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UFC’s had many superstars, but Donald Cerrone is one of a kind

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There is a poignant story about Donald Cerrone that is not widely known but should serve as the building block of his legend. In January 2011, his grandfather Dr. Donald Cerrone was battling cancer when he realized things were trending in the wrong direction. Make it to the UFC soon, he told the rambunctious grandson he’d always seen greatness in, the one who he helped raise. Cerrone instinctively understood what he was saying. Time was running short.

Literally in the midst of that conversation, Cowboy’s phone rang. On the other end, improbably, the UFC was offering him a chance to make his debut. In one incongruous moment, Cerrone was torn by a clashing of extremes. One conversation represented his worst nightmare; the other held the promise of a dream. Ultimately, however, the decision was not his to make. His grandfather implored him to take the fight.

About a month later, Cowboy was in Las Vegas on fight night, warming up for his match in the Mandalay Bay Events Center when Dr. Cerrone slipped into a coma. Unbeknownst to Cowboy, his grandmother Jerry had called one of his best friends, Leonard Garcia, and asked him to hold up his phone in the arena so Dr. Cerrone could hear the sounds of the arena as the fight happened. So that he could experience the thing they’d always spoken of.

Somewhere between his final preparations and walking to the cage to fight Paul Kelly, Cowboy figured out what was happening, that something was not quite right. No one had explicitly told him; like he does in the cage, he just felt the moment. And somehow, through the midst of that heartbreak, he had no choice but to shift his focus from his beloved and dying grandad to the fight ahead. To the opponent that meant him harm. To making good on what he had promised.

Of course, he did it. Cowboy won the fight with a second-round submission. His grandfather heard the win and the celebration, and then, within hours, slipped into eternal rest.

Donald Cerrone has always found a way to deliver, no matter the situation. Last Saturday, at UFC Denver, before his hometown crowd and in the UFC’s 25th anniversary show, Cerrone found the spotlight yet again. He became the winningest fighter in UFC history, notching his 21st victory in the Octagon. That’s more wins than Georges St-Pierre, more than Anderson Silva, more than Jon Jones. (He also has the most finishes in UFC history, 15.) Throughout his time with the organization, he has been its Iron Man — dependable, exciting, fascinating.

At a time when the sport is shifting its business model, Cerrone is a breed all his own, effortlessly straddling the past era of “anyone, anytime, anywhere” and the current age of entertainment above all else.

That success has come through his versatility. From the beginning, he was the guy who could fight with a martial artist’s honor or spit fire, opponent’s choice. He could light you up with a four-piece combo, then squeeze the life out of you when you panicked into a takedown. No sweat either way.

His name has come to be a stamp of quality. If a card includes Cowboy, it’s a near-guarantee of a fun evening, win or lose. He did his part in Denver, jabbing back and forth with Mike Perry about the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym Cerrone had once represented and that Perry had more recently embedded himself into. The feud grew teeth and and latched on to the limelight, and in the end, Cerrone got the last word with an armbar submission victory.

Even still, Cerrone has managed to become one of those rare fighters for whom wins and losses don’t really seem to matter. It’s almost as if he effected a transaction with the fans whereby they accepted his hybrid of relentless entertainment and furious competition in lieu of traditional results.

But when it comes to victories and defeats, there have been both. Cerrone has had triumphs and heartbreaks aplenty. He has beaten great fighters like Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson, but he has lost to other greats like Rafael dos Anjos and Robbie Lawler. He has pounded on the door of a championship, only to be turned away time after time, sometimes in heartbreaking fashion.

From November 2013 to May 2015, he reeled off eight straight wins, finally earning the UFC lightweight title fight opportunity that had for so long eluded him. He lost in 66 seconds.

“Sometimes you just don’t show up to work, so you get your ass kicked,” he explained.

His brutal honesty and self-reflection only humanized him, endearing him to the masses that can identify with life’s everyday letdowns. That was because we knew that even if he lost, he would be back with a quickness. That on some card, someone would be needed to make sure the event would have the right sizzle. And Cerrone would raise his hand and say, “I know a guy.”

He’s never made it back to another championship match, and nearing the age of 36, it’s possible he never will. Because of that, for some, his legacy will be as one of the best fighters never to win a major title. That may end up being technically accurate, yet will still be a short-sighted assessment of what he was and what he is. He’s a fighter who says yes, shows up, gives his everything to the moment. He’s a highlight machine. He is a one-man, “break glass in case of emergency” contingency plan. He is Denver’s No. 1 fighting son, and Dr. Donald Cerrone’s grandson. He is the UFC’s all-time winningest fighter, and perhaps its all-time realest, too. In its 25 years of existence, the UFC can boast of many superstars, but Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone will forever be one of a kind.