UFC 254 Whittaker vs. Cannonier Preview

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Before the highly anticipated main event of UFC 254, we take a closer look at an equally awe inspiring matchup. Former champion Robert Whittaker (22-5) takes on a man who’s looked unstoppable since his drop to middleweight; Jared Cannonier (13-4). Today, we take a look at the skills and tendencies of both fighters. But first, we take a dive into the buildup of this matchup, as well as what’s at stake for both men; win or lose.

Words from the Champ

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After his dominant title defense against Paulo Costa (right), Israel Adesanya (left) was very vocal about his view on the Whittaker and Cannonier fight.

“I told you guys, Anderson Silva lived a great legacy and I said I wanted to do service to the middleweight division and that is a hard act to follow but we’re doing the work, 100 percent.”

“So I already DM’d Cannonier, he’s a hell of a dude, I love his energy. He’s a beautiful, beautiful man. And I said ‘You destroy Robert Whittaker and you’re next’. He’s the one I want to fight next. He deserves it if he beats Robert Whittaker handily and dominates him, he’s next.”

“I think Jared is going to dust Whittaker and I look forward to fighting him, what we said in the DMs, he said he wants to get it done and I look forward to that. But if Whittaker wins and he wants to get knocked out a third time, I can make that happen too.” – Israel Adesanya

Bold words from the champ! Obviously, this has got to motivate not only Cannonier; but Robert Whittaker as well. This fight is obviously a #1 contenders match and the stakes are high. For Cannonier, a fighter who was once on a 3 fight losing streak; he’s hoping to realize a title shot and take the throne. For Robert, he’s looking to continue to prove he’s still got what it takes to be considered one of the best in the world. It’s sure to be a hell of a fight, fit for such a stacked pay per view card.

Robert Whittaker

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The Australian native Robert Whittaker first got his chance in the UFC after winning a contract on “The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes”. This was a welterweight tournament, and back when he first entered the UFC this was Whittaker’s class of choice.

After going 3-2 at welterweight, with losses to Court McGee and Stephen Thompson, Robert would make the move up to middleweight. This is where he really went on a giant run, putting on a 7 fight win streak with names over the likes of; Ronaldo Souza, Derek Brunson, and Uriah Hall to earn an interim championship match against Yoel Romero at UFC 213. This was the first of Whittaker’s two 5 round wars with Romero. Both would earn the men “fight of the night”, and Robert would be the victor of both battles. Although the last one was a split decision that could’ve went either way in the hearts of the fans.

After GSP vacated the title shortly after UFC 213, Robert Whittaker was promoted to Undisputed Middleweight Champion. Yoel Romero missed weight ahead of their second matchup, and so he never truly was a title challenger.

What followed, was a stint as a coach on TUF against Kelvin Gastelum, and a bout between the two scheduled for UFC 234. However, Robert Whittaker would pull out of that match because of a need for emergency dual surgery, due to an abdominal hernia of the intestine and a twisted and collapsed bowel.

By the time Whittaker was recovered and ready to defend his title, he had his own Interim Champion to defend against. Unlike GSP, Robert would not be retiring. What would ensue would be a match against Israel Adesanya scheduled for UFC 243.

Defeat, and Redemption

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At UFC 243; Israel Adesanya (left) def. Robert Whittaker (right) in rd. 2 via KO

For Robert, what spelled his doom at UFC 243 was the rushing in to strike. At the end of rd. 1, Israel Adesanya would counter Rob on one such rush in an attempt and drop him. Rd 2, he won in the exact same fashion. For Robert Whittaker, one could call it ring rust; or maybe say that he underestimated Israel. People said that the wars with Yoel had left him sapped. That his chin was gone. Robert was left defeated, and the doubters were speculating.

It was obvious he had a terrible game plan coming into that fight. Israel Adesanya is a counter striker, and Robert was playing into his advantage by boldly rushing in with combos. Many were left wondering how he would bounce back from such a loss, and against Darren Till at UFC Fight Island 3; he would answer the questions. Winning by decision, and showing a more versatile approach; despite still getting dropped from rushing in. Whittaker proved the naysayers wrong and came back strong from his loss.

Tendencies and Skills

First off, there’s an elephant in the room I’ve got the need to address. It’s just a tendency that not only have I noticed; but Israel Adesanya and Till as well.

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Notice, Whittaker’s propensity to dip his head down and to his right side. This is something he often does before rushing in or throwing combos. In the fight with Till, he rushes in; leading with his head a tad down and to the side. Watch what Till meets him with.

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Israel Adesanya beat him in a similar fashion. Instead of meeting Whittaker with an elbow, Adesanya threw a right hook, sidestepped, and met him with a left hook. This is Whittaker’s glaring tendency. His propensity to dip his head down and to the side, and also his propensity to rush in with his combos. Will Cannonier counter Whittaker in a similar fashion? It remains to be seen.

Style and Skills

First and foremost, The Aussie native is a self-described “Striker”, but that doesn’t mean he’s inept on the ground. Whittaker’s got 5 victories by sub, and he’s only been finished once that way in his career. Robert Whittaker’s lead hand plays a vital role in his striking. He likes to lunge in with a sharp jab to set up his combos. His left hook is devastating going forwards or back.

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Toughness, Speed and Power

For the welterweight that outgrew his division, Robert Whittaker moved up and was definitely one of the faster and more explosive guys in the division. He developed a knack for weathering damage, and hanging in there with fast and powerful opponents. Including: Brad Tavares, Uriah Hall, Derek Brunson, Ronaldo Souza, and last but not least; Yoel Romero. In fact, you can see the UFC had a pattern of matching him up with the other explosive and powerful fighters of the division.

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In his middleweight debut against Clint Hester, Robert Whittaker would display his toughness and explosiveness. Weathering the storm from Hester, and gradually wearing the man down. Another facet of Whittaker’s game I’d like to highlight is the way he quickly grabs for the Thai clinch to knee the head. This is something that could easily win a fight as it basically did against Hester; something Robert even utilized in his most recent fight against Till.

The unique left hook of Whittaker

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As opposed to generating power from rotating the hips into the strike; Robert Whittaker can be seen here lunging forward and using momentum to create the power. Rob can be seen doing this with a lot of his strikes. In certain situations; instead of rotating his hips into a strike, he’ll throw his entire body and momentum into it.

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Here against Derek Brunson, watch as Robert plants that back right-foot hard on the canvas; then throws his body into a hard left hook. Instead of a rotation of the hips, it’s more of a lean/lunge forward with the head and torso into the strike.

An Intelligent Presence under Pressure, and Great kicks

It should also be mentioned; that Whittaker usually does very well when pressured. His left hook is a key weapon when dealing with the pressure, and he’s very adept at leading an opponent into it. The man is very smart with the way he utilizes his, and his opponents momentum in battles. The way he uses momentum to set up his strikes is beautiful, and facing a man like Cannonier who likes to pressure; it could be very important.

Whittaker is also an excellent kicker. He sets his head kicks up well, and times them nicely. Robert also spreads his kicks out between the head, body and legs very well.

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Remember the lunging jab that we discussed previously? Watch how he sets up his head kick with it, and notice how Whittaker throws it uniquely. He turns to the side and really leans into it.

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Its essentially a ducking roundhouse. Once again; it’s set up and timed very well.

Jared Cannonier

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Jared Cannonier pictured in order from left to right; at Heavyweight, Light Heavyweight, and Middleweight.

Jared “The Killa Gorilla” is coming straight out of Dallas, Texas. The man is 36 years old, and after a tough beginning to his UFC career; he’s bounced back at middleweight and has been undefeated in the 185 pound division so far.

Most fighters usually join the UFC at the lightest weight class they can compete at. Over time, growing out of their division and moving up to heavier weight classes. That can’t be said for all fighters though, to name a few; we’ve got people like Frankie Edgar and Cody Garbrandt that began their careers at their “natural” weight class; and have since moved down in weight.

Frankie was always a miniature 155er and 145er. Much like Cannonier, he’s now moved down two weight classes where he fights at 135 today. While Edgar made the cut to 135, Jared Cannonier made an even bigger one. The heavyweight (non title) limit is an astonishing 266 pounds. A far mark from the 186 pound (non title) weight limit he must make now. Cannonier started as one of the goliath’s of the sport. However, after going 1-1 in his first two fights with the UFC at heavyweight (with a KO loss, and a KO victory), Jared made the drop to Light Heavyweight.

Struggles at 205

While Jared Cannonier won his debut fight at Light Heavyweight against Ion Cutelaba in a “fight of the night” performance, Jared couldn’t win against the top contenders. He faced Glover Teixeira next and suffered a loss via decision. Cannonier would bounce back with a victory over Nick Roehrick via TKO in rd. 3. Only to suffer back to back losses against Jan Blachowicz via Decision, and Dominick Reyes via rd. 1 TKO. So, at 2-3, Jared Cannonier would make yet another drop in weight. This time, finding the perfect spot for success.

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Jared Cannonier (left) during his match against Jack Hermansson (right)

The rebirth of “The Killa Gorilla” at 185 pounds

At UFC 230, Cannonier would face David Branch and win by TKO in rd. 2. Next, came a win over the legend Anderson Silva; after a leg kick from Jared rendered Silva unable to continue. The fight with Jack Hermansson came later. Cannonier would impress once again with another TKO victory. Marking his third finish in a row; and working his way into title contention.

After his battle with Jack Hermansson at UFC Copenhagen, Jared would serve as a back up for the title fight between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero. The bout was scheduled for UFC 248 on March 7th, 2020. However, on February 14th; Cannonier would announce that he had torn a pectoral muscle and would be expected to sit out for 6 months. Now, “The Killa Gorilla” is ready to return to action; against Robert Whittaker at UFC 254.

Style and Skills

While largely untested so far at middleweight; everyone he has fought at 185 he has beaten in pretty tremendous fashion. One thing that stands out to me about Cannonier is he is patient and calculated in his attacks. When he lands clean, it’s big trouble at 185. Let’s look at his power.

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Here against David Branch, he takes one to give one. Firing back with an overhand that sits him down. This is just one clean shot, mind you.

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Notice the jab/feint from Jared that forces the level change out of Jack Hermansson here. Right into this lovely uppercut. Jared Cannonier’s power at 185 even lends a hand in helping to defend the takedown.

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In this grappling exchange along the fence, we see Cannonier muscle his way back into striking distance. In fact, Jared showed great takedown defense against Branch and Hermansson. Which makes me wonder how effective Whittaker’s grappling game will be; if he seeks to implement it. To me, It seems Jared has devastating power and it has stuck with him on his climb down the weight classes.

For someone with such power, he exercises such patience. This to me, is a beautiful aspect of his game. Being the guy dropping from heavyweight; Jared could easily just come in like a brawler and try and recklessly swing his way to a victory (*cough cough* Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik). However, he’s refined. Cool, calm, and collected. It’s a beautiful style, and I’m excited to see how he matches up against Whittaker.

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Notice the patience. Just a steady, consistent pressure; timing his kicks flawlessly against a legend. Something I admire about Cannonier is those effortless little feints and misdirections he gives. The lazy body shot that sets up the real killer: the leg kick.

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Here, a culmination of all the steady leg kicks. Dropping Anderson Silva and causing the ref to step in. One thing to be said for “The Killa Gorilla” is he hasn’t really faced the true cream of the crop at middleweight yet. Jack Hermansson was the closest he’s had to the top competition at that weight.

Keys to victory

Robert Whittaker:

For Robert, I’d say his biggest key to victory will be staying mobile, and checking/avoiding the leg kicks while also dishing out his own. I think the leg kicks will be very important for this fight. If I’m Whittaker, I’m looking to stay away from the power of Cannonier. So I don’t want to be immobilized by the crippling leg kicks of Jared.

I think another key to victory for Robert is controlling the fight. I’m talking about distance and the way in which he can initiate the striking or grappling exchanges. Whittaker does well when he’s able to dart in and land combos.

If Cannonier pressures him too much, it will be key for Rob to circle and try and avoid getting trapped against the cage. He wants to be out in the open; where he can utilize his creative movement. Overall, I’d say his best bet is to stay at proper distance and sort of piece Jared apart if he can. Otherwise, I’m curious to see if Whittaker can implement any grappling against Cannonier. Or, at least land a cheeky strike off of a faked takedown. Which is something Robert did beautifully against Till a few times.

Jared Cannonier:

For “The Killa Gorilla” I’ve got to say; I’d be looking to set up a counter and possibly KO or drop Whittaker early. While both of these warriors have KO power, I feel like Cannonier has more. This remains to be seen, but it seems the logical choice thinking that Whittaker is a former Welterweight whereas Cannonier the Heavyweight turned Middleweight. Which leads me to my next key; I’d like to see Cannonier clinch up early to get a gauge of the strength situation, and see how much of an advantage he has.

Can he be the one to implement his grappling on Whittaker? I’m excited to see, but here is something to consider: I believe In 10 rounds with Romero, Whittaker was only taken down three times. I don’t think he stayed down for longer than a minute combined… So will Cannonier do better than Romero? Hard to tell, but I’m leaning no. Meaning this fight probably takes place on the feet.

Just as a key for Rob was avoiding/checking the leg kicks, and dishing out his own; the same should be for Jared. In today’s MMA; where it seems one perfectly placed leg kick has the power to incapacitate a fighter, it should be essential to utilize this technique. I see Rob being the one getting pressured by Cannonier, so I think cutting the cage, and taking the right angles will be essential when fighting a man who utilizes great movement like Whittaker. You don’t wanna run into one of those left hooks, right?

Prediction

So, as usual, I’ll be going with experience here. I’ve got Robert Whittaker by KO/TKO, or decision. Not that it means much, but in my opinion; Rob has got the tools to win this one. As long as he doesn’t get caught with a power shot from Cannonier; I see Robert darting in and landing often.

I think Whittaker will have a speed advantage, and as long as Jared’s leg kicks don’t immobilize him; he should be able to outmaneuver “The Killa Gorilla”. This ones gonna be close, and I’m excited to see!

As always, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed! Big shout out to our editor Sam for all the hard work, and as always; enjoy the fights!


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