It’s time for Jared Cannonier to show us who he is.
Just 10 months ago, everything was laid out for Cannonier (13-5). He was 3-0 as a UFC middleweight, and the defending champion of his division, Israel Adesanya, was saying his name — instead of the other way around. Adesanya wanted to fight Cannonier. A title shot was basically imminent.
Until Cannonier lost to Robert Whittaker in a five-round main event in October.
And that’s been the story with Cannonier, who faces Kelvin Gastelum (17-7) at UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Las Vegas. It’s been easy to get excited about Cannonier. When he wins, he looks spectacular doing so. He appears to have all of the intangibles. He’s athletic, powerful, well-rounded and an intelligent competitor.
But if you study his career, it’s fair to say he has come up short in his biggest tests. When he was at light heavyweight, he couldn’t beat Jan Blachowicz (the current champ). Nor could he get by Dominick Reyes (a former title challenger) or Glover Teixeira (the next title challenger).
When he dropped to middleweight in 2018, he began his run with three consecutive finishes — although, it bears mentioning the three opponents he beat (David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson) are a combined 3-8 since the start of 2018. Once Cannonier ran into a former champ in Whittaker, he took his first loss in the weight class.
There’s a reason Cannonier is the UFC’s No. 3-ranked middleweight. And there are reasons Adesanya was excited about a potential matchup against him. He can be dominant; he has shown that capability. He’s a very dangerous task for anyone on any given night. He would be a very intriguing title challenger.
And that title shot is right there for the taking, but Cannonier has to win the kind of fight that’s in front of him on Saturday. He has to prove he can put away an elite opponent, which Gastelum is. If Cannonier does that, I believe we’ll see him in a title fight in 2022, and I believe the sport will be very excited for it.
By the numbers
2: Fighters with knockouts in three UFC weight classes. Cannonier is one of them, scoring KOs at heavyweight and light heavy before doing so at middleweight. The other is Conor McGregor (featherweight, lightweight, welterweight).
5: Fight-night bonuses awarded to Gastelum, tying him for fourth most among active middleweights.
84.6%: Finish rate for Cannonier (nine KOs and two submissions in 13 wins). Gastelum also has 11 UFC finishes (six KOs, five submissions), but he has 17 wins, putting his finish rate at 65%.
1-4: Gastelum’s record since April 2019, when he lost to Israel Adesanya in an interim title bout. Prior to that, Gastelum had been 10-3 in the UFC with one no contest.
6: Knockdowns in the UFC by Gastelum, ranking him fifth among active 185-pounders.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Jared Cannonier’s most recent results
Loss: Robert Whittaker (UD, Oct. 24, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jack Hermansson (TKO2, Sept. 28, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Anderson Silva (TKO1, May 11, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: David Branch (TKO2, Nov. 3, 2018)
Loss: Dominick Reyes (TKO1, May 19, 2018)
Kelvin Gastelum’s most recent results
Loss: Robert Whittaker (UD, April 17, 2021; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ian Heinisch (UD, Feb. 13, 2021; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Jack Hermansson (Sub1, July 19, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Darren Till (SD, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Israel Adesanya (UD, April 13, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
And the winner is …
“It’s interesting because they’re polar opposites, in my opinion,” said James Krause, MMA Glory coach. “What I like about Cannonier is his strength always seems to carry, because he dealt with heavyweights in the past. He’s very athletic, very explosive. Good hand speed. And Gastelum, I really don’t look at him as super athletic. I don’t look at him as super fast. But one thing he is, he’s deceivingly fast. His timing is incredible. He puts combinations together really well.”
Check out how Krause and other experts break down the main event and predict a winner.
How to watch the fights
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Saturday’s fight card
ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET
Middleweight: Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Lightweight: Clay Guida vs. Mark O. Madsen
Heavyweight: Chase Sherman vs. Parker Porter
Men’s bantamweight: Saidyokub Kakhramonov vs. Trevin Jones
Lightweight: Vinc Pichel vs. Austin Hubbard
Flyweight: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval
ESPN2/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET
Men’s featherweight: Austin Lingo vs. Luis Saldana
Men’s bantamweight: Brian Kelleher vs. Domingo Pilarte
Women’s bantamweight: Bea Malecki vs. Josiane Nunes
Light Heavyweight: William Knight vs. Fabio Cherant
Lightweight: Roosevelt Roberts vs. Ignacio Bahamondes
Welterweight: Sasha Palatnikov vs. Ramiz Brahimaj
Four more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. The co-main event features one of the UFC’s most experienced fighters. Clay Guida (36-17), who takes on undefeated lightweight Mark O. Madsen, will enter the Octagon for the 31st time, breaking a tie with Rafael Dos Anjos for the seventh-most fights in UFC history. The 39-year-old Guida, who was the inaugural Strikeforce lightweight champion 15 years ago, holds UFC lightweight records for most control time (1:53:17) and most top position time (1:24:02).
2. Bea Malecki (4-0) will have the only other undefeated record on the line when she faces UFC newcomer Josiane Nunes in a preliminary bout. With a win, Malecki would become the eighth fighter to start a UFC career with three wins at women’s bantamweight (joining ex-champs Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm).
3. A matchup of top flyweights kicks off the main card, as Alexandre Pantoja, No. 7 in ESPN’s 125-pound men’s rankings, faces ninth-ranked Brandon Royval. For Royval, this is his first appearance since suffering a shoulder injury in a TKO loss last November to Brandon Moreno, who went on to win the championship.
4. William Knight, who faces light heavyweight Fabio Cherant, is the biggest betting favorite on the card, at -290 at Caesars Sportsbook as of Monday. Should those odds hold, this would be the first event since UFC 262 in May without a favorite of -250 or greater. There have been nine events since then.
ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.