UFC Vegas 34: Cannonier eyes Adesanya's title after Gastelum

Ahead of the UFC Vegas 34 main event with Kelvin Gastelum, Cannonier opens up on his title aspirations, Robert Whittaker and the move from heavyweight.

American fighter Jared Cannonier will meet Kelvin Gastelum on Saturday.   -  GETTY IMAGES

After 18 MMA bouts across three weight classes, American fighter Jared Cannonier gears up for a showdown with the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 17 -- Kelvin Gastelum -- on Saturday at UFC Vegas 34.

Both No.3 middleweight contender Cannonier and No.9 Gastelum are coming off unanimous decision losses to former champion Robert Whittaker. A win at the UFC Apex in Nevada could guarantee either of them a shot at Israel Adesanya's belt.

Cannonier was scheduled to face No.2-ranked Paulo Costa on August 21. But the Brazilian pulled out due to his UFC contract issues. Gastelum stepped in and took Costa's place for the Las Vegas Fight Night.

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"UFC first called me to propose a fight with Costa. That didn't happen due to his contractual issues. Luckily, we had a ranked opponent not booked, Kelvin Gastelum. I've been following him since Ultimate Fighter, where he fought Uriah Hall in the finale," Cannonier told UFC.com.

"I've seen him go from a lower weight class to a higher one and fight guys bigger than him. I'm excited to be fighting someone of that calibre. He's fought for the interim title before. His name has been dangling at the top for the longest time."

Cannonier spoke about his preparations for next weekend's high-profile clash as well. "Kelvin is smart. If he wants to win, he'll wrestle me early. He has the better wrestling credentials. However, I will be waiting for him to fall into my trap. I want to do to him what I wanted to do to Robert -- go for it right from the bell. If he can last the first round, I'll tip my hat and buy him a drink."

"We have some heavier guys at the MMA Lab in Arizona for sparring. There's Kyle Stewart, and Diego Bencomo is a great wrestler who has helped me a lot. He resembles Gastelum. So, when we do rounds, I refer to him as Kelvin," quipped Cannonier.

The king of the 185-pounders, Adesanya, called Cannonier the dark horse of the division ahead of his fight with Whittaker at UFC 254 in October last year. The Auckland-based titleholder even backed Cannonier to become his future challenger.

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However, the 37-year-old star, who's managed 13 career wins, broke his left arm in the opening round against Whittaker, eventually slumping to his first middleweight defeat. It took Cannonier over six months to fully recover and book his upcoming fight. "I knew I broke my hand back then. You shouldn't be blocking a kick with your arm. When I flexed my left, there was some movement. It's not fun trying to fly with a broken wing. But I managed to do it for 14 minutes. Robert is a tough guy to get hold of, and he's very crafty, good at managing his space. It was a learning experience. Maybe I'll take another shot at him someday," said Cannonier.

The Killa Gorilla also explained his move from the heavyweight to the middleweight division. "I was not a natural heavyweight. When I got into MMA, I was pretty big. I beat Cyril Asker in my second UFC fight. There were eight more heavyweights on that main card (April 2016) in Zagreb -- Francis Ngannou, Derrick Lewis, Junior dos Santos to name a few. They were all bigger than me," he added.

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"Seeing them put it into perspective. If I want to pursue an MMA career after quitting my previous full-time job, I have to be smart about it. It was a lot of work to cut the weight off. We came up with a cleaner diet and a stricter exercise regimen. I got a lot of support from my wife, and it felt good."

Cannonier then attributed his inability to put on the pounds in time as the reason for not continuing to compete with light heavyweights. "The move to 185 was a consequential one. When I showed up to the fight Dominick Reyes (May 2018), I was 203lbs. I had to eat a bit to make weight. It was a no-brainer to move to middleweight. My body has settled here, and I'm knocking on the door for a championship opportunity as a complete fighter. It's my 11th year since turning professional, and I still feel enthusiastic," he stated.

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