Cerrone still searching for gold

UFC lightweight contender Donald Cerrone has come up short in three WEC championship fights and two UFC title eliminators.

Although no title is on the line when No. 6-ranked Cerrone battles surging Brazilian No. 10-ranked Rafael dos Anjos this Wednesday at UFC Fight Night, there are major implications, as the winner will move one step closer to a crack at the belt, while the loser will likely fall out of the top 10.

Cerrone is one of those rare anomalies, a supremely gifted fighter who is so close to being the best, yet he fails when it matters most.

Still, Cerrone is only 30 years old and his maturation in the Octagon has come with experience.

Transitioning from a muay thai background, Cerrone made his debut in February 2006, going a perfect 6-0 in his native Colorado, submitting all six victims, including UFC veterans Nate Mohr and Anthony Njokuani.

Another triangle choke finish in Japan, the fifth of his career, earned Cerrone a WEC contract. He used the same move to dispatch Kenneth Alexander in his September 2007 promotional debut, only to test positive for a banned diuretic, leading the result to be overturned to a no-contest.

Cerrone evolved under the watchful eye of Greg Jackson in New Mexico, training alongside a plethora of champions, including Rashad Evans, Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones. It wouldn’t take long for Cerrone to earn his first title shot, as he defeated Danny Castillo and Rob McCullough in 2008.

Cerrone challenged Jamie Varner for the gold at WEC 38, losing a hard-fought split technical decision with Varner unable to continue following an illegal knee in the fifth round.

A first-round finish of James Krause earned Cerrone another shot at the interim title, but he lost a unanimous decision to reigning UFC champion Benson Henderson.

Sure enough, Cerrone would bounce back with another submission of Ed Ratcliff, earning him an undisputed title fight with Henderson in April 2010. Cerrone succumbed to a first-round rear-naked choke, pushing him out of the immediate title picture.

Cerrone defeated rival Jamie Varner by decision in their September 2010 rematch in what was likely the sweetest win of his career. Cerrone completely dominated a former champion and got his revenge before submitting Chris Horodecki in his final WEC appearance.

A five-time WEC "Fight of the Night" winner, Cerrone made a statement upon entering the UFC in 2011, defeating four opponents that year, including first-round finishes of Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver. However, Cerrone took a pounding from Nate Diaz in their No. 1 contendership bout, sending him back to the drawing board yet again.

In 2012, Cerrone got back in the win column with victories over Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard. Cerrone’s knockout of Guillard was among his most memorable career finishes, overcoming some early adversity before starching his former teammate with a picture-perfect straight right hand.

Another crack at the belt was within reach, but Anthony Pettis took the wind out of him with a devastating combination this past January, a fight that has propelled Pettis to opportunities for championship fights in two weight divisions.

Most recently, Cerrone rebounded with a more disciplined performance, outpointing K.J. Noons at UFC 160 in May.

A charismatic talent with a strong fanbase, Cerrone’s UFC future is hardly in jeopardy. He’ll always be near the top of the heap, but he needs to build some momentum if he still has aspirations of challenging for the division’s most coveted prize.

Wednesday’s fight is a significant test for "The Cowboy," as dos Anjos has dispatched his last four adversaries, including highly impressive decisions over Mark Bocek and Evan Dunham. Two years Cerrone’s junior, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt dos Anjos has crawled his way to contender status and he’s hardly being positioned as a pushover.

Cerrone often makes headlines for his dangerous stunts. A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Cerrone’s hobbies include rock climbing and wakeboarding. In fact, Cerrone became the first fighter to sign with NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick’s athlete management company this past June.

The headlines took a turn for the worse earlier this week, as Cerrone was slapped with a misdemeanor third-degree assault charge following a boating incident, in which Cerrone was allegedly involved in a physical altercation. Cerrone has yet to speak publicly about the situation, but he’s reportedly cooperating with authorities. All factors considered, it’s a distraction Cerrone doesn’t need in the lead-up to one his toughest tests in the cage.

Cerrone is unquestionably one of the best lightweights in the world, but he needs to find some consistency at this stage of his career. With losses against all the top contenders ahead of him, Cerrone needs to prove himself all over again in order to erase the memory of his crushing losses against Henderson, Pettis and Diaz.

With a crop of new contenders on the horizon, including the likes of Gilbert Melendez, T.J. Grant, Gray Maynard, Diego Sanchez, Josh Thomson, Pat Healy and Jim Miller, the sky is the limit for Cerrone.

Cerrone’s long journey back to another title shot begins on Saturday with a hungry Brazilian veteran looking to derail his ambitions of divisional supremacy.