Sometimes, you just have to make a change.

After spending a few years trying unsuccessfully to get over the hump and break into the UFC’s lightweight title picture, Donald Cerrone is in desperate need of change. In the span of two years, “Cowboy” has gone from a near-consensus top-five UFC lightweight to a high-level gatekeeper barely hanging on to his spot in the top 10. The time has come for Cerrone, who is now 30 years old, to do something drastic in order to try to earn the championship glory that has eluded him.

Cerrone recently announced that his upcoming UFC 167 fight would be his last in the lightweight division. The “Cowboy” is opting to drop 10 pounds in an attempt to go after Jose Aldo and the featherweight title in 2014. It’s a bold move from Cerrone, and his 6-foot frame is likely going to make cutting the extra weight a sizable challenge. Obviously, shedding the extra pounds will be well worth it if Cerrone is able to eventually earn himself a title shot at 145 pounds, but, to be honest, a lack of size or physical skills hasn’t really been Cerrone’s problem. It’s always been about getting his head on right, rather than his body.

Cerrone was riding a six-fight winning streak as recently as two years ago, and he started off his UFC career by topping four straight opponents inside the Octagon and earning three of those wins by stoppage. To make things even more impressive for the rising lightweight contender, he earned all four of those Octagon wins in less than 12 months’ time and had defeated increasingly difficult competition throughout the winning streak. Cerrone headed into his fifth UFC fight of 2011 against Nate Diaz with a ton of momentum, and it appeared he was inching his way towards a shot at a UFC title. Then, the wheels came off.

Diaz’s confrontational nature rubbed Cerrone the wrong way at several points leading up to the bout, and by the time both fighters were in the cage, it was clear that Diaz had gotten into “Cowboy’s” head. Despite heading into the bout as the betting favorite, Cerrone was absolutely destroyed by Diaz over the course of their three-round fight. Diaz landed almost at will and talked trash throughout the three-round affair. The Stockton native out-landed Cerrone by a ridiculous 238-96 margin in significant strikes according to Fight Metric, and effectively sent Cerrone to the back of the line of title contenders in the process.

A set of back-to-back impressive wins over Melvin Guillard and Jeremy Stephens earned Cerrone another chance at a top-ranked lightweight, but for the second time in his UFC career, Cerrone was completely dominated in a bout with serious title implications. Anthony Pettis made relatively short work of “Cowboy,” ending what many thought would be a “Fight of the Night”-worthy battle just halfway through the opening round. Once again, Cerrone looked lost in a fight with major title implications, and this time it led to the first knockout loss of his career. It was a brutal loss for Cerrone, and it resulted in him once again being all but eliminated from lightweight-title contention for the foreseeable future.

Cerrone bounced back strong (as he always seems to do after a loss) and defeated K.J. Noons at UFC 160, but his winning ways were short-lived. In a surprising upset, Cerrone was easily defeated by Brazilian rising star Rafael dos Anjos in August, knocking him all the way down to the No. 10 spot in the UFC lightweight rankings and clinching his position as a lightweight gatekeeper in the process.

The loss to dos Anjos was obviously the catalyst that led to Cerrone’s eventual drop to featherweight, and it was probably the correct decision for “Cowboy” to make at this stage in his career. Cerrone is set to fight Evan Dunham at UFC 167 later this month, and regardless of whether he wins or not, he still isn’t going to be considered a contender to the lightweight belt any time soon. Four men that have already defeated Cerrone sit in front of him in the UFC’s lightweight rankings at the moment, and Cerrone hasn’t notched a victory against a single person on the list. Cerrone may have the skill to work his way back up the lightweight ladder, but there are just too many roadblocks standing between him and a title shot at 155 pounds at the moment.

Meanwhile, Cerrone actually holds a win over a top-ranked featherweight (No. 7-ranked Dennis Siver) and has a completely clean slate of opponents to mix it up with as soon as he drops down to 145 pounds. Match-ups with top-ranked featherweights like Chan Sung Jung and Dustin Poirier would be more than enough to get fans excited about the prospect of Cerrone moving into the featherweight title scene, and Cerrone is immediately relevant in his new division.

Stylistically, a move down to featherweight is only going to benefit Cerrone. He is at his best when he can use his reach to control the distance and pace of the fight on the feet, and his 73-inch reach will be put to good use against a lot of shorter, smaller guys at 145. On top of that, Cerrone’s long limbs will be even more dangerous against smaller opponents, meaning that taking “Cowboy” to the mat will translate to playing with fire for most UFC featherweights.

As good as Cerrone has been in the Octagon at points, he’s consistently struggled in high-pressure situations, and that needs to change for this move to succeed. From the Diaz fight, where he was dominated for 15 minutes, to the Pettis fight, where he was decimated in what felt like 15 seconds, whenever Cerrone has taken that next step up in competition in the UFC, he’s been completely shut down. Moving to featherweight may help Cerrone get back into the mix faster, and the road back to title contention is certainly less riddled with obstacles than the one at 155 pounds. However, if he’s unable to get past the mental blocks that have overwhelmed him in big fights, this move may be all for nothing.

“Cowboy” is making the right move with this drop to featherweight, but it will be his head and his heart, not his size, that will determine how much success he finds.

Photo: Donald Cerrone (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.