at heavyweight against Shawn Jordan, who came in at 261. Cannonier was 235 in his UFC debut.
He was 1-1 as a heavyweight, then dropped to light heavyweight. He was 2-3 there and moved to middleweight.
He’s found great success as a middleweight, going 3-1 with his only setback a decision loss to ex-champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 254 in October. Cannonier broke the ulna in his left arm in the first round blocking a Whittaker kick.
Whittaker is one of the best fighters in the world — fifth on the Yahoo Sports’ pound-for-pound list — and Cannonier had to battle him the majority of the way with one arm.
But there was never a doubt in his mind that he would finish or that he could find a way to win the fight.
“I wouldn’t say I got frustrated or anything,” Cannonier said. “It just felt more inhibiting. Handicapped. I was just too focused on fighting, trying to win that fight than to be in my feelings about having a broken arm or worried about having a broken arm. I just had to make the adjustments.
“No real thought process went into it, just the recognition that, ‘Damn, I broke my arm and … what am I going to do to try to win this fight, man?’ The clock was still going and everybody was still looking at me like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ Yeah man, I did my best.”
He’s one of those nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guys, and he’s annoyed by any suggestion that his success is due to anything other than his ability and the sweat of his brow.
He’s not successful because he kept dropping weight. He would have been successful at those weights, too, he believes, had he had the opportunity to work on his game.
He’s a natural middleweight who happened to fight up because that’s where the opportunities existed. He’s as certain as can be, though, that this success he’s enjoying would have come regardless of what weight class he settled in.
“Absolutely yes,” he said. “I’m not the only one who will say that. The UFC would say that, too. My second fight at light heavyweight was against Glover Teixeira, who was ranked No. 3 in the division. He’s back at the top of the division and about ready to challenge for the title. And in that fight, all he was able to do was to hold me down because my wrestling wasn’t as good. He wasn’t able to do a lot of damage. The most severe damage I had was … mat burns on my back. ...
“The UFC already knew [what I could do]. I knew, too, which is why I said I would fight in the heavyweight division in the UFC. Had I stayed and taken the time to get better, would I be successful? Absolutely.”
Middleweight, though, is his home and there are a lot of appealing fights for him.
His decision years ago to forsake anything and everything that got in the way of achieving his dreams looks smarter than ever right now.
More from Yahoo Sports: