Like any piece of writing that analyzes and critiques a professional fighter’s ability to perform in the cage, especially during “high pressure” situations, it’s important to make a couple of things clear from the outset:

1) Every fight is a high pressure situation.  This goes for the qualifying round of a BJJ tournament or the main event of a UFC pay-per-view card.  Of course, the level of pressure is relative based on the specific circumstances, but it can still have both positive and negative impacts on performance.

2) Fight night performance does not always indicate skill level.  This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. Professional fighters spend weeks, months, and years improving minute technical details and narrowing gaps in their skillset. They train to win, but success in the gym doesn’t always translate to success in the cage.

3) In any fight, both fighters are facing incredible internal and external pressures. So, the fact that one fighter seems to crack under this pressure should in no way undermine the their opponent’s skills, preparation, and mental fortitude.

With this in mind, we need to take a few minutes to talk about Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.

Cerrone recently went on a nearly unheard of 8-fight winning streak in the UFC’s talent-rich Lightweight division. This streak earned him a shot against lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos, in the main event of UFC on Fox 17 this past weekend. Dos Anjos was the last person to beat Cerrone, adding a poetic story line to their title fight, as he would have an opportunity to avenge a tough decision loss.

Unfortunately for “Cowboy”, history has a way of repeating itself. This time around, RDA wasted no time in proving why he’s top dog among the 155-pounders. After landing a quick but painful knee to Cerrone’s ribs, he followed up with a left kick, and swarmed Cerrone with punches, forcing the stoppage at just over a minute into the fight. It was a textbook performance.

At the post-fight press conference, a clearly disappointed Cerrone was brutally honest about his performance, saying “If you don’t show up to work and the other guy does, you end up getting your ass whipped”.  This is something he knows all too well.  Despite his “any time, any where” attitude, his technical skills, and his impressive MMA record, Cerrone has a troubling history of “not showing up” in crucial high-pressure moments.

With 28 wins in his professional MMA career (and another 28 in professional kickboxing competition), it’s clear that Cerrone knows how to fight.  He’s a fan favourite in the UFC because of his aggressive style, constantly pushing forward, throwing limbs at his opponents with equal parts technical precision and bad attitude. He’s also well-rounded, with over half of his total wins coming by submission. His eight fight win streak took place over the course of 18 months, with some fights scheduled as little as two weeks apart. Whereas most fighters average 2-3 fights per year and go through an eight-week training camp to prepare for a fight, “Cowboy” seems like he’d be content with eight hours notice – or as much time as it takes for him to load up his RV and drive to the arena.

Cerrone’s style made him a breakout star in the now-defunct WEC, where he and several other current UFC fighters helped prove the legitimacy of the “lighter weight classes” (155lbs and below).  In January 2009, he fought Jamie Varner in an exciting and competitive lightweight title fight that he lost via Technical Split Decision (the fight was stopped early after Cerrone landed an illegal knee, and went to the judges scorecards). Later that year, he would come up short in a five round interim title fight against Ben “Smooth” Henderson that many considered 2009’s Fight of the Year.  In 2010, he would earn another title shot against “Smooth”, this time losing decisively by first round guillotine choke.

After the second Henderson loss, Cerrone went on a six fight winning streak from September 2010 to October 2011. His 6-0 record also coincided with the UFC absorbing the WEC’s weight classes, and Cerrone wasted no time putting his mark on the UFC lightweight division by beating Vagner Rocha, Charles Oliveira, and Dennis Siver.

The six wins earned him a shot against perennial top 10 Lightweight Nate Diaz, another fighter known for his aggressive striking, dangerous ground game, and “take no sh–” attitude.  Although Diaz had only recently moved back down to Lightweight from Welterweight, the fight was seen by many as a potential number one contender bout, and was given second billing on the UFC’s year-ending card, UFC 141, headlined by two literal humanoid monsters, Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem.

Under the bright lights of the co-main event slot on a major pay-per-view card, Cerrone seemed slow, tentative, and disenfranchised.  The fight went the full three rounds, but he would lose to Diaz via unanimous decision. Again, in post-fight interviews, “Cowboy” admitted that he felt like he was never truly in the fight. A trend was starting to develop.

Through 2012, Cerrone bounced back from the Diaz loss with an entertaining win over Jeremy Stephens and a crushing first round KO over friend and former training partner Melvin Guillard.  He was paired up with Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, another WEC standout, in a fight to decide who would face then-Lightweight champ Ben Henderson. Both Pettis and Cerrone had history with Henderson from their WEC days, giving the fight an extra layer of intrigue. Cerrone was looking forward to avenging his two previous losses to “Smooth”, but Pettis had other plans, and a series of vicious kicks to the body brought “Cowboy” to his knees, ending the fight in the first round, and putting the brakes on any talks of a title shot.

In the wake of the Pettis fight, both fans and media began to wonder if Cerrone was still in the game mentally, some even going as far as to question if he had passed his fighting prime.  A decision win over Strikeforce standout and former pro-boxer KJ Noons temporarily boosted Cerrone’s stock, but a tough decision loss to surging, pre-champion Rafael Dos Anjos in August 2013 again had people questioning if Cerrone had peaked too early.

Then came the streak.

Beginning in November 2013 with a second round win over Evan Dunham, Cerrone went on an absolute rampage through the UFC Lightweight division, fighting seven times over the course of 13 months, beating the likes of Edson Barbosa, Jim Miller, Eddie Alvarez, Myles Jury, and finally getting payback against Ben Henderson in a somewhat controversial decision win. He was scheduled to fight wrestling phenom and self-proclaimed “real Dagestan cowboy” Khabib Nurmagomedov in a number one contender match-up, but the trash-talking Dagestani had to pull out of the fight due to injury.  “Cowboy” instead took his frustration out on short-notice replacement John “The Bull” Makdessi, taming “The Bull” with a second round headkick that broke Makdessi’s jaw, forcing him to verbally submit.

Cerrone’s was getting his shot at the Lightweight belt and a chance to even the score with Dos Anjos.

In the lead up to UFC on FOX 17 / UFC Fight Night Orlando and his fight against Rafael Dos Anjos, Cerrone seemed his normal self: not taking himself or the media obligations too seriously, talking about his other ridiculously dangerous hobbies (wakeboarding, base jumping, bull riding, motocross) that ironically help keep him sane, centred, and focused during training camp, scoffing at the symbolic meaning of owning a UFC belt, but also clearly preparing himself for a fight against an opponent as skilled as RDA.  He loaded up his RV, drove to Florida, made weight, and looked to be in prime condition as he towered over RDA during the staredown.  On fight night, though, RDA made quick work of “Cowboy”, finishing him with punches at the 1:06 mark of the first round.

So, what went wrong?

The simplest answer may be that Dos Anjos was just the better fighter that night.  That was the case when they fought back in 2013, and it was the case again on December 19th 2015. It happens in the fight game. Cain Velasquez appears to have Junior Dos Santos’ number. Frankie Edgar took out prime BJ Penn twice (and past-prime BJ Penn once). Maybe RDA is Cerrone’s kryptonite.

Maybe it goes deeper than that.

Cerrone is one of the toughest fighters in the UFC, psychologically and physically. Based on his choice of hobbies and his lackadaisical demeanor when discussing those hobbies, he might also be a little nuts. Let’s face it, though, you don’t make it to the UFC without possessing those characteristics, and you certainly don’t thrive in the UFC the way Cerrone has without the internal drive to compete against the best in the world. While Cerrone didn’t have a Fedor or Jose Aldo type of mythological undefeated streak, he was on one of the most impressive 2 year runs in recent memory.

Physically, Cerrone appeared to be in the same or better physical shape as he has been for his previous fights. So, when deciding where to go from here, he will have to look inward to see what went wrong mentally, which can be a much more daunting task depending on your frame of mind. Georges St. Pierre famously talked about his own performance anxiety and sought the help of a sports psychologist in the wake of his 2007 title loss to Matt Serra, but GSP and Cerrone are cut from very different cloth.  “Cowboy” is not just a nickname, as much of Cerrone’s personality embraces the rugged, manliest of manly men personalities. He seems like the kind of guy who would dismiss psychologists as “quacks”.  However, as MMA evolves and we learn more about the psychological aspects of the fight game, Cerrone may have have to embrace the “quacks” if he wants to overcome this mental block and get his ducks in a row.

About The Author

Jonny Hodds

Jonny Hodds geeks out over MMA, RPGs, comic books, board games, documentaries, and all things horror/sci-fi/fantasy related. When he was 10 years old, he was shown a karate video of a “master sensei” getting kicked in the junk repeatedly without flinching. To this day, he still believes this is the only true form of mixed martial arts. He also spends far too much time online for his own good.