During Adesanya’s three-year reign, almost every defence has been defined by a display of deft striking, the former kickboxing champion utilising his height, range, slickness of movement and precise timing to create angles and openings. Ultimately, he dismantles his opponents.
The combination of those assets, and the enthralling offence in which they result, led to the knockout of Robert Whittaker that saw the fittingly-nicknamed “Last Stylebender” ascend to undisputed status in October 2019. It also led to the masterful deconstruction of Paulo Costa one year later, and proved effective enough to secure decision wins against Yoel Romero, old foe Marvin Vettori, and Whittaker in a rematch this February.
In stark contrast, Cannonier does not specialise in deconstruction but rather outright destruction. A former heavyweight and light heavyweight, the American has carried his brutalist barrages down to 185lbs, where he has gone 5-1 with four stoppage wins. David Branch barely made it into the second round against the “Killa Gorilla”. The same applied to Jack Hermansson. The legendary Anderson Silva was seconds away from making it to the end of the first round when he aggravated an old injury, his leg shattering against Cannnonier’s shin. Most recently Derek Brunson shared the Octagon with Cannonier, or rather shared the “Killa Gorilla”’s enclosure, where the wrestling specialist was excelling until he felt the brunt of his compatriot’s elbows drilling into his temple. Cannonier’s victory over the veteran, which came on the undercard of Adesanya’s rematch with Whittaker, sealed his spot as No 1 contender.
For all the above alliterative acclaim for both fighters, though, what matters most is who will be able to implement their best attributes more effectively. If that seems a somewhat verbose effort to avoid simply saying, ‘Styles make fights,’ that’s because it admittedly is.
Nevertheless, adages are generally defined by accuracy, and Cannonier (15-5) may lack the style to make this a fight in the sense of genuine competition.
The last time an opponent of Adesanya (22-1) entered a bout against the Nigerian-born New Zealander with power paving their clearest route to victory, the bricks were barely laid by the time the path had become a distinct dead-end.
Costa, despite a consensus of opinion, is not a one-shot knockout artist. The hulking Brazilian’s muscles glint impressively under arena lights, but they are less conducive to finishing opponents than one would think. In Costa’s case, it has actually been volume striking rather than brute force that has secured most of the middleweight’s success. Still, for the sake of avoiding verbosity this time: He packs a serious punch. The issue for Costa was that power means nothing without contact.
That problem could also plague Cannonier in the main event of UFC 276 this weekend.
It may be unfair to dismiss Cannonier as one-dimensional, but he certainly lacks the dynamism of Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum – the middleweights who have come closest to beating Adesanya – and Jan Blachowicz, who handed “Stylebender” his sole professional loss while retaining the light heavyweight title against the 32-year-old last year. More importantly, Cannonier undoubtedly lacks the dynamism of Adesanya.
Adesanya almost exclusively attacks via strikes, only employing wrestling defensively. When he does lean on that element of grappling, opponents have historically found it very difficult to take him down. It has been even harder for them to keep him down. Blachowicz is the only fighter to have pinned down Adesanya, but the former 205lbs champion had a distinct size advantage. Vettori was able to take down Adesanya but saw the position impressively reversed by “Stylebender” each time. Whittaker got Adesanya to the mat but frustratedly watched his rival rise back to his feet on every occasion.
All three knew that offensive wrestling marked their best chance of defeating Adesanya. Vettori and Whittaker had already experienced first-hand how the 32-year-old expertly uses feints to set traps and lure his opponents into ill-timed, ill-advised entries that expose them to clinical counters.
The issue for Cannonier is that he does not possess the level of grappling that the above three fighters do. One would therefore not expect him to employ offensive wrestling at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena this Saturday, but that leaves the 38-year-old with one option: stand and trade with the best striker in the UFC.
That has not ended well for any of Adesanya’s opponents. There is little to suggest that it would end well for Cannonier.
But the challenger is a calm character who will not panic if things are not going his way; he showed that against Brunson and ended up securing a spectacular knockout. Indeed, Cannonier must be prepared for there to be long periods in which the UFC 276 main event is not going his way.
If he can remain patient, and if he can create contact, then maybe – just maybe – Cannonier can score a stunning KO and equally stunning upset.
It may be his only hope. It certainly seems to be his only option.