Jared Cannonier was overweight and out of shape when he moved to Alaska in the summer of 2009. A one-two punch had turned him into a heavyweight: his wife was pregnant, and he had just gotten out of the Army.
"I was over 300 pounds when I got to Alaska," Cannonier said. "I was not in shape. I was in shape when I got out of the military but I didn't have access to a gym and I put on a lot of weight. And my wife was pregnant, and there's that myth going around that if your wife is pregnant, you're pregnant too."
More than five years later, Cannonier is still a heavyweight -- a meaner, leaner heavyweight. On Saturday, he'll make his debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the home of the world's toughest mixed-martial arts fighters. Thanks to training that helped turn fat to muscle, Cannonier is a strong and sturdy 5-foot-9, 240 pounds going into the bout.
"I can see my abs now," he said.
Cannonier, 30, will take a 7-0 record into the cage for his fight against former Louisiana State fullback Shawn Jordan. The fight is on the undercard of UFC 182 in Las Vegas and is the first in Cannonier's four-fight UFC contract.
"If I come out of this fight unscathed, I'll tell them to give me another fight in the next two or three months," he said. "If I get injured, I could be on the shelf from anywhere to four months to a year."
Cannonier is the eighth Alaska Fighting Championship fighter to land a UFC contract. None of them have won a UFC fight, AFC promoter Sarah Lorimer said, although reigning 125-pound UFC champion D.J. Johnson of Washington fought twice in the AFC before moving up to the UFC.
"The AFC is here for just that reason -- a farm league for the fighters," said Lorimer, who will be in Las Vegas for Saturday's fights. "I am very happy to be a starting point and am so proud when they make it to the big show."
Getting to the show was a long process for Cannonier, one that began shortly after he graduated from high school in Dallas and joined the Army. He joined the Modern Army Combative Program and got a taste of jujitsu, kickboxing and submission grappling.
He loved being in the gym, but the military kept him too busy to compete in tournaments.
He got more serious about mixed martial arts once he moved to Anchorage, where his military training led to a job as a technician for the Federal Aviation Administration. Once he and his family settled in, Cannonier joined the Gracie Barra gym, a hotbed for MMA fighters. He was ready to get back into shape and back into fighting.
"I like knowing how to fight effectively," he said. "Everyone thinks they know how to fight, but nobody trains the right way. I was learning to defend myself and my family and my property effectively.
"... On top of that is the competitive aspect, which I really like. The one-on-one. It's you and the guy standing in front of you, your skills against his skills and your heart against his heart."
As Cannonier's victories in Alaska mounted, a fight manager got in touch and helped get him a UFC contract. Wanting to make the most of his opportunity, Cannonier left Anchorage at the beginning of November in order to train fulltime in Phoenix at the same gym where Lauren Murphy -- Alaska's first woman to fight in the UFC -- trains.
In order to spend the last two months in Phoenix, Cannonier had to take some time off without pay from his job with the FAA. He turned to crowd sourcing to help finance his dream, and in two months his GoFundMe campaign raised $6,100 from 36 donors. His goal was $5,000.
The two-month training camp allowed him to train six to seven hours a day, Cannonier said. He feels stronger, faster and fitter than ever as his big debut approaches.
"I've definitely gotten better," he said. "I'm in much better shape and I've learned so much being here. My training partners have taken a liking to me and are just helping me out in every way they can.
"... It would be really nice if I could relocate and train here fulltime. I could be a totally different fighter. I already am a totally different fighter. I think the sky's the limit."