UFC Fight Night 45: Behind Brash Facade, a Cowboy Quietly Comes into His Own

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UFC Fight Night 45: Behind Brash Facade, a Cowboy Quietly Comes into His Own
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After polishing off Jim Miller via head-kick knockout on Wednesday in the main event of UFC Fight Night 45, Donald Cerrone stood in the Octagon and announced his future plans.

They sounded suspiciously like many of his past plans.

“I’m excited about drinking a bunch of Budweiser tonight and getting after it…,” he told UFC play-by-play announcer Jon Anik. “(I’ll fight) whoever wants to fight, I don’t care. As soon as possible, any '55ers or '70s out there who want to fight, come on.”

The whole performance was classic Cerrone—from the highlight reel second-round stoppage to the camouflage piping down the sides of his fight shorts and the celebratory beer at the post-fight press conference. The victory was his third win of 2014, built his ongoing win streak to four overall and kept him on what is arguably the biggest, best roll of his UFC career.

And we all know nobody rolls quite like the Cowboy.

Outside the cage, Cerrone remains a wild man. At 31 years old, he’s still a hard-nosed, beer-swilling live wire who openly admits the breakneck pace of his career barely keeps up with his spending habits. Even his new managerial agreement with NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick—not to mention that King of Beers sponsorship—feels like a cocktail mixed of one part business acumen and two parts rollicking good time.

Yet, if all you saw in Cerrone’s master-class performance this week were the 10-gallon hat and the longneck bottles, you missed something.

Behind the brash facade, this guy is quietly coming into his own as a 155-pound contender.

It’s hard to believe, but the Miller bout was Cerrone’s first ever UFC main event. The two principals reportedly entered into a gentlemen’s agreement to give fans their money’s worth and—while they whole-fistedly succeeded—Cerrone also spent the frenzied, eight-and-a-half-minute ride in complete control of all his faculties.

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While it doesn’t feel entirely accurate to say he’s “maturing” before our very eyes, the Cerrone we’ve seen in the cage during the past eight months is the best version so far. The guy who ended up flooring Miller with a shin across the cranium felt a world away from the fighter who let Nate Diaz talk him out of his game at UFC 141 or the guy who crumpled under the weight of Anthony Pettis’ high-octane attack in January 2013.

As a notoriously slow starter, Cerrone conceded some early takedowns to Miller and ate a few of the New Jersey southpaw’s counter left hands. When the fight did hit the mat, though, he didn’t stay down long enough to allow his opponent to get into his bag of tricks.

On the feet, Cerrone countered Miller’s more rudimentary striking attack with chipping knees, kicks and punches to the body—including one that floored him early in the second round but was mistakenly ruled a low blow by referee Dan Miragliotta.

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It was a potentially fight-altering officiating gaffe, but on this night Cerrone was too good for it to matter.

After Miragliotta restarted the fight, Cerrone went right back to punishing Miller’s midsection. Once he’d gotten the full, undivided attention of the 30-year-old wrestler’s internal organs, he abruptly changed levels, landing flush on the side of the head with the kick that put Miller down for good.

The blow looked eerily similar to the kick Cerrone used to KO Adriano Martins six months ago, but this one came on a bigger stage and at a more important moment in his seven-year, 24-fight run in Zuffa-owned promotions.

With Pettis injured and Diaz at odds with UFC management, Cerrone is one of the lightweight division’s brightest active stars. This win gives him a good chance of reclaiming a spot in the 155-pound Top Five when the UFC’s official rankings are released later this week, or of landing a fight against someone who already has one.

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Maybe you had to squint a little bit to notice, but it felt like there was real professional growth on display here. Overall, Cerrone left the impression that—at least from bell to bell—he’s growing up.

Yeah, he’s going to walk a little bowlegged and bring a six-pack of suds to the presser, but at this stage he’s also fully capable of fighting a measured, shrewd fight. While he’s loudly assuring us that he’s going to get lit at the afterparty, he’s also carefully name-checking his sponsors.

Leading up to the fight, Miller had said he wanted to get in Cerrone’s face and disrupt his rhythm, maybe even fluster the hotheaded Jackson’s MMA fighter.

It didn’t work.

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Cerrone kept his composure and didn’t stray from the game plan. Instead, he calmly parried the shorter man’s overhand power punches and leapt immediately back to his feet after takedowns so he could continue to whittle away with a persistent striking attack.

When the violent end finally came for Miller, it was because Cerrone had spent the previous round and a half fighting a meticulous, disciplined fight. He simply turned away Miller’s offense and waited patiently for his own superior skills to win the day.

That deserves our applause, because a restrained, calculated Cowboy is the only kind that has a chance to make noise against the upper echelon of the lightweight ranks.

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Historically, it’s always been right about now that Cerrone’s 24/7 party gets derailed. He began his career in the Octagon on a 5-0 tear during 2010-11 but unraveled against higher-level competition. He’s had the aforementioned setbacks against Pettis and Diaz, as well as a more recent slip against Rafael dos Anjos last August.

Cerrone can’t afford too many more of those, as his next fight will certainly be against someone near the very top of the food chain. There has been speculation that he could meet fourth-ranked Khabib Nurmagomedov next. That has all the makings of another barnburner, albeit a fairly tough matchup for the swaggering American.

A slightly more advantageous pairing could also come against Josh Thomson (No. 3), so long as he emerges unscathed from his fight against Bobby Green at the next UFC on Fox show on July 26.

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Either foe could provide the next step toward Cerrone’s fondest wish—that he fight as many as a half-dozen times this year—and also help ease lightweight through the remainder of Pettis’ rehab and Diaz’s holdout.

Against Miller, Cerrone proved that he’s up to the task, advancing his UFC record to an impressive 11-3 and showing he can still be a viable contender in MMA’s most competitive weight class.

Oh, yeah. One more thing.

He also sewed up his fourth consecutive $50,000 performance-based bonus, ensuring that his own personal brahma-bull ride through life doesn't have to slow down just yet.

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