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Cole Miller fine with being a 'gatekeeper,' so far as Conor McGregor is concerned

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Heading into 2013, Cole Miller had lost three of four fights and was 0-2 in his return to the featherweight division. In early 2014, his fortunes have changed -- Miller has won three of four fights, and now feels like he is a top ten 145-pounder. It’s been a subtle transformation for the American Top Team fighter, who says that at 29 years old he finally "gets it."

Though perhaps more riveting than his turnaround is that "Magrinho" has become audacious enough to start calling guys out.

First it was Irishman Conor McGregor, whom Miller dubbed "Colin McGoober" right after defeating Andy Ogle. He wanted to strike an end to all the sensationalism. Now it’s Donald Cerrone in Miller’s crosshairs -- only, "Cowboy" Cerrone morphed into "Clownboy" Cerrone. Miller made this latest booking request after choking out Sam Sicilia at UFC Fight Night 35 in Duluth, Georgia.

The Cerrone call out caught people off guard for two reasons. One, most thought Miller would redouble his efforts for a fight with McGregor with a victory, having better footing to make it happen (plus, Dana White loves persistence). McGregor is slated to be back from his knee injury sometime in mid-2014, possibly for a big headlining show in Dublin. And two, Cerrone already has a fight coming up this Saturday night against Adriano Martins at UFC on FOX 10 in Chicago.

Miller appeared on the Monday edition of The MMA Hour to explain himself, and talk about the sudden new wrinkle in his game: Outspokenness.

"I just see a lot of stuff that bothers me in martial arts," he told host Ariel Helwani. "There’s two sides to how I feel about MMA. There’s my personal career as a fighter, but then there’s how I feel as a fan. I was a fan first, and I do care about this sport and mixed martial arts in general. And I’ve been noticing a lot of things that have been rubbing me the wrong way and that I feel like have been making the sport decline, and I want to speak out on those things."

One area of contention was judging, which Miller would like to see reformed to prevent fighters (and trainers) from devising game plans centered on not losing rather than fighting to win. The other thing that Miller mentioned was a more familiar pet peeve -- that of fellow featherweight McGregor, the Irish fighter who made a big splash in the UFC in 2013.

Miller once again made it clear he doesn’t go in for star treatment of unproven fighters, not when guys like him (with 16 fights in the Octagon) have been toiling up the rungs.

"I don’t like people coming into the UFC, and the guy’s got the whole fighting Irish gimmick going on, and he jumps to the front of the line," Miller said. "And a lot of people…I’ve got a lot of people on Twitter saying shut-up you gatekeeper bitch, and I’m sitting there thinking, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

"I don’t even think that [being called a gatekeeper is] a bad thing to say. I’ve worked my ass off. I’ve had my ups and downs in my career, and if at that point I’m a gatekeeper, you’re damn right I’m a gatekeeper. And I’ve f---ing earned that. So let me do my job and throw these guys like Conor McGregor in my way, so we can find out just how good they are."

Though Miller later clarified that he’s embracing the role of gatekeeper more based on his record’s inconsistencies than on his skill set, the sentiment was clear. If McGregor is to be expedited to the top of the featherweight division, he should have to go through him. But it works both ways, because right now Miller said he feels like a contender in the division, which is a far cry from the true definition of a gatekeeper.

"I know no one’s going to argue that my skill set is not top ten," he said. "You can’t tell me that of all the top ten guys that I can’t strike or I can’t grapple or I can’t fight with any of those guys. I feel like that I’m the dark horse. I feel like those guys, none of them want to fight me."

So why did he call out Cerrone instead of reiterating his desire to fight McGregor? Turns out that was a misunderstanding.

"Honestly, I didn’t even know [Cerrone] had a fight coming up this weekend until the other day," Miller confessed. "I check the UG all the time, and I had saw that he had made a comment about jumping down to 145 pounds. So I was like, ‘perfect!’ We had our beef and…it’s not gone. He just happened to be on the rise when he came in so he got, not that he didn’t earn it, but he got a quick run towards the lightweight rankings. I was on a skid at the time, and I dropped down to featherweight and had a rough start at the beginning.

"So, we weren’t anywhere near at each other to fight. But I’ve said it, before my day’s done here, it’s going to happen. I really just wanted to throw that out there to remind him and others that it’s not done yet. And if he needs motivation to come to 145…that’s on the table."

Asked what the "beef" was between the two, Miller traced it back to the time he fought (and beat) Leonard Garcia in 2007. Garcia is Cerrone’s best friend, roommate and training partner. The bad blood between Cerrone and Miller has festered for over six years.

"I honestly think that [Cerrone] thinks I’m a mark, that I was just some easy guy that he could get over on -- that I was just some pushover that he could have an easy fight," Miller said. "There might have been some guys that beat me, but I’m not an easy fight for anybody. So, I’m not just going to stand there when somebody talks about me like that. We can fight. And we’ve had a couple of…we’ve jawed back and forth and had a couple of close calls behind the scenes and things like that. But we haven’t been able to get in the cage, so when I saw that on the Underground where it says in an interview that he was considering dropping down to 145 pounds, I was like, hey, if you just need a little bit of motivation to cut that weight, here it is."

Whoever Miller ends up fighting next it will have to wait. Miller broke his left hand against Sicilia and is right now in a cast, which he’ll have removed in a couple of weeks to re-evaluate. "It’s basically like eggshells in there right now," he said.

When asked when he thought he might be healthy enough to fight again, Miller said June. Coincidentally, that's right around the time when McGregor is expected to be ready for his return from his ACL.