The top two contenders in the middleweight division met in the UFC 254 co-main event on Saturday at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Former champion and No. 1 ranked Robert Whittaker and No. 2 ranked Jared Cannonier were originally slated to face off at UFC 248 in March, but Whittaker withdrew from the bout due to personal reasons. The bout was rescheduled for Saturday and proved worth the wait.
Cannonier entered the fight riding a three-fight winning streak and was unbeaten in the 185-pound division. For Whittaker, he rebounded in his previous outing with a dominating win over Darren Till.
Whittaker established his jab early as he bounced on the outside. Cannonier targeted Whittaker’s legs, knocking him down with a leg kick early in the opening frame.
Whittaker outworked Cannonier and dictated the pace of the fight. As the bout wore on, Whittaker’s jab began to land more often and the wear was showing on Cannonier’s face.
The biggest moment in the bout came in the final round. Whittaker threws a combination and ended it with a kick that staggered Cannonier. Whittaker went on the attack, knocking Cannonier down. He followed Cannonier to the canvas and advanced to the mount position. Cannonier rolled, giving up his back before scrambling back to his feet.
Once they were back standing, Cannonier stunned Whittaker with a right hand. Whittaker quickly clinched and rode out the final seconds of the fight. After 15 minutes of fighting, all the judges scored the bout for Whittaker by unanimous decision. All three scorecards read 29-28.
“I’m very happy that it’s all over. Obviously, we got the result that we wanted,” Whittaker said following the win. “He’s tough. He’s resilient. I thought I had him gone. He stayed in. Then he got back up and started putting it on me. It was a good fight. He’s a tough guy.”
With the win, Whittaker solidified his place as the top contender in the division and next in line to face champion Israel Adesanya in his next bout. The two previously fought at UFC 243 on Oct. 6 with Adesanya winning by knockout.
Whittaker wasn’t thinking about a rematch against Adesanya on Saturday. He was focused on getting home to his family.
“I’m going straight home and putting up my Christmas tree. I promised the kids,” he said. “That’s what’s happening.”