LAS VEGAS — Jared Cannonier has a secret weapon he can rely upon when he meets champion Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title Saturday in the main event of UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
It’s not a punch he’s worked assiduously to develop, nor is it a flashy submission hold.
Since he joined the UFC as a heavyweight in 2015, Cannonier has been enhancing this weapon for exactly this moment. He knows full well the challenge that he faces in Adesanya, who is one of the elite pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
That, though, is where Cannonier’s secret weapon comes in. He’s faced four former UFC champions and one former interim champion in his 13 bouts in the promotion. It’s uniquely prepared him for the moment he’ll step into the cage against one of the greatest fighters of this generation.
He’s lost to former light heavyweight champions Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz and former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. He’s beaten former middleweight champion Anderson Silva and former interim middleweight champion Kelvin Gastelum.
Winning a belt changes a fighter in many ways for the positive. 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 has learned from them what he needs to do to get past Adesanya on Saturday.
“It’s definitely a confidence boost,” Cannonier said of the stiff opposition he’s faced. “It’s definitely a nudge for your ego when you realize, ‘Hey, I’ve only lost to champions and former champions and, you know, title challengers,’ and stuff like that. Outside of one, Shawn Jordan, who is just a big animal, a big bear of a man anyway. But you know, it’s a little bit of confidence, a little bit of a boost of my ego. Good stuff. It feels good to know that I only lost to the cream of the crop.”
Jordan, a former LSU football player, is the only fighter Cannonier has lost to in the UFC who hasn’t at least fought for a world title.
All those experiences have helped Cannonier to earn his spot in this title fight. Unlike some, he got here by taking the most difficult path imaginable.
He’s 5-1 in his six fights since moving from light heavyweight to middleweight, where he probably should have been all along. His only loss in that span was to Whittaker and, well, there’s a story behind even that.
Whittaker threw a kick at Cannonier’s head in the opening seconds of the fight, which Cannonier blocked. But in doing so, he was rendered nearly useless the rest of the way. He broke his forearm. For a guy who is a striker, that’s a bit of an issue.
Cannonier went the distance and put on a credible performance, but it wasn’t what he wanted. But, as always, he said, he took something from it.
“It was a good learning experience,” Cannonier said. “I realized that I wasn’t really engaging him the way I needed to to get the job done. And it was hard to do it with one arm, you know? But still, it's still a lesson that I learned from that: Moving in to really put my hands on my target. But man, it was not fun doing that s***. I don’t want to have to go through that again.”
Adesanya is arguably the best striker in the UFC and is a master at controlling distance. Cannonier said the loss to Whittaker showed him he just can’t allow the fight to be held at the distance Adesanya wants and expect good things to happen.
So while he’s not going to take crazy risks, he’s also not going to sit back and play Adesanya’s game, either.
“His control of distance and range is exceptional,” Cannonier said. “The only person who’s ever done that, not exactly like him but to an extent in a championship reign is Jon Jones. There’s a few guys at the smaller weight classes that do it as well, like Max Holloway. His boxing is just on point. He reminds me of one of those tall, skinny, long boxers who can touch you up and then move and then touch you up some more from a long distance away.
“I’ve learned over time that footwork controls time and space as far as combat sports goes. So if dude’s like Doctor Strange up in there with his footwork then I have to deal with that. But if he’s Doctor Strange, I’m Baron Mordo. So we got to have a fight.”