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Every fighter slips eventually, but for Cowboy Cerrone that time isn’t now

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Austin Cerrone vs Medeiros Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Donald Cerrone quietly went into his fight with Yancy Medeiros on the cusp of many things. If he won, it would be a 20th overall victory in the UFC, which would tie the record currently held by Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping. If he did it in the first round, he would tie Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva for the most at 14. If he lost? That would be four losses in a row, and perhaps complete the process of unraveling for one of the UFC’s most reliable phone numbers.

The severity of the stakes never rose above a whisper heading into Sunday night, but they were clear enough: If Cowboy fell to one side, he’d make history and keep the future optimistic. If he fell to the other, he would cue his own dirge music.

Yet Cerrone did what he’s been doing since 2006 in Austin. He rolled up to the gig in western formal wear (bolo tie, patterned shawl, cowboy hat, Eastwood beard), and turned his jitters into a sharp ping in the old spittoon. Once he settled in, it was vintage Cowboy out there against his great admirer Medeiros — it was stalk, snap, crack, kill. Beautiful, fluid, mean, if at times a bit more cautious than we’ve seen to open the fight. After an affectionate hug and high-ten midway through the first round, Cerrone dialed up Medeiros’ chin with a big shot late in the frame that turned his legs against him. Moments later, referee Herb Dean was waving his hands in the air.

Medeiros, who came back to take out the other Cowboy (Alex Oliveira) just two-and-a-half months ago in Detroit by flashing his superhuman chin, could not overcome the OG of the haunted mesa. There would be no changing of the guard. And it was a timely showing for Cerrone, who since coming over from the WEC in 2011 has fought more frequently than any sane body should, usually to pay off a boat or an RV or an excursion rappelling down some daunting rockface. It signaled that he wasn’t done yet. Not at just 34 years old.

Not even after three losses in a row and all the washed-up grumblings.

It was hard not to admire Cerrone’s genius of longevity in a fight against a surging welterweight on a completely opposite trajectory. His fellow elder statesmen on the card didn’t do nearly as well. Thiago Alves, who fought St-Pierre for the welterweight title back at UFC 100, found himself in an out of his own bearings against Curtis Millender. He got clocked on several occasions, the last time in which Millender stood at a surveying distance to watch the referee wave off whatever was left of Alves’ vitality. Josh Burkman, who was a cast member on The Ultimate Fighter 2, didn’t have much to offer Alex Morono, either.

He tapped to a guillotine a little after the two-minute mark, making it five losses in a row. This is how it usually works. The writing on the wall becomes legible to everyone to see, in real time. At some point, even the greats lose the ability to fight. The hunger goes away, or they lose a step. The chin begins to vanish, and confidence goes. It becomes a recovery mission for some original flame, some last grasp at the vitality long given over to the collective memory.

Turns out, Cerrone’s not there yet.

On a night when his old campfire pal Leonard Garcia was seated cageside (working a Rubik’s Cube, no less), and his former dance partner Nate Diaz — who landed a then-record 260 total strikes on him back in 2011 — brandished a blunt on national television, it was fitting that Cerrone should return to form. He landed crisp shots, he moved, and he never ceded control. He got his arm raised, and before anyone knew it, Medeiros was kissing his grandmother.

In other words, a typical Cerrone fight. And later on in the bowels of the Frank Erwin Center, there was Cowboy, declaring an imminent return to the lightweight division, and calling out the one fighter most people don’t anything to do with, Khabib Nurmagomedov. He will fight on, against…whoever, a champion, a contender, or a hot prospect aiming to make him look old. The attitude has not changed in a decade. It’s been all-comers, whenever, wherever. Cowboy just keeps showing up.

And with GSP now competing on a leap year schedule and Michael Bisping a fight away from retiring, Cerrone is poised to become UFC’s willingest, winningest, most unceasing son of a bitch to ever do it. It’s been one hell of a ride, and on Sunday he reminded everyone it’s not over yet with that trademark crooked grin of his.

One day that crooked grin will come to stand for the great unsung.

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