‘Cowboy’ is finally ready for UFC gold

Donald Cerrone talks just about as fast as he lives, which is to
say, pretty damn fast. He rock climbs and wakeboards and rides
four-wheelers. He has hopes of base jumping solo. And that’s only
some of the “Cowboy’s” extracurriculars we know about. He owns a
bull he named “Don’t Tell Dana” as an homage to that part of his
life.

He often starts answering a question even before it is done
being asked, and does it in machine-gun bursts of words. He is a
man in a rush, with things to do. It’s the same in his professional
life. The UFC lightweight is without question one of the sport’s
great fighters, if at least in the traditional sense of the word.
He will fight anytime, at any weight class, against any opponent.
That warrior mentality is evidenced by his schedule; his Wednesday
night bout against Rafael dos Anjos at
UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2 will be
his 12th in the last 36 months, a pace that few others have been
able to keep.

In that time, he’s 9-2, with his only losses to No. 1 contenders
Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz. Cerrone is currently ranked No. 6. He
is talented and fearless, but is he elite? This is a question with
an expiration date. This isn’t to suggest he’s reaching it, but
Cerrone is 30 now, no longer a kid collecting paychecks to fuel his
other interests, although he fully admits that is and always will
be a part of it. He doesn’t aim to just win Knockout Of The Night
Awards, but Fight Of The Night, too, even though that usually means
a protracted war. That, however, seems to simply be how he’s wired.
If there isn’t a risk involved, it’s not with doing.

It is all interconnected anyway. Working with a sports
psychologist, Cerrone said he figured out that the extreme sports
activities are a way he can ensure the continued adrenaline rush
even after the days he can compete as a pro fighter.

“Walking to the arena is one of scariest things you can do,” he
said. “When you’re walking out, you’re like, [he breathes deeply
twice], letting people down and possible failure, there’s so many
things going through your mind.”

But, he goes on to say, it’s a feeling he secretly loves, all
this intensity and energy bottled up for a few minutes before its
inevitable release.

If you never thought you’d hear a self-analytical Cerrone,
you’re probably not alone. He just never seemed the type for that
kind of critical thinking, although that was probably our fault for
selling short someone with the self-discipline to succeed at such a
demanding professional pursuit.

But with it seems to have come another self-realization. In the
past, Cerrone bucked the system — what else is new? — when he
made the grand declaration that he didn’t care about holding a
title.

Even when he neared top contender status in the past, when he
took a six-fight win streak into fighting Nate Diaz at the end of
2011, he continued to hold that longview, even publicly questioning
himself in the process.

“Am I mentally ready to hold that belt?” he asked at the time.
“That takes a lot of pressure. It takes an upstanding citizen to be
the champion of something. I don’t know if I’m ready to make that
sacrifice yet. We’ll see.”

For a thrill-seeker, that was a surprising answer. For a
fighter, what could be a bigger rush than chasing gold and
winning?

Now older, wiser and more introspective, Cerrone’s quick lips
changed the narrative on his career arc with a few words this week.
It came when he was asked for his prediction on the upcoming
lightweight title fight between his old rivals Benson Henderson and
Anthony Pettis. The question did not imply Cerrone’s participation
in any future hypothetical scenario, but after noting that he
longed for another fight with Henderson, he could not help
interject himself into the scene.

“I don’t know if T.J. Grant is getting an immediate fight, or
Josh Thomson,” he said. “I don’t know who the next guy is, but
that’s who I’m going after. Whoever that guy is. A win over them,
chase that title down. I decided this year to get after it.”

With that, Cerrone’s quick lips voiced an intention he’d never
made before that, yes, it does matter to him to be the best. Again,
he’s only 30, so it’s not too late, even if there are younger,
hungry guys just itching to make their name off of him.

For No. 10-ranked dos Anjos, this fight is a showcase, the
chance to be seen against a name. Yet Cerrone admitted he had never
watched any film on him. He didn’t have the time and didn’t care to
see it anyway. It only mattered, he said, what he was going to do.
Fair enough. When you run on adrenaline and fear, that somehow
seems to make perfect sense.

But at least something will be very different for him. When the
“Cowboy” rides to the cage this time, he’ll still be
scared and he’ll still love the feeling, but there will be more
than just the thrill of the moment at hand. There will be the fight
and there will be the goal, green and then gold.