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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Ottawa

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There’s something strangely illogical about Donald Cerrone’s Hall of Fame career.

It’s not just his plethora of records, such as most wins (23), most finishes (16), most knockdowns (20), and most performance bonuses (17). It’s that he achieved those records without ever holding a championship, and somehow has only garnered one UFC title shot.

Even more impressive is that those UFC records were set even though he spent four years in in the old WEC, whereas by today’s standards, he’d have already been in UFC as one of the top lightweights. He was almost 28 when he started his UFC career, yet still dominates in just about every longevity category.

If you include those marks, given that WEC was owned by UFC at the time, his records completely blow away the rest of the field, adding another seven wins, five finishes, and five more performance bonuses to his résumé. And still no championships.

He failed in three attempts to capture the WEC lightweight title, and in the lone championship fight of his record-setting UFC career, he barely lasted a minute in a 2015 loss to Rafael dos Anjos.

Despite being a fighter who is known for competing in some of the most exciting and damaging fights in the lightweight division, dating back more than a decade, and fighting too often by modern standards, a body that should have been worn down is now, at 36, at its most popular. Based on his performance at UFC Ottawa against Al Iaquinta, Cerrone may be at his best, and surely seems to be at his most efficient. He’s also very close to another championship opportunity, and could be in line for the biggest fights of his career.

While lots of fighters talk about loving to fight, wanting to fight as often as they can, and never turning down fights, Cerrone actually fits that bill. The crowd knows it, as he’s become one of the most enduring popular fighters in the company’s history. Before our eyes, he’s transformed from brash young man to almost humble family man, still maintaining a charm and charisma through it all. He’s gone from high-level kickboxer with a limited ground game to a career with 17 submission wins. He’s been the fighter who promised the grandmother who raised him — a fixture at ringside during his fights — that he was going to hand her a championship belt. And after a decade, he’s done everything one could do in a career but that.

Cerrone’s career is marked by his notable exciting wins every bit as much as his exciting losses. He first made a name by coming close but losing decisions in battles with Jamie Varner and Benson Henderson for a WEC lightweight championship that he very easily could have won. In other cases, when on the verge of a championship fight, he lost the key matchup that would have gotten him a shot — in 2011 to Nate Diaz, in 2013 to Anthony Pettis, and probably again in 2017 against Jorge Masvidal at welterweight.

Less than a year ago, after losing his fourth fight of his previous five, fighting as a small welterweight, it seemed like Cerrone had seen his best days. He’d moved up in weight once he was out of lightweight contention and a slew of new young fighters had begun dominating that division.

But in beating Iaquinta in Ottawa, the narrative on Cerrone has changed one more time.

While not the biggest draw, Cerrone is undoubtedly the most popular fighter in the UFC’s deepest division. Cerrone’s name has been linked with the division’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, since January. Really it goes back years, to a UFC press conference where the two went back-and-forth as fans saw the potential of what could be one of the most exciting hype jobs for a fight. And it’s also one with a good chance of delivering on that hype given Cerrone’s track record as an exciting fighter and bonus machine.

That fight makes even more sense today. But Iaquinta as Cerrone’s opponent came because, at the end of the day, McGregor didn’t agree to face him after previously indicating he would.

It’s the most logical opponent, but McGregor has the power to sit and wait, and probably come right back into a championship fight because of his name value and drawing power.

Cerrone may not have quite that name value and drawing power, but he probably could sit and wait. Except, that’s not his style.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars on Saturday night.

DONALD CERRONE — The star of Saturday’s show should, by all rights, face McGregor (21-4) next in a fight to determine who gets the winner of the proposed Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier title fight.

But all rights don’t apply to either the UFC or McGregor.

Tony Ferguson (24-3), who has been sidelined with some personal issues, has indicated he’s ready to return. Ferguson clearly deserves a title fight, but in such a deep division, he likely needs a win at this point. Cerrone vs. Ferguson would be a great battle for a title shot if McGregor doesn’t agree to terms.

And if neither is ready, Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje (20-2) makes the most sense and on paper looks to be one of the most exciting fights in recent memory.

AL IAQUINTA — Iaquinta (14-5-1) remained part of the crazy lightweight club alongside Cerrone, Gaethje, Ferguson, Poirier, Edson Barboza, and Pettis who are known for show-stealing fights.

Iaquinta was never knocked down before Saturday, but Cerrone put him down on several occasions. It would make sense for him to fight Gaethje next, provided Gaethje isn’t facing Cerrone. Another good next foe would be Barboza (20-7).

DEREK BRUNSON — Brunson (19-7) continued to beat all but the top tier middleweight opponents. Brunson had lost four of six coming into Saturday’s fight with Elias Theodorou, but those losses were to Anderson Silva in a fight he could have won the decision, current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, current interim champion Israel Adesanya, and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.

A good next opponent would be Kelvin Gastelum (15-4) or Chris Weidman (14-4). It would make sense for Gastelum or Weidman to face Jack Hermansson, and the one who Hermansson doesn’t face would make sense to be in with Brunson.

SHANE BURGOS — Burgos (12-1) got his biggest name win of his career in stopping longtime top-10 ranked featherweight Cub Swanson (25-11) in a fight with one very strange score. Burgos appeared to win two of three rounds, and the third round was close. One could possibly justify a 29-28 Swanson card, but not the 30-27 of judge Dave Therien.

The win should give Burgos another name next, with good choices being Andre Fili (19-6) or Yair Rodriguez (11-2).

WALT HARRIS — In the fight that shows how win-loss records can be deceptive, Harris, coming in with an 11-7, 1 NC record, faced Sergey Spivak, who came into UFC with a 9-0 record, all stoppage wins, and eight in the first round.

Harris just overwhelmed Spivak with big punches and knees and literally put him out of his misery in just 50 seconds.

Harris made it clear who he wanted next, specifically calling out Justin Willis (8-2) and Aleksei Oleinik (59-12-1) and mentioning that he wanted them in Abu Dhabi, which would be on Sept. 7. Another good opponent for him as far as an entertaining style matchup would be Derrick Lewis (21-7).