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If there’s ever a time for Donald Cerrone to Cowboy up, this is it

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

By anyone’s account, Donald Cerrone has lived one hell of a life. This is a guy who once traveled Big Sky country pursuing professional bull riding, who’s had multiple brushes with death in extreme sports adventures, who’s been a world famous mixed martial artist for over a decade. He is beloved for his willingness to entertain the masses and for fighting anyone, anytime. He holds the record for most UFC wins. And he is a surefire UFC Hall of Famer.

For all of Cerrone’s acclaim, there is at least one criticism that has plagued him throughout the majority of his high-level career. Cerrone has never won “the big one.” He’s never captured a major championship, and has struggled in his career against top-five opponents. It’s a narrative that has followed him like a shadow, giving “Cowboy” no choice but to acknowledge it heading into his UFC 246 bout with Conor McGregor.

“He’s the two-time belt-holding champ, man,” Cerrone said in the event pre-fight press conference. “So you can definitely say this is to date the toughest battle I’ve stepped in against and I’m stoked because … ‘Cowboy can you fight the big fight? You never make it in the big fight.’ Well motherf—er, here’s the biggest one. Let’s see, huh?”

If history is any indication, his chances are not good. In his storied career, Cerrone has been in nine matchups with fighters who at some point have held a UFC championship or interim championship. He’s 2-7. That record does not even include other high-profile losses against Justin Gaethje, Darren Till and Nate Diaz.

Given his savviness and skill, it’s a perplexing phenomenon, one that Cerrone has attempted to address as far back as 2013, when he acknowledged his big-fight struggles as a tangible problem, no different than, say, a lack of wrestling defense.

“It’s like, I don’t know if it’s the camera or the pressure, but I’ve got to figure that out,” Cerrone said then. “Whatever makes me fight hard to get there, and then I seem to, like, fold under pressure. I don’t know. I’m tryin’ to [figure it out].”

For a time, it seemed there may be a breakthrough coming. Shortly after publicly revealing his use of a sports psychologist, he promptly reeled off his longest UFC win streak with eight straight victories. Included among them were his only wins against former champs (Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson). With the problem seemingly licked, Cerrone finally earned a chance to compete for the UFC lightweight championship. But when he finally faced Rafael dos Anjos for the gold, he suffered the worst defeat of his career, a stunning 66-second knockout loss.

Fast-forward four years, and Cerrone is fast approaching his 37th birthday. But with time running short on his fighting days, he’s gotten something of a gift from McGregor. Usually an eager initiator of psychological warfare, the former two-division champion has declined to ratchet up the stakes with any verbal jousting. Instead, he’s actually done the opposite, deflating any prior tension between them.

“We’ve had a good back and forth, myself and Donald,” he said. “As time has gone on, he’s become a family man. You’ve seen him compete so many times it’s hard not to respect Donald right now at this stage. He has my respect, and although there will be blood spilled on January 18, it will not be bad blood.”

For McGregor, this may amount to placing public relations concerns ahead of mind games. He has suffered through an extended stretch of bad publicity for his role in multiple court cases and two sexual assault investigations. He may have looked at Cerrone’s record of faltering against top opponents and calculated it’s not worth bashing one of the sport’s beloved stars, or he may, as he says, truly respect him that much.

Whatever the case, his refusal to heighten the stakes ultimately benefits Cerrone, who will be stepping into a UFC pay-per-view main event for the first time in his career.

Still, the money is long on McGregor, who was installed as a slight favorite but whose odds continue to bloat. As of Thursday, he was listed around -350, giving him an implied winning probability of nearly 78 percent. And much of the money coming in on Cerrone is simply taking a flyer. This despite the fact that Cerrone has realistic paths to victory, most notably through a ground game that is far more proven than McGregor’s. Though mostly known as a striker, nearly half of Cerrone’s wins (17 out of 36) have come via submission; conversely, McGregor has been tapped out in all four of his career losses.

If Cerrone creates a game plan for success, it will include a heavy dose of takedown attempts, something he has done in infrequent instances. Against Leon Edwards back in June 2018, he tried nine; against Robbie Lawler in 2017, he tried 10. Still, it’s a suggestion he’s mostly laughed off.

“We’re here to entertain and blow the roof off of this motherfu—er,” he said.

Maybe his blowoff is as much a self-preservational tactic as it is a statement. If the result doesn’t matter as much as the process, there can be no failure. It’s just as well. At 36, Cerrone is a longshot to ever get to a championship, but his legacy is safely secure. He’s Mr. Excitement, an action man who never saw a matchup he didn’t want. He’s a record-holder, a fan-favorite, a fighter’s fighter. He doesn’t need to win this match for anybody but himself, but he’s the one holding himself back. If there was ever a time to Cowboy up, this is it.

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