Reckless. The only adjective we can really use to describe not only the career, but also the fighting style of cult hero Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje. The hugely entertaining Arizonian returns to the Octagon this weekend at UFC Fight Night Vancouver, in a five-round meeting with fellow fan-favorite Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, in a clash that almost guarantees fireworks. Gaethje has experienced a mixed bag of fortunes since his arrival to the promotion back in 2017, scoring three wins and dropping the first and second defeats of his career.
The former WSOF lightweight best amassed a perfect 17-0 record before signing with the UFC, establishing himself as a highly dangerous striker with his predominantly boxing style, storming though Luiz Firmino, Luis Palomino, Nick Newell, and Brian Foster. Despite his lack of dynamic standup attributes, Gaethje enters the Octagon against Cerrone as arguably the more dangerous striker. The 30-year-old also possesses one of the best abilities to take a clean shot in mixed-martial-arts today, with only Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez stopping him via strikes, albeit late on in their respective fights. ‘The Highlight’ has faced a similar kicking threat as ‘Cowboy’, in just his last walk to the Octagon, in the form of Brazil’s Edson Barboza. Granted, Barboza and Cerrone have hugely contrasting techniques with their Muay Thai and Kickboxing backgrounds but one thing they certainly both offer is the knack to knock an opponent unconscious with a single shot.
As much a Gaethje is known for his somewhat brawler status, he’s also widely known for his wrestling prowess, and the simple fact that so far in his five-fight stint with the organization, he is yet to display it offensively. Given Cerrone’s grappling proficiency, particularly off his back, I would hazard a guess that Gaethje’s own grappling ability will be left backstage come Saturday night. ‘Cowboy’ has finished eighteen separate bouts via submission, most recently stopping Mike Perry via a patented armbar, a joint lock he has used so far to claim the victory in a staggering four contests. His use of a triangle proves even more detrimental, which has halted eight opponents.
In his first career loss to Eddie Alvarez, the now ONE Championship lightweight contender ripped the body with brutal hooks for the opening three rounds on his way to a late knockout finish. Similarly to his loss to Poirier, Gaethje relied on his sheer grit and ability to withstand punishment to survive before a late barrage. We’ve never seen Justin Gaethje finished or completely flatlined via a single shot before, something the high kicks of ‘Cowboy’ may provide us.
Gaethje, on the other hand, has lodged three-leg kick stoppages in his eight-year career, just one behind the aforementioned Barboza in the lightweight division and the utilization of kicks against the lead leg of Cerrone early and often may prove successful this weekend. Cerrone tends to set up his kicks with punches, similar to fellow Jackson-Wink MMA trainee Holly Holm, and the persistent chopping from Gaethje will surely force Cerrone to assume a lightfooted stance.
A pressuring, pace-pushing game plan has garnered much success against Cerrone over his lengthy career, a style Gaethje is more than accustomed to. Nate Diaz landed on cue against Cerrone, Leon Edwards outlanded also, and against the slick boxer Jorge Masvidal, Cerrone was stopped inside the opening seven minutes. Against Barboza and James Vick, we really witnessed a fast-tracking Gaethje who allowed zero time for setups, utilizing the clinch, which is an important and quite interesting component to this clash, with Gaethje favoring ‘dirty boxing’ in the early goings against Barboza.
A victory for either man this weekend propels them toward a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight championship, with Gaethje and Cerrone also rumored earlier to summer to throw down with Conor McGregor before the turn of the year. According to the ‘Notorious One’, Gaethje was in line to face him in July at an event at New York’s, Madison Square Garden, before the Dubliner suffered an injury to his left hand in sparring, which scuppered the meeting for the time being.
It’s a rarity that a professional mixed-martial artist receives as much popularity and fanfare, as Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. Few examples spring to mind when we envision legitimate cult-hero stars in combat sports. Circa 2015 Conor McGregor, Nick, and Nate Diaz, Anderson Silva and in recent years, heavyweight big hitter Derrick Lewis and the hugely entertaining Jorge Masvidal. A man who gazumps arguably all those names is ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. Popularity alone would mean very little by itself, but Cerrone is still to this day, one of the most dangerous Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners on the UFC roster.
With a professional career spanning just thirteen years, relatively short compared to other names in this sport, Cerrone is undeniably one of the most active fighters we’ve ever seen in this sports antiquity. ‘Cowboy’ made the walk for the forty-ninth time against top lightweight contender Tony Ferguson at UFC 238 recently, a truly remarkable number. The Denver native’s tendency to seek a quick turnaround has also seen him break the record for most wins and stoppages in Octagon history. Ahead of ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone’s quickfire draw against the durable Justin Gaethje at UFC Fight Night Vancouver this weekend, I take a look at his legendary career.
Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone experienced a mixed bag of fortunes during his steady tenure with the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting organization. Originally bursting onto the scene with a triangle victory over Kenneth Alexander, the victory was short-lived for Cerrone who saw the result overturned to a ‘no contest’ after a post-fight drug test brought light to a banned substance. A clash with Team Alpha MMA member Danny ‘Last Call’ Castillo brought certain success for Cerrone this time around, scoring an armbar win inside the opening two minutes. In a quite shallow lightweight division, Cerrone had already booked himself into a 155-pound title eliminator showdown with Rob McCollough.
A unanimous decision triumph over McCullough earned ‘Cowboy’ a matchup with reigning WEC best Jamie ‘C-4’ Varner. An interesting back and forth had it’s conclusion midway through the final round, albeit via an illegal strike. A grounded Varner was met with a knee from Cerrone and after consulting with the referee, was unable to continue. A close split technical decision was awarded to Varner, with the Arizona native handing Cerrone his premier professional blemish.
Mixed fortunes followed with a 3-2 record over his next five walks, including two clashes with fellow grappling phenom Benson Henderson. Future TUF alumni James Krause met with Cerrone at WEC 41, losing via rear-naked choke in the dying embers of the first round. Cerrone had unfinished business with Varner, and was scheduled to meet his former foe after dismantling Krause. The pairing was ultimately scrapped after the reigning champion was deemed medically unfit to compete. The surging ‘Smooth’ Benson Henderson stepped in for an Interim lightweight title meeting, the first of the pair’s trilogy. In an even closer five-round clash for the title, Cerrone again came up short on all three judges scorecards, Henderson had claimed his first professional championship.
Striking ace Ed Ratcliff stood between ‘Cowboy’ and a third title challenge already in his WEC tenure. Just eight weeks later, Cerrone had firmly cemented his status as the number one contender, stopping Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den product via submission. Cerrone’s future employers, the UFC, presented WEC 48 ahead of the company’s merging, with his title fight re-run with Henderson serving as the event’s co-headliner. Donald’s inconsistent form haunted him once more, this time Benson locked up a guillotine in the opening round, submitting the Denver favorite to claim rivalry bragging rights.
The now title-less Jamie Varner returned for his rematch with Cerrone, losing via a much more clear cut unanimous decision this time. Canadian journeyman Chris Horodecki fell victim next for Cerrone, submitting him via a triangle in the second round before the lightweight roster merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The UFC Lightweight Division Has A New Threat
The merging of the WEC and the UFC allowed all current fighters on the WEC books to sign with the latter, immediately installing Cerrone into the competition deep lightweight division. A short notice replacement opportunity against Paul Kelly offered ‘Cowboy’ his debut walk at UFC 126, submitting the Liverpudlian, once more via a now patented rear-naked choke. An exciting matchup with TUF 6 victor Mac Danzig was set and then scrapped and promotional debutante Vagner Rocha was drafted in and defeated via unanimous decision. Two big tests were next for Cerrone, passing both with flying colors. Talented grappling sensation Charles Oliveira and wily striker Dennis Siver were both finished.
One of the most memorable clashes of Cerrone’s career followed, a three-round bout with polarising Stockton star Nate Diaz. Admitting years later on color-commentator Joe Rogan’s podcast The Joe Rogan Experience, ‘Cowboy’ told how he fought with “emotion“, instead of sticking to a gameplan, leading to his demise. Both Nick and Nate Diaz have an incredible volume striking game, evident to its full extent in his trash-talking triumph over Cerrone. In the pair’s pre-fight face off, Diaz’s mind games were in full motion, knocking off Donald’s cowboy hat and between rounds during the fight, flipping Cerrone off in his corner.
Another period of three wins and two losses in his next five Octagon walks was on the horizon, losing to top competition such as future champions Anthony Pettis and Rafael dos Anjos in between victories over the heavy hitting Jeremy Stephens, KJ Noons and most impressively, a highlight reel head kick finish of Melvin Guillard. Eight consecutive victories for Cerrone earned a rematch with Brazilian foe dos Anjos, this time with UFC gold up for grabs. Impressive competitors Evan Dunham, Adriano Martins, Edson Barboza, and Jim Miller were all stopped, before former Bellator and DREAM lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez was overthrown on his promotional bow when pitted with ‘Cowboy’. Recent featherweight mover Myles Jury followed suit with a decision loss, setting up a trilogy clash with the aforementioned Benson Henderson, this time, in the UFC. Cerrone finally overcame the ever-present obstacle of Henderson this time, securing a decision win, although dubious.
When paired with creative Canadian striker John Makdessi, the general consensus was that a win for ‘Cowboy’ would finally earn him his well overdue premier title tilt in the promotion. Within the final stages of the opening round, Cerrone landed a picture-perfect head kick, breaking Makdessi’s jaw, with the latter signaling to the referee that he could no longer continue.
In his first title defense since dethroning Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis, Brazilian pressure fighter Rafael dos Anjos stood across from 2013 opponent, Cerrone. On two notable occasions, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone’s ability or lack thereof to absorb a significant shot to the body has come to the forefront. Granted, a stiff liver kick from Pettis folded the former Jackson-Wink MMA protégé when they clashed, but I can’t envision a lightweight on the planet that would have withstood that shot. The blueprint to overwhelm Donald Cerrone over the previous years has been straight forward. Constant body attacks and a high pace in the early rounds. Cerrone himself has stated how he generally starts slow, a trait all too self-destructive when pitted with RDA in December 2015. Another body kick and several significant shots from the Rio native zapped Cerrone early in the opening round, with ground and pound from the champion forcing a timely stoppage. Cerrone’s so far singular title opportunity in the UFC had come and gone.
In the early months of 2016, ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone flirted with the idea of making inroads to the welterweight title, then wrapped around the waist of a future opponent, Robbie Lawler. An instant path to 170-pound contention wasn’t available to Cerrone, who instead carved his own way with four impressive stoppages. Brazilian ‘Cowboy’ Alex Oliveira was next for Donald Cerrone, in an all ‘Cowboy’ confrontation, reminiscent of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. An Ennio Morricone score would have been fitting for either man’s Octagon walk, sadly, a missed opportunity.
The far superior Jiu-Jitsu practitioner ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone found a fight finishing transition midway through the premier round, slapping a vice-like triangle on his Brazilian counterpart. One-time middleweight title hopeful Patrick Cote made one of his very last Octagon appearances in a co-main event clash with Cerrone and succumbed to strikes in the final round. Cerrone, like he had done in his early days at 155 pounds, had garnered the attention of his welterweight peers. The staunch Rick Story clashed with Cerrone in what provided arguably the BMF Ranch owners greatest Octagon stoppage. It’s been described by Joe Rogan as “like something out of the Matrix” when questioned about the UFC 202 clash. Executing a pull counter, vicious body combination and a head kick, Rick was reeling before a knee against the fence followed by a right hand dropped the stumbling Story. Herb Dean thankfully was on hand to peel ‘Cowboy’ off after some well placed follow up shots.
Former teammate and the storied Matt ‘The Immortal’ Brown actually pulled out of a match with former Strikeforce welterweight best Tarec Saffiedine in favor of an earlier date with Cerrone for UFC 206, and despite some early success for the grizzled veteran, Brown was the latest name on Cerrone’s untarnished welterweight hitlist. In the opening stages of the third round, Cerrone peeled away and on the entry to the next exchange, sprang with a left high kick, flatlining Matt Brown. Unfortunately for the now trailblazing Cerrone, this would prove to be his final win at welterweight for three fights.
In a mouth-watering, fan-favorite meeting with the previously mentioned Jorge Masvidal, Cerrone was comprehensively picked apart for the majority of the first round and suffered a rather heavy knockdown towards the end of the round. Heading out for the second round, with an obvious concussion, Masvidal closed the show inside the opening minute, with a barrage of strikes to a defenseless ‘Cowboy’. Both Greg Jackson’s and Mike Winklejohn’s decision to send Cerrone out for the second round was largely questioned afterward. Another captivating matchup was booked for Cerrone despite the setback toward Octagon gold, a meeting with the previously mentioned ‘Ruthless’ Robbie Lawler. A hugely competitive back and forth was judged in Lawler’s favor, surprisingly to many in the MMA community.
The then relatively naive Darren Till was drafted into the main event matchup with Cerrone for UFC Gdansk, and to his later downfall, Cerrone admitted he elected against preparing specifically for Till’s style. Expertly executed by the Scouser, Till burst out the blocks early and within the opening five minutes, had Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone unconscious, in what proved to be a major scalp for the Briton.
Since the arrival of Dacson Danger Cerrone in June 2018, we’ve been in the presence of a certain resurgent Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. Apart from a minor hiccup against Leon Edwards in a decision defeat, Donald Cerrone has scored four incredibly impressive victories. The 36-year-old told of a direct correlation between the birth of his son and his success inside the Octagon. “It’s primal“, the words Cerrone used to describe the state he now finds himself in after the arrival of his firstborn, and his sudden strive for UFC gold. A victory over the tough Yancy Mederios and former teammate Mike Perry either side of a loss and a second stint at lightweight have solidified Cerrone’s recent cult following.
A split from Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA after they elected to corner Perry ahead of the same camp contest, allowed Cerrone to set up his own gym, the BMF Ranch in New Mexico. Cerrone now hones his craft with the likes of Blaine ‘Six Gun’ Gibson, wrestling coach Jafari Varnier and fellow UFC counterparts Lando Vannata and two-time flyweight title chaser John ‘The Magician’ Dodson.
The ever-evolving ‘Platinum’ Mike Perry made a costly mistake during his single round affair with Cerrone, electing to initiate the wrestling exchanges, and despite a successful shot, wound up with Cerrone deep in on his back after a scramble. After an attempt to shake the grappling ace free, Perry got caught in an armbar, and after some unbearable tension, tapped. After the separation, Cerrone immediately signaled for Dacson to be brought into the Octagon, to huge fanfare.
Cerrone had teased a return to lightweight for a while, in the hope to entice former featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor to a long-rumored clash, but has so far been unsuccessful. Cerrone who left the division as the number one contender was pitted against rising wrestler Alexander ‘The Great’ Hernandez in a dangerous contest. A hungry ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone displayed his ever precise striking and underrated wrestling, before yet another highlight reel head kick stoppage. Landing heavy on Hernandez with a right high kick in the second, before some shots on the ground, a post-fight call out to McGregor seemed to prove successful, with the Dubliner responding via Twitter; “For a fight like that Donald, I’ll fight you.“
The bout ultimately failed to come to fruition with Cerrone telling how McGregor had originally shown interest in the clash, potentially for UFC 239, only to then express a need for more time to prepare. Cerrone elected against sitting out and instead took the main event feature against Al Iaquinta in the UFC’s most recent trip to Ottawa. A five-round beatdown followed for Iaquinta who was knocked down multiple times, in a rather one-sided display. Afterward, Cerrone explained how he simply wasn’t feeling ready to fight until the third round, leaving himself almost there for the taking in the opening ten minutes. Speaking with ESPN panelist Karen Bryant, Cerrone also stated how he wouldn’t rush back to action, and would instead only accept a title fight against either Khabib Nurmagomedov or Dustin Poirier, or wait out until ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor returned.
Two weeks later, Cerrone was signed to fight Tony Ferguson on the main card of UFC 238 in Chicago, Illinois. The decision to meet in the center of the Octagon with such a pressuring fighter as Ferguson proved a hurdle too high. The immense and almost ridiculous output from ‘El Cucuy’ never really allowed ‘Cowboy’ to get started throughout the two-round clash. Sure, Cerrone landed a takedown but on cue, Ferguson had popped back to his feet and began slugging and plodding forward. After a contentious shot after the buzzer, Ferguson was warned, while Cerrone now making his way back to his corner, elected to ‘blow’ his nose. Immediately, air-filled under the eye of ‘Cowboy’, shutting it completely to his dismay. He argued a case that he should be allowed to continue fighting, practically with one eye. Ferguson was announced as the victor via a second-round doctor’s stoppage, subsequently earning his twelfth straight win.
Against Justin Gaethje, Cerrone faces a similar kind of pressure fighter. Granted, not as forward pressing but still as reckless and fearless as ‘El Cucuy’. Cerrone’s tendency to start slow has cost him dearly in the past but simply put, that’s just the approach he takes. The wrestling and clinch exchanges are quite interesting factors in this matchup. Gaethje has never really used his collegiate level wrestling offensively in his five Octagon appearances, a dangerous tool but one which would put himself in a whole world of danger with Cerrone off his back.
I mentioned yesterday, the similarities in terms of kicking nature between Gaethje’s former foe Edson Barboza and Cerrone, and how their styles, somewhat alike, contrast in the minor details. Barboza’s Muay Thai background sees him favour spinning attacks and switch kicks, hugely impactful if afforded the ideal real estate, something Gaethje doesn’t allow. Cerrone, on the other hand, opts for roundhouse variations and rarely shoots an ’empty’ kick, preferring to finish a combination with either leg.
The only other leg kicking ace Cerrone has faced during his lengthy career is Barboza, a man he managed to stop inside the opening round via a rear-naked choke after a stiff jab knocked the Brazilian down. We’ve also never seen Gaethje dropped in the Octagon despite his two losses. In the Alvarez loss, a huge knee up the middle flattened him and against Poirier, he willed and willed until the referee jumped to his safety.