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The Stakes Are High As Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum Prepare for Their Showdown

The Weekly Takedown: What the middleweight fighters have in common as they prepare to face off, picks for each bout in ‘UFC on ESPN 30’ and more.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s newest look at MMA. Every week, this column will offer insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum are both in need of a win

Cannonier and Gastelum share a lot in common entering their UFC on ESPN 30 fight Saturday.

Both men are coming off a loss against Robert Whittaker, who is currently second behind top-ranked middleweight and reigning champ Israel Adesanya. Their defeats were each painful, though for different reasons—it was Cannonier’s first loss since his move to middleweight. That was compounded when he fractured his left ulna, which is the thinner and longer of the two bones in the forearm, in the opening round of a bout that went the distance.

“The sting from the Whittaker fight was overlapped by the severity of my injury,” says Cannonier (13–5). “And after the loss, I’ve had even more vigor and inspiration to get back in there and back to work.”

Jared Cannonier weekly takedown

For Gastelum (16–7, 1 NC), his loss against Whittaker was the fourth in his last five fights. Currently ranked ninth, he is also on the precipice of dropping out of the top 10, though a victory against the third-ranked Cannonier would go a long way in reestablishing his standing in the division.

“When people count me out, that’s when I’m at my best,” says Gastelum. “I’ve found a renewed focus and energy and motivation, and had one of the best training camps we’ve ever had. I’m coming into this fight very confident. The way we’ve structured my training camp is unlike any other we’ve had before. We’re extremely happy with where we are and where we’re going.”

Neither Cannonier nor Gastelum wants to suffer the indignity of a second straight defeat. It’s also possible 29-year-old Gastelum could be cut following another loss—but even with this recent skid, that still seems unlikely to occur at this juncture. So both will looking for a victory, seeking to exert their will and prove their worth Saturday night.

“The opposition Kelvin presents, he is definitely going to bring out a better version of myself,” says Cannonier, who is 37 and seems to improve with age. “He fights with a lot of pressure, which I’m elated about. He tries to bring the assault, and I’m going to tell him, ‘Hell no, you can’t come into my house and do that.’ I love that about this game. You get to overpower another person through technique.

“As long as Kelvin has been here, he’s been on the top of the division. He’s fought all of the biggest names in the division. So s---, man, I’m excited to get in there and mix it up with that guy.”

This is the third fight of 2021 for Gastelum, the first time he has fought three times in a year since ’17. Fully aware of Cannonier’s strengths in the cage, Gastelum is prepared to counter his opponent’s power.

“I respect his power and his size,” said Gastelum. “He packs that heavyweight punch, so we’re going to respect his power. But my left hand, he’ll have to respect that, too.”

With Whittaker next in line for a title shot, a win would help Cannonier jump Paulo Costa and help him stake claim to the No. 2 ranking in the division. Ultimately, taking the middleweight championship is Cannonier’s long-term focus.

“The title, that’s my goal,” says Cannonier. “And I’d sure like those big-ass paychecks that come along with it.

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“I quit a full-time job to do this, so I don’t need nobody to tell me what the f--- to do. I’m self-motivated. So being champion would be all good, but for me, martial arts is looking myself in the mirror and working to become better. My primary motivation is leveling up and being a better version of me.”

Both fighters need a victory Saturday. Gastelum can ill-afford another loss, which adds extra pressure to his 15 minutes in the cage with Cannonier. A loss won’t sink Cannonier, but he is on the cusp of a title match, and a convincing win will give matchmakers significant reason to consider him as next in line for a championship fight.

“I want to be perfect on Saturday night,” says Cannonier. “I want to go in there and be the very best fighter in the world and pave my own road.”


MMA great Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza retires

Souza retired last week, hanging his gloves at the age of 41.

He will go down as one of the best ever not to wear—or, for that matter, fight for—UFC gold. His record (26–10, 1 NC) does not encompass the brilliance of his 17-year career. Souza makes a compelling argument for the most exciting jiu-jitsu artist of all-time. Though people will remember the end of his career, when he dropped his final four fights and six of his last eight, it should also be noted that he was an eight-time world jiu-jitsu champ.

Souza was also middleweight champion in Strikeforce, winning the title in the summer of 2010. At his peak, he reached a level of dominance rarely displayed in mixed martial arts. The timing was never quite right for a UFC title run, but that should not diminish his greatness. He always took on top opponents, and masterfully crafted a Hall of Fame career in the sport.


The Pick ’Em Section

I went 3–2 last week with my Bellator 264 picks, and now I have the chance to build some momentum with these UFC on ESPN 30 bout predictions:

Middleweight: Jared Cannonier vs. Kelvin Gastelum
Pick: Cannonier

Lightweight: Clay Guida vs. Mark Madsen
Pick: Madsen

Heavyweight: Chase Sherman vs. Parker Porter
Pick: Sherman

Lightweight: Vinc Pichel vs. Austin Hubbard
Pick: Pichel

Flyweight: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval
Pick: Pantoja

Bantamweight: Trevin Jones vs. Saidyokub Kakhramonov
Pick: Jones

Current record: 3–7

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.