“Cowboy” Cerrone: Anytime, Anywhere

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When we talk about the greatest mixed martial artists, the same list of names appears virtually every single time: Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and so on.

Title defences, quality of competition and dominance seem to be what fans and analysts place most of their focus on when discussing the men and women on this esteemed list of greats, but one factor that is rarely accounted for as much as it should is longevity.

Fighting the elite is no small task, but to remain competitive among them for countless years represents a martial artist who has consistently refined their skillset and kept pace with the sport, evolving as an individual while the sport does the same.

No fighter represents this more than Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. From his classic bouts under the WEC to his show-stopping highlight finishes across his storied UFC career and all the peaks and valleys along the way, Cerrone has time and again challenged himself against the very best in the world. And no matter the outcome, you always knew he’d be back for more.

But now, as the legendary Cowboy confirms the end to his seemingly endless career, we take a look back at his nearly 20-year career.

Donald Cerrone – In The Beginning

Despite his legacy in legitimate combat sport, Donald Cerrone’s first encounters with violence were neither sanctioned nor celebrated. Born in Denver, Colorado in 1983, Cerrone was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (or A.D.D) as a child but never received treatment for it due to the intervention of his grandfather, Dr. Donald Cerrone. Cerrone’s adolescence was plagued by frequent bouts of street fighting, often being imprisoned overnight due to the altercations.

At the age of 16, Cerrone was sent to live with his grandmother after his parents grew sick of his behaviour. This didn’t initially have the desired effect, as Jerry Cerrone would often bail Donald and his friends out of jail following yet another dust-up.

At 20, Cerrone managed to challenge this penchant for conflict into a positive medium, training in both kickboxing and Muay Thai, before entering kickboxing competitions. Finding success in these early ventures, Cerrone decided to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. After a short stint with Freedom Fighters gym, he made the transition to the Jackson Wink MMA Academy, training alongside legends like the aforementioned Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre.

Cerrone began his career with the iconic and now-defunct WEC, starting with a bizarre submission victory overturned after Cerrone tested positive for a diuretic medication. Despite this half-setback, Cerrone picked up a pair of impressive victories over Danny Castillo and Rob McCullough. Along with his extensive striking background, Cerrone showcased submission ability from the bottom against Castillo, tying up a quick armbar. He followed a split decision loss against Jamie Varner, the first loss of his professional career, with another submission victory over fellow UFC legend, James Krause.

Cerrone followed this with a pair of bouts against all-time great Benson Henderson, for the interim and later the undisputed WEC Lightweight title. While the first bout was a close affair, with many fans at the time quick to label the decision in favour of Henderson a robbery, the second fight saw Henderson produce a finish via guillotine choke within two minutes of the first round.

While this would not be the last time Cerrone would fight for a world title, the latter of these bouts would mark a consistent pattern in Cerrone’s fighting career: his tendency to be defeated in the biggest moments of his career.

Into the UFC

He would not allow these defeats to dampen his efforts moving forward, picking up two more wins in the WEC before Zuffa acquired the company and absorbed its roster into the UFC. He began his iconic UFC run with a four-fight winning streak, including a TKO victory over Charles Oliveira, the UFC’s current lightweight champion.

Donald’s first real test in the UFC would eventually arrive in his fifth bout, in the form of the Stockton veteran and fan favourite Nate Diaz at UFC 141. Diaz himself was already an established UFC talent by this point and waged full-scale mental warfare against Cerrone in the build-up to the fight, perhaps most famously knocking Cerrone’s signature cowboy Stetson off his head during the pre-fight press conference staredown. Choosing or rather, being coerced into taking this anger into the fight itself, Cerrone took the pre-fight glove-touching opportunity to do… well, not that. While Cerrone found his rhythm in the latter two rounds, the first round was a drubbing, with Cerrone so consumed by the anger he’d felt in the days and weeks before the bout that he remained a near stationary target, taking far more damage than he was capable of dishing out, perhaps a fitting metaphor for revenge itself.

On an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience a few years later, Cerrone took full accountability for this anger and how it impacted his performance. This wouldn’t be the last time a fighter would anger Cerrone to great extents before a fight, but it would be the last time he’d let it consume him.

Following the defeat to Diaz, Cerrone would go 3-2 in his next five bouts with the promotion, with his only two losses coming from future UFC champions Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos. While his bout with Pettis ended in a KO loss for Cerrone due to a body kick before much had really happened, the fight with RDA was a competitive, if clear, decision loss. Despite not building much of a winning streak at any point in his career thus far, Cerrone’s only losses were coming by way of highly touted prospects, proven veterans and future champions of the sport. His carefree personality, his endearing cowboy persona and his ultra-action fighting style was quickly marking Cerrone out as a fan favourite and a serious contender, and Cerrone would soon capitalise on this momentum in a big way.

Cerrone would capture four performance bonuses in his next four fights, securing three finishes that saw two submissions and two knockouts, including tapping out striking wizard Edson Barboza and a brutal head kick KO over Jim Miller. His next three fights would see him claim three decision victories, with a victory over Miles Jury punctuating his unanimous decision sweep against future UFC champion Eddie Alvarez, and the avenging of his two previous losses against Benson Henderson who, you guessed it, would go on to realise UFC gold himself.

With the white-hot momentum of five blistering finishes in a stellar eight-fight winning streak against some of the most competitive matchups in the division, Cerrone would be given a chance to avenge another previous loss, when he was given his first crack at the UFC Lightweight Crown against Rafael Dos Anjos. Fans of Cerrone were confident in his ability to realise his championship ambition, given the drastic improvements Cerrone had made in his skillset, his high finishing percentage and his ability to remain competitive against Dos Anjos in their previous fight, the only match Cerrone had lost in a little over two years since the beginning of his comprehensive winning streak.

Cerrone was at the apex of his career at this point, sparring verbally with the then-surging Conor McGregor at pre-fight press conferences, with many fans backing Cerrone in a hypothetical bout between the two. An eight-fight winning streak, a competitive rapport with the fastest rising star in mixed martial arts and the opportunity to fight for the biggest prize in the sport against a matchup he’d proven to be competitive.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Early in the first round, Dos Anjos landed a picture-perfect body kick, and Cerrone never recovered. He attempted to create distance but was quickly overwhelmed with Dos Anjos’ seemingly endless combination punches, before being grounded and TKO’d in the first round. A quick TKO loss in the biggest fight of his career not only quickly removed his name from the McGregor super fight conversation but also served as another data point for the growing idea that Cerrone struggled to perform on the biggest nights of his professional life.

The Cowboy Dusts Off His Boots

Quickly bouncing back, Cerrone would make short work of another Cowboy, Alex Oliveira, in a move to the welterweight division. Following this success at his new weight class, he would secure TKO victories over Patrick Cote and Rick Story, before finding himself facing off against Matt Brown. Brown was unusually antagonistic toward Cowboy before the fight, labelling the veteran a “bully” and vowing to “expose” him. Cowboy responded in the only way befitting a man who had learnt from the fight with Nate Diaz: He bit his tongue and, when the fight came about, knocked Brown out cold with a thunderous head kick, a violent finish to an equally violent fight.

With his highlight reel finish over a heated rival, Cowboy’s next three fights would find him in the worst slump of his professional career so far. A tentative bout against Jorge Masvidal saw Cowboy effectively knocked out twice, slumped at the end of the first round and bizarrely permitted by Herb Dean to see the second, only to be quickly dispatched by a less-than-pleased Gamebred. A war with Robbie Lawler followed and, while certainly pleasing the fans, added another loss to Cerrone’s record, his first consecutive loss in his professional career, an astounding feat in retrospect given the strength of his resume.

Cerrone looked to break this unfortunate spell of bad luck against then-rising prospect Darren Till. Unfortunately, Till found an opening early in the fight and did not relent. With three losses in a row, it was quickly becoming clear that Cerrone was likely entering the final stage of his career and was becoming more and more susceptible to being overwhelmed quickly. Although the idea had always been popular, it seemed now more than ever that fans believed that whoever stood across from Cerrone, if they could establish blistering offence quickly, that Cowboy would fold.

A TKO win over Yancy Mederios would only serve to land Cerrone in a fight against another British talent, Leon Edwards. Edwards outworked and outthought the veteran, coming out the other side with a dominant decision victory. Cerrone found some success against loud-mouthed newcomer Mike Perry, securing an armbar finish but was quickly realising that championship prospects at lightweight were a far more realistic dream. And so, for the first time in almost three years, Cerrone made his lightweight return against Alexander Hernandez.

The Return

Hernandez was arrogant and disrespectful to a fault leading up to their clash, labelling Cowboy an old man fighting for the wrong reasons. Accusations of “mixed mistresses” and questioning Cerrone’s heart all played a role in Hernandez’s scheme to replicate the Diaz battle plan, to beat Cowboy before the fight even started.

It went as well for Hernandez as it did for Brown. Cerrone’s performance against Hernandez became a dark cloud that hangs over Hernandez to this day; it was a measured and brutal one. Hernandez looked to capitalise on Cerrone’s known weakness, early aggression. And while he had some success, Cerrone weathered the storm, punishing Hernandez’s sloppy and wild entries with wicked body knees to slow the young prospect down. A vintage Cowboy head kick followed by malicious ground and pound, and Cerrone had announced his return to lightweight in thunderous fashion. Conor McGregor landed the pair in headlines, announcing on Twitter that he was so impressed with Cowboy’s performance that he would agree to face the man in their once-again hotly anticipated matchup.

Cerrone, like so many times before, rode this momentum into a bout with former title challenger Al Iaquinta, and to the surprise of many found his way to a dominant decision victory. Given the somewhat surprising outcome and Cerrone’s status as a fan favourite, Cowboy was quickly making himself a relevant figure in the title picture once more. Facing ‘El Cucuy’ himself, Tony Ferguson, in an unofficial title eliminator matchup, Cerrone found success in the first round, remaining competitive against a man many had dubbed the uncrowned champion of the lightweight division. However, as Ferguson’s unorthodox style began to wear on the grizzled vet in Round 2, Cerrone would unintentionally eliminate himself from the competition, when an attempt to clear his nose would aggravate swelling to his eyeball, causing his entire eye socket to be engulfed by swelling, rendering him medically unable to continue.

Despite the disappointing conclusion to the bout with Ferguson, Cerrone was still riding a tidal wave of fan hype, two solid victories over legitimate contenders and many felt he had provided a good account of himself against Ferguson, one of the very best on the planet. Cerrone quickly found himself back in the mix against “The Highlight” Justin Gaethje. On paper, this was a nightmarish matchup; a fast starter with extremely heavy hands was about the worst combination of factors for a hypothetical Cowboy opponent, and “MMA Math” prevailed that night, with Cerrone suffering a heavy TKO defeat in the first round.

Now at a crossroads in his career, suffering two wearing defeats to the division’s best, a once-forgotten matchup destined to elevate Cerrone’s profile beyond the fans of MMA and into the mainstream of culture reared its head once more. Conor McGregor, following his defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov and a subsequent sabbatical from the sport of mixed martial arts, announced his intention to return to the UFC in 2020, and Cerrone was the chosen opponent, with both men agreeing to forgo the lightweight class, and instead compete at welterweight. While both men were exceptionally respectful to each other in the build-up of the fight, the fight itself was far from sanitised. McGregor dispatched Cerrone in forty seconds, damaging Cowboy almost immediately with punishing shoulder strikes in the clinch, before beginning the ending sequence with Cowboy’s now-patented move: the head kick. Toppled and beaten, Cerrone shelled up and waited for the inevitable conclusion. The biggest fight of his career and Cerrone had given what many of his detractors would call a classic Cowboy performance; wilting in the face of early pressure.

Cerrone was now very much in the final days of active competition. Telling Brett Okamoto in an interview following the McGregor fight that “Cowboy” never showed up and only Donald went out to fight, it seemed Cerrone had little left in the tank: an underwhelming run at welterweight had shut the door on a title run there, and he was being dispatched quickly by the best lightweight had to offer. Opting to stay at welterweight, likely due to a preference to avoid a weight cut that Cerrone had been very vocal about how difficult he found, Cerrone’s return against Anthony Pettis would not go to plan, losing a decision to his old rival, and a competitive but unsuccessful showing against Niko Price would result in a draw, something both men expressed a keenness to repeat and rectify. However, Cerrone would find himself in another bout, initially with fellow veteran and alumni of the original series of The Ultimate Fighter, Diego Sanchez. However, Sanchez’s murky relationship with his coach/guru/friend/manager, Joshua Fabia, and his subsequent effect on Sanchez’s relationship with the UFC resulted in his removal from the UFC unceremoniously, and Cerrone would find himself matched up with upcoming Alex Moreno.

In many ways, it was another Cowboy classic. In other ways, it was the latest in a series of warning signs that Cerrone was in need of intervention from the UFC, to move on from the sport after a series of brutal finishes. Moreno gave members of the latter train of thought no reason to believe otherwise, pressuring Cerrone early and finding a first-round TKO.

Now, the UFC had laid an ultimatum. In the post-fight press conference, Dana White told the media it was time for him and Cowboy to have a talk about the future, with the tone of the CEO hinting that the conversation would not be a pleasant one.

One Last Ride

Soon enough, however, when asked Dana made it clear that Cerrone would be allowed one last fight under the promotion. A now-doomed bout with Joe Lauzon seemed perfect, another veteran in the final act of their career, but it was not to be after a pair of failed bookings prompted Dana White to publicly abandon the matchup, and instead, Cerrone was paired against Jim Miller once more, a man he had knocked out with no less than his iconic head kick some eight years previously.

Despite a good performance and one incredibly close head kick that nearly recreated their first bout perfectly, Miller would find a guillotine choke in Round 2, bringing a close to Cerrone’s in-ring life. But unlike so many retirement scenes inside the Octagon, no part of Cerrone seemed bitter or melancholic. With a smile on his face, telling Joe Rogan he knew it was time to leave, he announced to the adoring crowd “I’m gonna go be a movie star!”

He laid down his iconic Stetson, placed his gloves inside, and so concluded one of the greatest careers in mixed martial arts history. Bringing his two sons into the ring, Cerrone gave martial arts fans all they want when their favourite fighters retire: a happy, contented smile.

Donald Cerrone is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and an icon of mixed martial arts, with a resume that is unmatched in terms of white-hot matchups. Across two divisions in the premier mixed martial arts organisation, Cerrone remained a relevant contender, providing enough highlight reel combinations, finishes and moments of the kind of warrior spirit that any other fighter could likely only dream of.

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