UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya had marked Jared Cannonier as his next challenger, so long as he defeated Robert Whittaker at UFC 254.

But Whittaker (22-5 MMA, 13-3 UFC) had something to say about that in Saturday’s co-main event. The former UFC middleweight champ scored an impressive victory in a compelling scrap at Flash Forum on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, earning 29-28 scores across the board.

That gives Whittaker two straight wins since losing the title to Adesanya at UFC 242 and 11 wins in his past 12 fights dating back to 2014.

Cannonier (13-5 MMA, 6-5 UFC) relied heavily on punishing leg kicks in his rise thought the 185-pound division, and he announced his intentions early as he briefly dropped Whittaker with an outside leg kick in one of the fight’s first exchanges.

But while Cannonier beat Whittaker’s legs raw with kicks, Whittaker is one of the game’s toughest customers, and he took the shots and kept moving forward. Whittaker’s left jab is one of the most powerful and efficient in MMA, and he found a home with them early and often, then followed up with straight rights whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The fight’s first two rounds continued in this manner, with Cannonier throwing kicks, but Whittaker throwing punches at a higher volume. And while it felt like something near a stalemate over the first round and a half, by the midway point of Round 2, Cannonier’s right eye began to swell, and Whittaker seemed to have more in the tank.

This was affirmed in the third when Whittaker landed a combo, then dropped Cannonier with a head kick that would have finished many foes. Cannonier managed to fight through the ensuing flurry and get back to his feet. He also seemed to recognize he needed a finish, as he picked up the pace over the remainder of the round, but Whittaker answered right back and never gave Cannonier the opportunity for a home run shot.

The middleweight bout was the UFC 254 co-main event at Flash Forum at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. It aired on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN2 and ESPN+.

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