The word was thrown around pretty liberally when the discussion of where World Extreme Cagefighting's (WEC) top lightweights should be ranked was broached. Ben Henderson, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone represented the top flight of the now defunct promotion, but as long as they were only fighting each other -- a similar problem for athletes who ply their wares exclusively in Japan -- it didn't seem they would get much respect.
Since making the transition to the big leagues, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Pettis has been the least successful of the three after splitting his first two bouts inside the Octagon. Conversely, Henderson has beaten the likes of Jim Miller and Clay Guida, earning himself a title shot against division champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in Japan early next year.
And while "Cowboy" isn't fighting for the title -- at least not yet -- he spent 2011 punching, kicking and choking his way toward dragging out that respect from his doubters. Those who said he would wash out inside the Octagon? Cerrone's bout with Paul Kelly serves as Exhibit A. Anyone who thought that Cerrone would wilt against higher level competition? The two minute domination of former potential title contender Dennis Siver is your Exhibit B.
This Friday (Dec. 30, 2011), Cerrone makes his fifth appearance not only in the UFC, but of the year, when he takes on Nate Diaz in a bout that is keeping many mixed martial arts (MMA) pundits from clicking "publish" on their "Fight of the Year" articles just to be safe. And for good reason since while most of the hype for UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem centers around the main event, the lightweight clash between Cerrone and Diaz could -- and likely will -- steal the show.
So how did "Cowboy" get here?
Finishing off his WEC career with two consecutive wins after his second attempt at capturing the promotion's lightweight title faltered, Cerrone was eager to step inside the Octagon for the first time. In fact, it only took him around 50 days between his win at WEC's final event and accepting his first UFC bout.
Sam Stout was slated to take on Paul Kelly at UFC 126, but the Canadian lightweight pulled out because of injury so "Cowboy" stepped up and took the fight, choking out the Briton and bouncing him from the promotion after a rollercoaster career inside the Octagon. Kelly looked good in the opening round, mixing his strikes well and even landing a brutal knee in the clinch. But it seems Cerrone often gets lumped in with best friend Leonard Garcia as someone who doesn't fight smart. Nothing could be further from the truth. While Cerrone stood and traded with his opponent, he also busted out what has long been British fighters' kryptonite: Wrestling.
Two takedowns -- one to start the round and the other to finish it -- allowed Cerrone to batter Kelly on the ground and a third in the second round led to the fight-ending rear naked choke. While "Cowboy" could very well have held his own in a stand up war against Kelly, he instead opted to take the path of least resistance.
That same fight intelligence was on full display when he welcomed Brazilian Vagner Rocha to the UFC. The phrase "world-class" has become hyperbole in MMA, but Rocha's Brazilian jiu-jitsu credentials could easily be described as such. Not wanting to risk leaving his neck or a limb out during a scramble on the mat, the Greg Jackson-trained fighter implemented a gameplan that saw him methodically chip away at the Brazilian's lead leg with buzzsaw-like kicks.
Just about every takedown attempt Rocha threw out was easily negated in part to the damage his leg had absorbed. Cerrone won his second UFC fight handily and his performance even managed to convince one judge that a 10-8 round was in order. It would also be the last time Cerrone allowed one of his fights to go the distance.
Only two months later, he would face a foe with a similar skillset in his next fight. Of Charles Oliveira's last 10 victories, six had come by submission and he was looking to add another notch to his belt. He immediately tried to close the distance on Cerrone, but the American was having none of it. He kept "Do Bronx" at bay until landing an absolutely devastating, organ-shifting uppercut to Oliveira's body that dropped the Brazilian to the mat. Unable to defend himself against the ensuing barrage of punches, Oliveira suffered his second loss in the UFC while Cerrone racked up his third consecutive victory.
His fourth -- and biggest -- win came another two months later when he took on a potential title contender in Dennis Siver. Once again filling in for an injured Sam Stout, Cerrone took on the German fighter at UFC 137 in the second bout that aired on Spike TV. "The Menace" was riding a four-fight win streak, and after taking out George Sotiropoulos earlier in the year, entered into the twilight zone Dana White calls "in the mix."
In his most impressive performance to date, "Cowboy" not only put a stop to Siver's hype train, he took the damn thing off the rails. Attacking the body and legs early, Cerrone sent several kicks that way in the first minute. Throwing another, Siver seemed content to assume it was more of the same from the American. Instead, Cerrone tacked on a second kick -- this one to the jaw -- that had Siver in deep trouble.
"The Menace" tried to grab onto a leg in hopes of finding some time to recover, but Cerrone quickly spun out of the takedown attempt. A punch kept Siver staggered, but he was finally able to pin "Cowboy" against the fence to slow the action down. Short punches and knees were thrown by both fighters inside the clinch until they broke it up and reset in the center.
A head kick from Cerrone was blocked, but an ensuing combination of a leg kick followed by a blistering right hand was not, and once again Siver found himself in peril. He stumbled backward, unable to find his footing, and it was there that Cerrone pounced on his back before flattening him out and sinking in a choke.
The four victories "Cowboy" earned in 2011 were good enough as is; however, Cerrone is looking to tack on a fifth and final win when he steps in against Nate Diaz on Friday evening for the promotion's year-end pay-per-view (PPV) extravaganza.
Sounds more like underrated.