Jared Cannonier faces Kelvin Gastelum in the main event of this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card. Cannonier will look to bounce back from defeat in his last fight and put himself back in title contention.
Cannonier has established himself as an elite fighter as a middleweight. He has had an unconventional path to get to this point. After starting his career as a heavyweight, he moved down to light heavyweight. He ultimately found his true home in the 185-pound division.
The 37-year-old is arguably the most powerful puncher in the weight class. He secured TKO finishes in his first three contests at middleweight, with none of the bouts going past the second round. He appeared to be on the cusp of earning a title shot following his knockout of Jack Hermansson. Cannonier then took on former champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 254 in a No. 1-contender fight.
There was a great amount of expectation surrounding Cannonier at the time. He was held in high regard. Many believed he had the capacity to beat Whittaker. Cannonier delivered a strangely subdued performance against Whittaker, in a stark contrast to his previous fights. He almost exclusively threw leg kicks, while his lack of head movement made him an easy target for Whittaker’s jab.
He initially had success with kicks, but this diminished as he received more punishment. Cannonier’s right eye had almost completely shut by the start of the third round. He admirably continued to march forward but was then caught by Whittaker’s signature one-two, head-kick combination. He fell to the canvas and was on the verge of getting finished.
The Texas-born fighter showcased his resilience by recovering and continuing to exert pressure on Whittaker. He wobbled the Australian with a jab with just over 30 seconds left in the fight. The former champion demonstrated his excellent fight IQ by changing levels and recovering. Whittaker won by unanimous decision on the judges’ scorecards. Cannonier revealed in the aftermath that Whittaker had broken his arm with a kick in the first round. This explained why he was so reluctant to throw punches. He was on the sidelines for several months after he underwent surgery on his arm.
The loss was frustrating for Cannonier and his supporters. Current champion Israel Adesanya named the 37-year-old as someone he wanted to face. Losing and also sustaining a long-term injury could have taken Cannonier out of the title picture. Instead, his prolonged absence has seemed to work in his favor.
Adesanya is expected to have his rematch with Whittaker by early 2022. Second-ranked Paulo Costa has not fought since his loss to Adesanya last September and his next bout is scheduled to be against Marvin Vettori. Vettori is out of title contention for the foreseeable future if Adesanya retains his title against Whittaker. The Italian has now suffered two losses to Adesanya.
This leaves Cannonier, Darren Till and Derek Brunson as the fighters vying for the top contender position. Adesanya has repeatedly expressed interest in a fight with Till. This bout will certainly take place provided both men are victorious in their next fights. However, if that does not materialize, Cannonier will have a chance of securing a title fight with a win this Saturday.
In his return to the Octagon, Cannonier was scheduled to meet Paulo Costa. However, Costa withdrew from the fight soon after it was announced and claimed that he had not signed a bout agreement. The Brazilian was replaced by the ninth-ranked Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum has lost four of his last five bouts, with his only win in this period coming against Ian Heinisch.
This is a favorable match-up for Cannonier considering that Gastelum has come up short against elite opposition of late. But the 29-year-old is still a dangerous opponent. He possesses immense power and is one of the most durable fighters in the entire UFC. He also has a black-belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and has a strong wrestling background.
His predictable striking patterns and lack of output has contributed to him struggling in recent years. Cannonier has the power to make Gastelum hesitant. The former interim title challenger’s striking has regressed. He has become over-reliant on landing his power left hand. Also, he has neglected the combinations that he used to throw to great effect. This was exposed in his last fight against the aforementioned Whittaker, who nullified Gastelum by using a high right guard.
While Cannonier will be confident of knocking out any fighter in the division, engaging in a brawl with Gastelum would play into the younger fighter’s strengths. An easier path to victory is staying on the outside and utilizing his reach. Gastelum did wrestle more in his win over Heinisch, but Cannonier’s solid takedown defense and natural size advantage should allow him to keep the fight standing.
A win on Saturday would take Cannonier one step closer to a UFC title fight. That would be a phenomenal achievement for a man who didn’t make his professional debut until the age of 27. Cannonier has had to expedite the learning process to compete at the highest level. The fact that he has successfully done this while transforming his physique from a heavyweight to a middleweight is a testament to his work ethic.
Cannonier can take pride in how far he has come. But a loss to Gastelum this weekend would spell the end of his hopes of competing for a UFC title. Time is not on his side at the age of 37. Having already lost a contender fight recently, he could find himself lost in the pack.
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