With title shot on the line, Robert Whittaker's sole focus is Jared Cannonier

Israel Adesanya has repeatedly proven his greatness in his short time in the UFC, and he deserves every accolade he’s gotten, and more.

He’s is one of those rare transcendent stars whose presence overshadows anyone in his orbit. But Adesanya’s greatness has taken away from the fact that the man he beat for the UFC middleweight title, Robert Whittaker, is also not only one of the world’s elite fighters, but one who should be appointment viewing.

What is there not to like — or love — about Whittaker, who on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi will face Jared Cannonier with a title shot hanging in the balance?

Whittaker has repeatedly proven he’ll not only fight the best, he’ll seek them out.

There’s no aspect of the game he doesn’t excel in and his fight IQ is among the highest in the sport.

And he’s a straight-forward, no nonsense guy whose only shortcoming has been an inability to stay healthy and injury-free for long stretches. Had he been healthy for his entire career, the UFC would probably already be fitting him for his Hall of Fame jacket.

He’s the kind of guy who might be your next door neighbor who you shoot the breeze with over the hedges. It just happens that he’s one of the greatest fighters in the world.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JULY 26: Robert Whittaker of New Zealand reacts after the conclusion of his middleweight fight against Darren Till of England during the UFC Fight Night event inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on July 26, 2020 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Former UFC middleweight champion and No. 1-ranked contender Robert Whittaker won't get caught looking ahead. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

He said he’s eager to meet Cannonier and has had his eye on him since he moved to middleweight.

Cannonier is a former heavyweight who has blossomed since dropping to the 185-pound division. He was 1-1 in the UFC as a heavyweight and 2-3 as a light heavyweight. Since moving to middleweight for a fight against Dave Branch in 2018, Cannonier is 3-0 with finishes of Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson.

Whittaker is supremely confident, though, that he’ll be able to match whatever Cannonier brings.

“I’ve fought heavy hitters before,” Whittaker said. “I think I can take this fight anywhere I want it to go.”

Whittaker has high expectations for himself and the fight with Adesanya was the biggest in Australian and New Zealand history. He was knocked out in the second round and that stayed with him.

When he returned, he faced Darren Till in a bout in which he had his ups and downs.

That, though, is MMA, and Whittaker was able to come on after a slow start. That’s put him into a better frame of mind going into the bout with Cannonier.

“A lot of pressures and weight were lifted from my shoulders once my hand was raised,” Whittaker said. “To come back after a break and after all of the changes that I’ve made and it was just the icing on top.”

Because of his background as an ex-champion and a top contender — Whittaker is No. 1 while Cannonier is No. 2 — Whittaker has something of a bullseye on his back. Adesanya said after defeating Paulo Costa that he’d like to fight Cannonier next.

Cannonier, though, didn’t want to get caught looking ahead, nor did he want to make too much of the fact he was facing a former champion.

“When I fought Anderson [Silva], I told myself I’m not fighting a former champion, I’m just fighting another man,” Cannonier said. “It’s going to be the same thing when I fight Robert. I’m not going to make him more special than he is. He’s only a man and I’m only there to fight the man. I’m not there to fight the image or reputation or anything like that.”

UFC president Dana White said the winner will likely fight Adesanya next, but he didn’t want to look that far ahead.

Nor did Whittaker. He said he hadn’t even thought much about what a win could bring.

“I don’t know and I haven’t really worried about it,” Whittaker said when asked where he stands in the title picture. “All my sights are set on just beating Jared. Whatever else happens, happens.”

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