Former middleweight king Robert Whittaker rediscovered his championship pedigree on Saturday and Jared Cannonier paid the price for it during their No. 1 contender bout at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.
The three-round co-main event inside Flash Forum on Yas Island was a showcase of Whittaker's pinpoint and powerful striking as he floored Cannonier (13-5) in Round 3 with a head kick and nearly stopped him en route to a victory by unanimous decision. All three judges scored the fight 29-28 for Whittaker (22-5).
The win all but guarantees the 29-year-old Whittaker, who rebounded with a decision win over Darren Till in July, a shot at regaining his 185-pound title. Whittaker was stopped by current champion Israel Adesanya last October in Australia.
"I'm very happy it's all over," Whittaker said. "Obviously, the result is what we wanted. The work is done and I'm coming home."
Whittaker was forced to remain leery of the red-hot Cannonier's fight-ending power. But although Cannonier was able to create bright red blotches around the left knee of Whittaker with hard kicks, he found himself consistently on the business end of Whittaker's quick jab and right cross.
Cannonier, a former heavyweight who had won three straight since arriving at 185 pounds, was wobbled by a jab in Round 2 and saw his left eye begin to swell up. Whittaker took him down later in the round and continued to dominate until the final bell.
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"I thought it played out like I thought it would. It's a fight, we're throwing punches, they're going to land sometimes. He's a tough guy, he was in it from the start to the end and it was a privilege to fight him," Whittaker said after the fight. "Honestly, it's a blessing to be able to work in these crazy times, is amazing. How professional everything is, how professional the UFC have things set up, is amazing and I'm truly blessed."
The final round saw Whittaker drop the 36-year-old Cannonier with a combination that began with a right hand and ended with a flush kick to the face. Whittaker swarmed him and landed big punches on the ground from full mount which forced Cannonier to give up his back and fight off a choke attempt.
But Cannonier showed no quit at all and worked back to his feet with two minutes to go. He went on to wobble Whittaker in the final minute with a big right hand but was unable to rally any further.
"I was hoping [to finish him] but you never really know," Whittaker said. "He's tough and he's resilient. I thought I had him going but he stayed in and then he got back up. He's a tough guy."
After the win, Whittaker chose not to call out Adesanya ahead of a possible All-Oceanic rematch and instead focused on more immediate business at hand in his home of Australia.
"I'm going straight home to put up my Christmas tree," Whittaker said. "I promised the kids and everyone is stoked so that's what is happening."
For complete results and highlights from UFC 254, click here