Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker is right back at the top of the division -- and some would say he never left.
Whittaker (22-5) defeated Jared Cannonier (13-5) via unanimous decision in the co-main event of UFC 254 on Saturday on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. It is Whittaker's second win in three months, as he outpointed Darren Till in a close fight in July in Abu Dhabi. Whittaker is now 2-0 since losing his title to Israel Adesanya in October 2019.
Adesanya (20-0) is still the champion and has defended the belt twice. The champ had picked Cannonier to win on Saturday and be his next title challenger, but Whittaker spoiled those plans.
"Straight off the back of my last fight, we diligently worked on a game plan [for Cannonier]," Whittaker said. "We know he's aggressive. Followed [the plan] to a T and got a very classy win."
UFC president Dana White said an Adesanya-Whittaker fight makes sense.
"Israel has a lot of options, but the fight that makes the most sense right now is Whittaker," White said. "I thought Cannonier was going to be a much tougher challenge for him. He looked good tonight."
Whittaker's game plan relied heavily on his jab and a sneaky right head kick, which rocked Cannonier early in the third round and nearly ended the fight. After landing a stiff two-punch combination down the middle, Whittaker elevated the head kick and had Cannonier visibly staggered. He eventually fell down and Whittaker jumped on him looking for a finish, but Cannonier managed to gain his guard and survive.
Later in the third round, Cannonier actually rocked Whittaker with a right hand that had him in survival mode, but Whittaker changed levels, shot into Cannonier's hips and tied him up along the fence to regain his wits.
"I was hoping," said Whittaker, when asked if he felt he was close to a finish. "You never really know. He's tough. He's resilient. I thought I had him, but he stayed in and got back up and started putting it on me. It was a good fight."
Cannonier, who trains out of MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, had a lot of early success with leg kicks, but Whittaker's jab and in-and-out movement eventually took over the fight. Whittaker's lead leg was red as early as the first round, but it never compromised his movement. Conversely, Whittaker caused Cannonier's right eye to swell badly in the middle frame with the repeated use of his jab.