Robert Whittaker made his case to challenge Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title again with a unanimous decision win over Jared Cannonier in the co-main event of UFC 254 from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday.
Whittaker reminded fans why he used to be the middleweight championship with a strong striking performance against a game Cannonier.
Cannonier's leg kicks were a story early. He landed several kicks behind the knee of The Reaper in the first frame, looking to make the former champion less mobile. Meanwhile, Whittaker answered by establishing his jab and forcing Cannonier to reset.
Both fighters had good moments as they attempted to implement their game plans:
That dynamic continued into the second round. The combatants amplified their strategies, but the rules of engagement stayed mostly the same. Cannonier continued to chop away at the lead leg, but Whittaker's jab and straights were also effective.
Whittaker's volume appeared to have him ahead on the cards going into the third and final round:
The fight took a sharp turn in the third round. Whittaker unleashed a combination punctuated by a head kick that had Cannonier stumbling to the mat, allowing some time for Whittaker to score points in top position:
He wasn't able to finish, but it was enough to lock up the fight and put him back in the middleweight title conversation.
The win was the second in a row for Whittaker since he lost his belt to Adesanya at UFC 243. That knockout loss ended Whittaker's standing as the top middleweight in the world, but his performance against Cannonier paired with a decision win over Darren Till in his previous bout make it hard to deny he's better than anyone other than The Last Stylebender.
The Australian started his UFC career in the welterweight division but made the move to 185 pounds in 2014 and hasn't looked back. The loss to Adesanya is his only defeat in the division, and while he wasn't necessarily calling for a rematch in the run-up to UFC 254, he made it clear he's looking to fight the best of the best.
"Honestly, I don't care [about a title shot]," he told UFC Australia. "I'm just going to fight anybody they put in front of me. That's what I'm here to do. And I'm sure that after I beat a lot of them, I'll be somewhere near the top."
It's not likely Whittaker will need to beat too many top challengers before making it clear he should have another shot at Adesanya. The Reaper has defeated Yoel Romero twice and holds a win over Till, and Paulo Costa just lost in emphatic fashion to the champion.
Cannonier lost for the first time since moving down to middleweight. The 36-year-old came to the division on a 1-3 run at light heavyweight and won by technical knockout in three straight fights after moving down.
Middleweight is still the weight class for him, but this result will take him out of the running for a title shot for a while.