Two very dangerous lightweights will collide in a very important divisional showdown this Friday night (Dec. 30, 2011) as budding contender Donald Cerrone takes on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 5 winner, Nate Diaz, in the co-main event of UFC 141: "Lesnar vs. Overeem."
Cerrone has exploded onto the scene in 2011, going from World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) purgatory to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title hopeful after winning his first four fights inside the Octagon. He's coming off a tremendous showing, halting Dennis Siver's four-fight win streak in the division at UFC 137
And he's ready to keep the ball rolling with another significant victory heading into 2012.
Diaz had a seesaw run in the UFC welterweight division before dropping back down to 155 pounds seemingly for good. He made an immediate impact by destroying former Pride FC lightweight champion Takanori Gomi in his return this past September.
He's braced for contention, too, if he can knock "Cowboy" off his high horse.
Will the Cerrone freight train of momentum keep rolling against Diaz? Or will the Stockton native crush "Cowboy's" dreams like his brother did to B.J. Penn? What's the key to victory for each talented lightweight on Friday night?
Let's find out:
Record: 17-3 (1 No Contest) overall, 4-0 in the UFC
Key Wins: Dennis Siver (UFC 137), Charles Oliveira (UFC on Versus 5), Danny Castillo (WEC 34)
Key Losses: Ben Henderson (Twice: WEC 48, WEC 43)
How he got here: Cerrone, a former bull-rider, transitioned to mixed martial arts (MMA) and got off to a very hot start. He was undefeated in his first 10 fights, working all the way up to a WEC title fight with then-champion Jamie Varner.
Cerrone would come up short via close split technical decision. Despite the setback, the Greg Jackson-trained fighter would go on to battle Ben Henderson for the interim title when Varner became injured. He would lose another close decision in what was deemed the 2009 "Fight of the Year." After again bouncing back, "Cowboy" would try (and fail) for a third time at WEC gold in a rematch with Henderson, but would at least get redemption against Varner in his next fight, soundly defeating the former champ via unanimous decision.
After defeating Chris Horodecki in the final WEC event ever, Cerrone made his UFC debut on the Spike TV "Prelims" of UFC 126 against Paul Kelly. "Cowboy" surprised many by working his ground game against the Brit and completely outclassed "Tellys," earning a submission victory by way of rear naked choke in the second round.
He would continue his torrid 2011 with victories over Vagner Rocha, his first knockout victory over Charles Oliveira and then he capped it off by destroying top contender Dennis Siver before the midway point of the first round. After his impressive showing against Siver, he called for one more fight in 2011 and he had his wish granted against Diaz.
How he gets it done: Both of these men are talented and well-rounded, but Cerrone has a few distinct advantages. The first is that he's much more likely to use kicks in the striking game. This should give him some bonus effectiveness from a distance that Diaz won't be able to cease. The other is his improvement in wrestling. He's been caught in a submission before, but "Cowboy" is very well-versed in that game so if he can take Diaz down and keep him there, he could present some problems or at least win the round from top position.
One thing Cerrone cannot do is allow Diaz to get comfortable and really start opening up with his volume strikes. Every time Diaz gets going, Cerrone needs to either separate and create distance to reset or he needs to close the gap and stifle his attack with the takedown or by initiating a clinch.
Cerrone is capable of being a technician in the stand up, so with that tremendous volume of strikes, there should be plenty of small openings for him to pounce. Diaz is not known for his striking defense. In fact, he's been caught or dropped in plenty of his fights before recovering. If "Cowboy" is comfortable in the pocket and doesn't wilt under the pressure of the volume punches, he should be able to counter with some big blows of his own.
Record: 14-7 overall, 9-5 in the UFC
Key Wins: Melvin Guillard (UFC Fight Night 25), Takanori Gomi (UFC 135), Marcus Davis (UFC 118)
Key Losses: Rory MacDonald (UFC 129), Gray Maynard (UFC Fight Night 20),
How he got here: Diaz didn't take the easy road. He made his MMA debut in the WEC and by his seventh professional fight, he was fighting for the promotion's lightweight title against Hermes Franca at the Brazilian's peak, losing via submission in the second round.
Undeterred, Diaz tried out for TUF 5, the first season to showcase the lightweight division. The self-assured Stockton native was one of the season's stars, constantly arguing with castmates, guest coaches and the like. He defeated Rob Emerson, Corey Hill and most impressively Gray Maynard via submission to compete in the Finale where he would be gifted the show's championship after fellow finalist Manny Gamburyan separated his shoulder in the main event.
Diaz got off to a hot start, defeating his first five UFC opponents before being derailed by tough wrestlers Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson. After an impressive second round submission of Melvin Guillard, Diaz would lose a split decision to Maynard, which would fuel his decision to bump up a weight class.
At welterweight, Diaz stopped both Rory Markham and Marcus Davis in his first two fights. This would put him in a position against some of the toughest young 170 pounders. Diaz had trouble getting outmuscled by Dong Hyun Kim in a tightly contested match and would get tossed around the cage by Rory MacDonald in a bout where he was completely physically dominated.
This spurred the decision to return to lightweight, as suggested by his coach Cesar Gracie and Diaz was paired up against Gomi, a scrappy fighter with some serious history against his brother. The former TUF winner destroyed Gomi, crushing him in the stand up and then finishing it on the ground with a nifty armbar transition from a triangle choke. He proclaimed that he was ready for the elite 155 pounders afterward and they gave him one in Cerrone.
How he gets it done: Diaz is becoming more and more like his older brother, Nick, every time we see him in the Octagon. It appears that after starting out as more of a submission fighter earlier in his career, he wants to stand and bang now. As Nick has grown in his boxing, so has Nate. He showed remarkably similar tendencies in his striking during his last bout with Gomi: talking trash, taunting with both arms, throwing quick precision strikes and a high volume of them.
If he wants to beat Cerrone, he needs to keep the pressure on him in the stand-up. Cerrone has some great technique, but that starts to go out the window when someone is putting a severe amount of pressure and not giving him a moment to collect his thoughts. If "Cowboy" is forced to fight on pure instinct, he could be dragged into a brawl which is exactly what Diaz wants.
If the bout goes to the ground, it will likely be initiated by Cerrone, but don't discount Diaz and his judo techniques. He's got very underrated ability to use his opponent's momentum against them and if the Jackson-trained fighter gets reckless shooting in for a takedown, he could either find himself reversed onto his back, stuck in a guillotine choke or even Diaz's patented double middle finger triangle choke special.
Diaz will try to keep this fight standing as long as possible and really get in Cerrone's face. If he can force him to stray from his technique, he's got a great shot at winning.
Fight X-Factor: There are two major X-Factors for this fight in my opinion. The first is the extremely active fighting schedule of Cerrone. This will be his fifth fight in the UFC in less than 11 months. Considering that most fighters compete three times in a year, he's taking it to the next level. This allows him to remain in top shape, but it could also be taking a massive toll on his body. Most fighters don't compete that often because they need time to recover and Cerrone simply hasn't done that. By staying so active, he could be setting himself up for a tremendous fall. Will this be the fight where it happens?
We'll have to wait and see.
The other factor is that Cerrone is a very emotional fighter. How is he going to react when Diaz begins calling him a bitch in the cage and daring him to punch him in the face with his hands at his sides? If he allows any Diaz mind games to get to him, he could completely deviate from his technique and any semblance of a gameplan. How he reacts to the Diaz mind games could be a vital factor in this bout as well.
Bottom Line: With the way both of these men fight, never backing down or showing any signs of fear or respect to their opponents, this has all the makings of not only "Fight of the Night," but a late entrant in the "Fight of the Year" discussion. Don't expect either fighter to wilt unless they are forced to by physical means whether it's a submission or knockout. Both men have great gas tanks as well and they will go for the whole 15 minutes with a full head of steam if need be. If there's any fight where the saying "Get your popcorn ready" fits, this is it.
Enjoy it while it lasts, Maniacs.
Who will come out on top at UFC 141? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!