Alaska-based heavyweight Jared (Tha Killa Gorilla) Cannonier (7-0) has achieved his dream of earning a UFC contract. But he has had to turn to others for financial help to try to make the most of his UFC debut.
Cannonier, whose day job is repairing air traffic control equipment for the Federal Aviation Administration, took two months off from work to prepare for Saturday's fight against former LSU fullback Shawn (The Savage) Jordan (16-6) on the undercard of UFC 182 in Las Vegas.
Jon (Bones) Jones (20-1) looks to defend his light-heavyweight title for the eighth time when he faces former Olympic wrestler Daniel (DC) Cormier (15-0) in the main event at the MCM Grand Garden Arena.
Cannonier held his training camp at The Lab in Glendale, Ariz. The gym is home to former UFC lightweight champion Benson (Smooth) Henderson as well as UFC veterans Efrain (Hecho en Mexico) Escudero and Joe (Diesel) Riggs.
"I'm sparring with animals," Cannonier said approvingly.
He raised more than US$6,000 on gofundme.com to help pay for training camps, offering signed memorabilia and his gratitude in response. Donations have ranged from $10 to $600.
"A lot of people came out and they donated and they supported me," he said in a recent interview. "They all helped me out."
Cannonier's mother and family back home also stepped up.
Fighters at the beginning of their career look to earn win or performance bonuses to enhance their UFC pay. Two losing fighters at UFC 181, for example, had to make do with basic purses of $8,000, according to the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Originally from Dallas, Cannonier joined the U.S. Army after college. After just under three years in the military, he moved north in 2009 when he was offered a similar air traffic control equipment maintenance job in Anchorage by the FAA.
"If we don't do our job, there'd be planes falling out of the sky left and right," he said.
Cannonier, who met his wife in Alabama while he was in the army, has enjoyed his time in Alaska.
"The people there are really nice. It's a lot different in Texas, especially in the winter time," he said.
It's also where the five-foot-11, 240-pounder started doing jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts, although he got a taste of it in the military when he did a couple of months of training in the Modern Army Combatives program.
He found a home in the Gracie Barra academy in Anchorage, beginning to study jiu-jitsu in February 2010 and then mixed martial arts that summer.
"I loved doing it," he said.
He was hooked after two amateur fights, both wins.
"Then I decided to go pro because I felt if these guys are going to be punching me in my face, I might as well get paid for it."
He made his pro debut in June 2011, stopping Alton Prince in the first round of a Fairbanks card colourfully called "Midnight Sun Mayhem 1 — Final Word." He reeled off another first-round win four months later at "Alaska Fighting Championship 85 — Tortures & Takedowns" in Anchorage.
He has won five since, all in Alaska, with three more first-round stoppages although Cannonier acknowledges that some of his opponents were inexperienced as a result of other fighters dropping out.
He did not fight in 2012 after surgery to repair a torn labrum suffered in a jiu-jitsu tournament. But he won since then, attracting the attention of the UFC. His last fight was a five-round split decision over Tony Lopez in January for the Alaska Fighting Championship title.
His fight schedule was interrupted after that by a three-month FAA course in Oklahoma City.
Cannonier credits his wife for helping him juggle his job and training, not to mention their kids aged two and five.
"I'm not organized at all. She's the organizing one," he said. "She's the reason why I'm able to do the sport that I love to do."
In a perfect world, Cannonier would move his family to Arizona and fight full time.
"I appreciate my job. I'm blessed to have the job I have but it's not what I love to do."
he said. "It's work for me.
"Training and fighting and overcoming those obstacles in the cage and on the mats, that's more of a challenge for me, which is what I liked to do. I like to be challenged."
So Saturday night could be more than a fight for Cannonier. It could be a life-changer.
"It could. Exactly," he agreed. "I'm going full steam ahead."
Cannonier follows in the footsteps of Alaska fighters Lauren Murphy and Andy Enz. Alaskan Nic Herron-Webb was a cast member on "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV show.
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