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UFC 131 fight card: Donald Cerrone vs Vagner Rocha preview

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Cerrone Rocha
Cerrone Rocha

In the opening bout of the UFC 131 main card this Saturday night (June 11, 2011), two lightweights will square off as WEC veteran "Cowboy" Donald Cerrone takes on late injury replacement Vagner Rocha.

Cerrone is coming off a "Fight of the Night" winning performance against UFC veteran Paul Kelly in his debut with the promotion and he's looking to continue to build some momentum in the lightweight division. Defeating promotional newcomer Vagner Rocha likely won't move him up the ladder but it'll at least keep him from dropping a few pegs.

Rocha is getting a tremendous opportunity. A veteran of just seven professional fights, he happened to be at the right place at the right time when Cerrone's original opponent, Mac Danzig, went down with an injury. The Brazilian submission specialist stepped up to the challenge and he's looking to make a huge statement in his Octagon debut.

Will Rocha get star-struck by the bright lights of a numbered UFC pay-per-view main card? Will Cerrone take his relatively inexperienced (in MMA terms) foe seriously? Can "Cowboy" keep his place in the crowded UFC lightweight field?

Check out the complete fight preview after the jump to find out:

Donald Cerrone

Record: 14-3 (1 No Contest) overall, 1-0 in the UFC

Key Wins: Jamie Varner (WEC 51), Danny Castillo (WEC 34), Paul Kelly (UFC 126)

Key Losses: Ben Henderson 2x (WEC 48, WEC 43)

How he got here: Boy, where do we begin? Cerrone entered the WEC with an undefeated record and fought his way to a number one contender's match with former lightweight champion "Razor" Rob McCullough. "Cowboy" would defeat Razor Rob in one of 2008's best fights to earn a shot against then-champion Jamie Varner.

In his first title fight, Cerrone would get off to a slow start against Varner but he steadily built momentum throughout the bout. Just as the tides were turning, he hit Varner with a glancing illegal knee and the champion said he couldn't continue. The judges ruled in favor of "The Worm" by way of a close split technical decision.

The Jackson's submission fighter would get a chance to redeem himself in a grudge match with Varner after going 2-2 in his next four matches which included two failed title attempts against Ben Henderson. At WEC 51, Cerrone completely outclassed Varner and finally settled the score with "C-4" via unanimous decision victory.

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.

How he gets it done: Donald Cerrone has a stellar ground game and a plethora of aggressive submissions in his arsenal but this is a match that he wins on his feet. The Albuquerque fighter's jiu-jitsu is solid, but why risk it against a world class submission expert like Rocha?

If Cerrone is listening to the wise words of Greg Jackson, he'll keep his distance and completely pick his Brazilian adversary apart with his wide array of kicking attacks. Cerrone possesses some excellent leg and body kicks and he'll need to pepper Rocha with them to set up his big punching combinations.

The TapouT spokesman should pick his spots wisely as any accidental overcommitment to a big power punch may leave him exposed to clinch attacks and takedown attempts.

If "Cowboy" has his Brazilian foe on the ropes from strikes, then, and only then, should he attempt any submissions.

Vagner Rocha

Record: 6-1 overall, 0-0 in the UFC

Key Wins: Igor Gracie (Bellator 11)

Key Losses: Bret Bergmark (Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum)

How he got here: Vagner Rocha is one of Pablo Papovich's esteemed Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts. After a successful career in jiu-jitsu competition, he made the transition to mixed martial arts back in 2009.

Vagner got off to a great start, defeating Igor Gracie in just his second professional fight at Bellator 11. Rocha quickly compiled a 5-0 record before falling in a welterweight fight to Cesar Gracie protégé, Brett "The Angry Hick" Bergmark at Strikeforce: "Fedor vs. Werdum" last June.

After taking nearly a year off, Rocha quickly submitted Jacob Clark this past May with a first round armbar and then stepped in on late notice to fight Cerrone when his original opponent, Mac Danzig, backed out with an injury.

Fun fact: Despite just having seven career fights, Rocha is one of a small handful of fighters who have competed in Bellator, Strikeforce and the UFC.

How he gets it done: Rocha is still adapting to the overall mixed martial arts game and his striking is no where near passable yet.

If he wants to get a win on Saturday night, it's going to take place on the ground. Rocha has respectable takedowns, especially along the fence and his wrestling is steadily improving.

If he can get his opponent on the ground, look for him to utilize the "punch to pass" method of advancing position. He'll utilize ground and pound to wear his opponent down and is also capable of finish a fight through strikes on the ground if the opportunity presents itself.

Rocha's best weapon is the armbar. His strongest method of attack is through mount but he's not afraid to throw that submission from any position, even if it means from his back. If Rocha can't force Cerrone to the canvas with his offensive grappling, he may pull guard. He absolutely does not want to stand with "Cowboy" at this point in his career.

Fight "X-Factor:" The "X-Factor" for this fight is 100-percent Donald Cerrone's mind-set coming into this fight. He was expecting to face a former winner of The Ultimate Fighter and is instead facing someone making their UFC debut.

Donald could be taking Rocha seriously, he could not. He might also be crazy enough to try and beat Rocha at his own game. While many fighters out of Greg Jackson's camp employ lots of strategy, "Cowboy" loves to take the fight to his opponent and force the action. If that means going to the ground with the Brazilian and trading submission attempts in a grappling battle, so be it.

Cerrone is a wildcard, capable of making this bout a dazzling display of his striking or a rough-and-tumble ground war. Honestly, it's all up to the former bullrider.

Bottom line: Despite Rocha being a relative unknown, there could be some serious fireworks here. Donald Cerrone has won a "Fight of the Night" bonus in six of his last nine bouts under the Zuffa banner. He's one of those guys that you can absolutely guarantee will push the pace and get anyone to have a great fight with him.

With Rocha's limited stand-up abilities, this bout also has the potential to be a complete beat down "Cowboy-style" and you know everyone loves a beat down.

Who will come out on top at UFC 131? Let us know in the comments section below!