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Donald Cerrone is back on the horse, and this ride feels different than before

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Two weeks ago, on a balmy winter night in the desert, Jamie Varner unceremoniously knocked himself silly while fending off the advances of a kid who'd still been a cage virgin at the time of Varner's championship heyday in the WEC. It wasn't the first time things failed to go his way, but this time there would be no coming back. Varner lost just seconds later, his fifth such speed bump over his last six tries, and promptly retired from the sport of mixed martial arts at the young age of 30.

The news reached Donald Cerrone across state lines, somewhere out in the New Mexican wasteland, and was likely met by a wry curl from the Cowboy's lip. Once upon a time, Cerrone and Varner had been bitter rivals; lightweights who loathed every inch of each other, who twice met for high stakes in the WEC, split the series one apiece, and garnered two ‘Fight of the Night' checks for their troubles.

Cerrone is now 31 years old, years removed from the rivalry and firmly entrenched within the top-five ranks of the UFC's 155-pound division. He, like Varner, is primed to fight a youngster -- Myles Jury -- who hardly knew up from down at the time those wars were raging inside the blue cage. Unlike Varner though, a win at UFC 182 would likely propel Cerrone into an instant title shot or title eliminator.

But even for an unsentimental guy who's rarely seen without his Cheshire smirk... between the manner of Varner's exit, and the sight of those weathered gloves abandoned in the center of the canvas, Cerrone couldn't ask for a more wicked reminder of his own mortality in the fight game.

"I remember being a kid. I remember living upstairs and being the rookie and the new guy," Cerrone told "I remember my first UFC fight, and actually my first WEC fight. I remember walking in and I was fighting ‘Razor' Rob (McCullough), and everyone knew him and no one knew me. He was saying hi to everybody. It was just weird. Now I walk into the UFC office and I know everybody, I got everyone's phone numbers, and I feel like a veteran. I got new guys coming to the house and if they need something, I can make a call and I make it happen. It's crazy.

"I'm still the kid, but I'm having to make real-life decisions now. You know, when I was 19, 20 years old, they'd give me 50-grand, that s**t would be gone. On dumb s**t. I mean, I still do that a lot now, but now I have to start thinking, maybe I've got five years left in this sport. I need to start figuring out what's next. What are we going to focus on? What are my goals in the sport? Things like that. I remember when I recklessly used to come in not caring. Now you've kinda gotta figure it out."

Cerrone would be the first one to tell you, but ‘figuring it out' has never been chief among his list of priorities. His four-year UFC run, while largely positive, has been epitomized by an audacious level of ‘don't give a damn,' as well as a frustrating inability to capitalize on his own success. In staying true to his mantra of wanting to fight anywhere, anytime, Cerrone has averaged nearly four fights a year during that span -- a number that far eclipses nearly all of his contemporaries -- but failed to translate that breakneck pace into a shot at gold.

For a time, the narrative seemed to become an indictment of Cerrone's entire fighting career. Sure, Cowboy's good... but he cracks at the highest levels. And at least on paper, it was hard to argue. Win four, allow Nate Diaz into his head, lose a title eliminator. Win two, allow Anthony Pettis into his head, lose a title eliminator.

It nearly happened again this past September. Riding his latest four-fight win streak, Cerrone met an emotional and debuting Eddie Alvarez at UFC 178, and promptly lost the first round. Cerrone chokes again; the headlines were already halfway written. But then a funny thing happened: Cerrone readjusted, re-acclimated himself, and stormed out to handily win the final two rounds and move back into title contention.

Donald Cerrone - Eddie Alvarez

Afterward he acknowledged that the mental readjustment was one he likely wouldn't have made just a few years back. And now, suddenly, it's worth asking... does Cerrone have it in him to rewrite his career's script?

"What he tells me is: ‘I'm tired of messing around, coach. I'm going after that title.' And that means he's figured it out. He's turned his corner, and I think that's really important," says Cerrone's head trainer Greg Jackson.

"I've known him since he was a kid, since he came here eight, nine years ago. So I see a shift in him. And it's time. That's what I always say, Donald's turned his corner. His mentality is different. It's the first time I've ever heard him say, ‘I really want that belt. I'm going after this thing.' Like, I've never heard him say that. Usually it's like, ‘I don't care who I fight and what I do.' But I just see a focus shift in him."

Jackson isn't alone in his observations.

"He finally knows what he wants," says fellow coach Mike Winkeljohn. "It took us a long time to figure out that what Donald needs is just to be himself and enjoy life, and when he's calm that way, he goes into a fight much more focused. So this one definitely is different. I think he's making a title run right now. He's going to do it this time. He's one of the most athletic guys in our gym and people haven't even seen that in his fights yet."

"Now [he] understands that: ‘okay, I can compete with these guys. My biggest opponent is certainly myself, and if I'm on, then I'm very hard to stop.' I think that was a big epiphany for him," adds Jackson. "Hanging out with Kevin Harvick, too, the race care driver, seeing him win, Cowboy's like ‘well he's winning and he's kinda my best friend. I should be winning a title, too.'"

Without question, 2014 will go down as the most successful year of Cerrone's career -- at least up to this point. Four wins over a quartet of bona fide killers, three of them finishes. Enough bonus cash to finally complete the home gym/fighter dorms at his Albuquerque ranch, a personal dream of his that he admits is still strange to see in his rear-view mirror.

And then of course, tucked in there somewhere along the way, Cerrone seemed to finish his transformation from brash freewheelin' hellraiser to future-oriented elder statesmen.

So hey, who knows. Maybe this title run will end differently then all the last. The only thing for sure... it certainly feels different.

"I definitely feel like I put my time in, you know?" Cerrone says. "I look at people trying to take the path, they want to just come in, move here and say ‘I want to be a UFC fighter.' They want to go from first fight to into the UFC. It's like, I took the hard way, man. I remember putting in the time, and now I feel like a veteran. I feel like I put the hours in.

"I'm starting to see a lot of people starting to go... and that make me feel old in this sport. But them little new f**kers can get their ass whipped just the same."

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