'Cowboy' is finally ready for UFC gold

Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone
Donald Cerrone has verbally agreed to fight Adriano Martins.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.



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.

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