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Near-death experiences and sports psychologists: The rough start to Donald Cerrone's year

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It was bright outside, though that's probably to be expected. The running joke says there's nothing to do in Albuquerque, and maybe that's why Greg Jackson set up shop in the middle of nowhere. For the most part, it's hard to argue. But none of that matters much to Donald Cerrone. On this brisk February morning, he just wanted to escape.

Drenched in heat from the southwest sun, Cerrone led a group of friends to the base of a neighboring desert mountain. It wasn't anything too advanced, "probably like a 5.6 or 5.7," according to "Cowboy" -- a good route for beginners. For Cerrone, an avid climber who basically lives his life outdoors, that didn't mean much in the way of cheap thrills. Today was simply about showing the rest of the group the ropes, training partner Leonard Garcia and striking coach Mike Winklejohn included.

Cerrone was just taking it easy. After all, this is the man who grew up aspiring to be a professional bull rider. By comparison, today's adventure was supposed to be a piece of cake.

"I was showing them how to set gear," Cerrone recollects. "I should've set way more gear, but it was just such an easy climb. I wasn't concerned. Just being overconfident, man..." His words trail off.

Cerrone plummeted backwards 40 feet to the ground that day. The climbing gear was supposed to catch him if he fell, though I guess "supposed to" is the key phrase in that sentence. In demonstrating that fact to Winklejohn, Cerrone ripped out "like four anchors," and thus began his descent back to earth.

Each anchor caught Cerrone a little bit, but not really.

"I fractured my hip and my foot, but, I mean..." Cerrone says, the words again trailing off as if to say, ‘it could've been much worse.'

Cerrone went right to the hospital, where doctors, incredulous at his apparent lack of severe injuries, proclaimed that the fighter must be made out of rubber. A few tests and MRIs later, Cerrone was released back into the wild, where he promptly sent out a tweet to his boss, UFC President Dana White.

"I guess you need to dance with death, just so you know how precious life is! Dana White, the wild man IS THROUGH," Cerrone wrote, adding the hashtags "#tooclosetoday" and "#9lives" to the end of his message.

The near-death experience lingered with Cerrone in the ensuing days. How could it not? Just a week earlier he'd received his next directive: Strikeforce import K.J. Noons at UFC 160. Forget about the fact that Cerrone almost plummeted to his demise, he'd also nearly cancelled a fight -- or more importantly, a payday -- with his carelessness. That simply wasn't acceptable.

Cerrone's over the wildman act now. Or, at least he is during training camps, one of which he's been in since the accident. He can't make any promises about what comes after.

"That's how I live, man. I love it. I'll die with my boots on one day," Cerrone says through a toothy grin.

Though don't mistake his words. Right now Cerrone's focus is solely on Noons. It better be after last time.

Cerrone still isn't sure what happened. For months, he campaigned to fight Anthony Pettis. Eventually he got what he wanted -- to an audience of 4.2 million people at UFC on FOX 6, no less. Though in hindsight, he probably wishes he hadn't.

To put it bluntly, Pettis embarrassed Cerrone. Stylish punches, elbows, jumping knees off the cage; everything was in play for Pettis, who punctuated his artistic masterpiece by dropping Cerrone with a picture-perfect liver kick midway through round one.

"There was so much wrong going on in my head," Cerrone thickly remembers. "I remember looking across the ring like, dang, I done pissed him off and he's comin' hard.

"It sucks. It really sucks losing, especially a fight like that. That's my second time being up there for contendership and losing, going back to the end of the pile. ... Emotionally you don't want to talk to anybody. You don't want to hear about it. You don't want to see it. I remember going over to my grandma's. We're watchin' it one time then we're deleting it off the DVR and not talking about it again."

Sure, it was bad when Nate Diaz brutalized Cerrone for three rounds, setting a UFC record for most significant strikes landed (238) in a 15-minute bout. But this? Getting humiliated on national television by a man he personally called out? This was worse.

Try as he might, Cerrone can't figure why it keeps happening.

"It's like, I don't know if it's the camera or the pressure, but I've got to figure that out," Cerrone admits. "Whatever makes me fight hard to get there, and then I seem to, like, fold under pressure. I don't know. I'm tryin' to [figure it out]. I got a new sports psychologist tryin' to work those kinks out."

It sounds cliché, but Cerrone feels like a new man now. With the help of his sports psychologist, Cerrone came to realize that he needed to fight his own fight, "for once." Go out and dominate the cage, show everyone why he's a striker to be feared. Believe in his jiu-jitsu, stop falling into opponent's gameplans, and most of all, stop burying deep into his own head.

Cerrone quit eating candy, too. At first glance, that may not seem like such a big deal. But when you realize he basically lived on the stuff for years -- "I'd rather trade real food for candy, as s--ty as that sounds," Cerrone chuckles -- it starts adding up to ‘big deal' range. The new diet, which consists of actual, healthy food, has already worked wonders.

Cerrone usually enters fight week weighing between 185 and 190 pounds. The lightweight limit is 155 pounds, meaning Cerrone is forced to cut upwards of 30 pounds within a matter of days. Even for the most seasoned professional, that's an inhuman task.

But this time around, things are a little different.

"It's hard not to cheat," says Cerrone. "I can go splurge and eat whatever I want without training camp. But we're professional athletes. We've really got to keep on it and stay [healthy].

"I'm tryin' to take a different approach, a different angle, and work on my weight. I think my weight might be a problem, comin' in so heavy. Right now I'm 174, so I feel great. Staying light."

Cerrone knows he's at the end of the lightweight line. When you lose like he lost, that tends to happen. Nonetheless, Cerrone also knows what ‘end of the line' really means in the UFC -- that he's just "two or three pretty outstanding wins" away from contention. Now that's a position he's comfortable in.

So it's back to work, back to the climb for "Cowboy." And when he next reaches the summit, hopefully the third time is the charm.

"When you lose, everything's wrong," Cerrone finishes. "But really, I just got to get back to what I used to do. Just start grindin' again."

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