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Among the many shades of Donald Cerrone, this ‘old bastard’ version is the best

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Ottawa-Iaquinta vs Cerrone Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

If future generations should ever want to get a feel for the best fighters of the early 21st century, they can just study the life and career of Donald Cerrone. He’s fought them all, and in every kind of circumstance. He’s taken on contenders, champions, surging prospects, teammates, welterweights, desperate lunatics, villains of every sort, kickboxers, jiu-jitsu aces, bar brawlers, woodwork figures, high-strung mercenaries looking for a quick buck. He’s fought on the East Coast, the West Coast, in Poland, Singapore, and Canada, arriving by RV, airplane, speedboat and wakeboard. He’s worn a mullet, a beard, a goatee, a shaved head and more shiners than can be calculated.

Cerrone rarely looks the same on fight night; but he’s the greatest constant the UFC has ever known. And he’s a key chapter in every worthwhile lightweight’s biography, in most cases because he introduced them to hell. At 36 years old, with 31 UFC fights under his belt, his shadowy silhouette should be framed, horseback, on some orange-tinted horizon by now. Yet he just keeps showing up in his western shawls. And, though he doesn’t always win, he just keeps kicking ass.

That last part is perhaps the most remarkable thing any UFC fighter has ever achieved. In a sport that mentally and physically erodes its players over time, Cerrone remains as vital as ever after 13 years old competition. His skills simply don’t diminish. Neither does his mind.

As a self-celebrated day drinker, maybe there’s something to that.

In any case, Saturday night’s fight with Al Iaquinta was a blue-flame affair. It always looked like a damn good fight, but because it was on a stay busy Fight Night in Ottawa it was organically subdued. Cerrone is a master of just such a set-up. The life of the smaller party. He is a bang-for-the-buck maestro who guarantees action, which is why the UFC loves him so much. And once again he came through.

Not that it didn’t take him a round or so to get rolling. Cowboy — a notoriously slow starter — couldn’t quite find his bearings (nor his range) in the opening round, which he talked about with astonishing clarity afterwards. The killer instinct was buried in the moil, was all. It was there all along, he knew that, but these are the games a veteran aware of what he’s capable of plays with himself in a cage fight. The inner-killer needs some coaxing, and you could almost hear Cerrone mumbling to himself, “let’s get going, you old bastard.”

He found that side of him in the second round. He flipped a switch and turned into what can only be described as “vintage Cowboy” — which is to say, the mean son of a bitch that we’ve come to know and love. That’s when his chin pointed a little more directly to the ground, and he began stalking Iaquinta with his eyes burning like an angry bull’s under his brow. That’s when the kicks started firing off as if he didn’t want to just hurt Iaquinta, but to destroy him. That’s when the exchanges took on the kill-or-be-killed feel of the woke giant who’s had just about e-goddamb-nuff.

What followed was a potential Fight of the Year candidate. For Cerrone to truly showcase his wares, he needs an accommodating dance partner. That’s what New York’s Iaquinta was. If you took the color off your TV screen, Iaquinta becomes a throwback to the Jake LaMotta’s and the Rocky Marciano’s of the day. He’s all chin and Adam’s apple, a pugilist by strict definition, willing to take as much punishment as he can dish.

Cerrone teed off, and Iaquinta returned fire. Some of the shots were nasty, straight to the nose, or right in the hollows of the chest. Yet Iaquinta kept coming forward. He laid it on Cerrone too. His face was red with blood, his nose was a mess. But there was no quit in “Raging” Al. There was only the live realization that he was overmatched.

In the end, Cerrone prevailed. After a fight-closing flurry, in which Cerrone’s punches were landing with more menace than at any point in the bout, Iaquinta stayed on the canvas after the horn. He started to get up, but then gave up the thought. It was profound. What was he thinking? That he had just gone through, as Oliver Wendall Holmes once said, the incommunicable experience of war? That he blew it? Or was it just, in the crude manner of a fight, “well, that sucked?”

Iaquinta alone will know, but if there’s ever a biography about his career, the Cerrone chapter will be a daunting one to revisit. Cerrone — the old man who’s tougher at 36 than he was at 23 — put him through five rounds of hell. Not many people can say they’ve done that to Iaquinta. Not when he’s had a full training camp and shows up hungry.

Now Cowboy wants a fight with Conor McGregor in July. It’s ultimately up to the Irishman if that fight will happen, but if there’s one guarantee, it’s this — whether McGregor shows up or not, Cerrone will be there.

And whoever joins him that night will be in for a fight.

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