April 17, 2024

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UFC 276: Why Jared Cannonier is very much a live dog in his first title opportunity against Israel Adesanya

When speaking to a soul as deep and as well-traveled throughout life’s highs and lows as Jared Cannonier, one tends to believe the middleweight contender when he says his mindset is focused on anything but Israel Adesanya entering their title bout on Saturday at UFC 276 in Las Vegas.  

Cannonier (15-5) is attempting to complete one of MMA’s most inspiring turnaround as he sets out for his first UFC title shot not that far removed from weighing more than 300 pounds as a full-time baggage sorter for an Alaskan airport. Now, at 38, one of the UFC’s most devastating sluggers in recent memory is as dangerous as he has ever been some seven years after first debuting inside the Octagon as a heavyweight.

Yet despite the high stakes and potential pressure of the spotlight ahead of his first headlining role in a pay-per-view event, Cannonier isn’t much concerned about Adesanya’s resume or highlight reel. Nor is the native of Dallas, Texas, bothered by Adesanya’s recent comments, which include promising he will “f— up” Cannonier and make him look like Forrest Griffin in his infamous 2009 loss to Anderson Silva.

Instead, Cannonier is focused on things like energy, ether and, most importantly, his own preparation.

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“Why change it when what I have been doing is what got me here?” Cannonier told “Morning Kombat” last week. “Why flip the script and starting all brand new as if that’s going to work? That leads to uncertainty. I’m staying true to the path, keeping my nose to the grindstone and working my ass off to be ready and go in there and handle my business.” 

Curiously, Cannonier has gone as far as outright devaluing the title he will be competing for this weekend when speaking about what truly motivates him to be at his best against Adesanya.  

“I don’t think about the title. It’s merely a byproduct and nothing that I’m striving to attain. ‘I can’t wait to get my hands on the UFC title!’ No, that’s not what I’m telling myself. The title is inconsequential to me, to be honest. The fight, the performance; that’s what precious to me. The work that I do to prepare for that, the levels that I achieve and skills that I acquire, that’s what is important to me. Being ready is what makes me feel like the shit and feel that I am ready. I do the work to make me feel the way I do.

“I don’t have to force myself to not be excited or to think about the title. It’s small to me, to be honest. That’s just my perspective.” 

Regardless of where exactly the almost mystical Cannonier derives his inspiration, it’s working. Since cutting down to 185 pounds in 2018, the MMA Lab product is 5-1 with four knockouts. His only loss during that stretch — a unanimous decision against Robert Whittaker in 2020 — saw Cannonier fight through a broken arm and damaged eye socket in order to hurt and nearly stop the former champion in the final round. 

Cannonier dismissively refuses to classify his performance against Whittaker in defeat as any kind of turning point. But it’s clear the two performances he put forth immediately in wins against Kelvin Gastelum and Derek Brunson that his technique and confidence rose to an altogether new level. 

“The dude [Whittaker] broke my arm in the first minute of the fight. The first round was the hardest round of that fight,” Cannonier said. “You sustain a traumatic injury like that and I didn’t wince, I just thought in my mind, ‘F—, here we go. What can I do?’ Nothing really clicked, I’m just getting better with each camp and hour I spent on the mat. I’m not wasting my time. I’m just acquiring new skills and getting better.” 

And then there’s the topic of Adesanya, who will be looking for the fifth defense of the middleweight title he won in 2019 by knocking out Whittaker. Cannonier is far less focused on preparing to counter what Adesanya does best, but he does admit to having found holes in the champion’s game that he can exploit after watching tape.  

The inevitable question for any Adesanya opponent is whether they believe they can overcome his stingy takedown defense and win the fight largely in top position on the ground, similar to the way Jan Blachowicz rallied to edge Adesanya in their light heavyweight title bout in March 2021. 

“It’s an MMA fight so he will try and stay on his feet. He will try to keep me at arm’s length,” Cannoier said. “He definitely doesn’t want to be fighting in close to me. I perceive him moving around a lot to keep me from getting my hands on him. If he’s in range, I might grab ahold of him and he will feel that strength. I’ll throw him on the ground and people know what happens when I start putting on ground and pound. 

“If he wants to move around and dance and try and style bend in this fight, I’ll bend the bender. I’ll bend but I won’t break. I’ll bend with him and we will see who can hold up the longest.” 

Cannoier refers to mentally navigating a high-level MMA fight as something that’s “primal yet super sophisticated and elegant at the same time.” But he’s far more connected to the spiritual side of his mental preparation than wasting any time reflecting back on where he came from and how he got here.  

The fighter who calls himself “The Killa Gorilla” is purposely choosing to live in the present in order to not miss the opportunity that’s in front of him.  

“When I step into that Octagon, whomever I am fighting goes away. If your name is Robert or Kelvin or Derek or Israel, that shit goes away,” Cannonier said. “We don’t even use names when we are in there fighting, to be honest. I’m not even Jared Cannonier in there. We are just physical beings and physical vessels with our own will to take advantage of this situation we call life. 

“I don’t concern myself with the past and what happened, I am on the path. I came from there; it’s apart of me and ingrained in me. I don’t need to come out of the now. Going back to thinking like, ‘Wow, I used to be a fatass.’ No. I am only looking forward. If I’m looking back, I’m going back. That’s anxiety and that’s not beneficial to me winning a UFC title, that’s for damn sure.” 

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