Over a decade into his career, Jared Cannonier finally gets his shot at the title.
Only months removed from a "Performance of the Night" victory against Derek Brunson at UFC 262, Cannonier has earned the right to show he belongs atop the card. He has competed as a heavyweight and light heavyweight, but it is middleweight where he has shone. And after winning five of his last six, Cannonier now gets a career-altering opportunity against reigning middleweight champion Israel Adesanya next week at UFC 276.
"I win this fight, who knows what sh-t we'll see," Cannonier (15-5 MMA, 8-5 UFC) says. "A movie. An autobiography. It's the next step in my journey, but it's not my final step. After I win the belt, there are going to be even bigger things going on."
Solving the Adesanya puzzle will be an extraordinarily difficult task for Cannonier. Adesanya (22-1 MMA,11-1 UFC) has never lost a middleweight bout. He is a marvel in the octagon, precise and powerful, and outside of his one fight at light heavyweight, he has been unstoppable.
"I'm not too overwhelmed or enamored by this big stage or that I'm fighting the world's greatest middleweight," Cannonier says. "My focus is training and being better every day.
"Who knows what's going to happen? It's a fight. We're going to step in the cage, the ref will say go. I want my hand raised and the belt around my waist. If that happens, I'll do with it the way I always do, as a gangster and a G. So I'm only focused on myself and what I need to do to win. This is a chance for me to use that canvas to express myself as an artist."
Adesanya is six years younger than the challenger, but Cannonier believes that his age provides him an advantage.
"I'm not a 38-year-old UFC fighter, I'm a level 38 f-cking badass," Cannonier says. "People perceive the 20s as their zenith, but that's when people do the most stupid-ass sh-t. Youth doesn't equate to wisdom. I feel great now and I'm so much smarter. I'm growing older and getting better. I want to be a swole-ass, chiseled 80-year-old with a gray ‘fro.
"I've acquired enough wisdom to know I'm in this position and I've got work to do. I've taken the bumps, the bruises, and the losses. I'm here to shoot for the stars, to try for this win. If I fall short, it's a lesson to learn – not a reason to quit."
Cannonier expects nothing less than the absolute best version of Adesanya at UFC 276, which is a sage bet. Yet he also believes he has the power necessary to end Adesanya's reign atop the division.
"I'm coming to throw some heat, make him miss, neutralize his gameplan, and impose mine," says Adesanya. "We'll see what Israel brings out of me. My goal is to get the win as quickly as possible."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.