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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 126’s Donald Cerrone

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title challenger, Donald Cerrone, will square off with knockout artist, Yancy Medeiros, this Sunday (Feb. 18, 2018) inside Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.

Cerrone is no stranger to adversity, but he’s on the worst skid of his lengthy professional mixed martial arts (MMA) career. It’s the kind of slump that raises questions: Is Cerrone’s career coming to an end? Is Welterweight the wrong weight class for “Cowboy?” There’s also the alternate and very possible option that “Cowboy” has simply been fighting some nasty knockout artists, and getting stopped is always the risk in such fights. Hopefully, by the end of Sunday night’s card, we’ll have the answers to those questions. Until then, though, let’s take a closer look at the skills “Cowboy” has displayed over his 26-fight UFC career.

Striking

Cerrone is a nasty Muay Thai fighter who some great weapons at his disposal. More than anything else, Cerrone excels at attacking all areas of the body, kicking to the leg/body/head with both legs and using punches to the head and body to set up those kicks. For Cerrone's style of striking to work, he needs distance. Cerrone does not work well when his opponent is in boxing range and he's force to exchange punches, as his combinations simply are not that tight and he's generally rather hittable at this distance anyway.

The boxing range may never be Cerrone’s best friend — see his most recent pair of losses — but he has made progress at 170 pounds. This was most noticeable in his victory over Patrick Cote. In that bout, Cerrone kept his composure when pressured, and the result was a few violent — if awkward — left hooks that eventually ended the bout (GIF).

That said, kickboxing from range is still Cerrone’s ideal strategy. He’s added weapons to his game in order to maintain that distance, as well as improved his footwork. Arguably the most effective new weapon is his snap kick/teep up the middle (GIF). Against a foe looking to close the distance, jamming the ball of the foot into the meat of the mid-section is a great deterrence.

If Cerrone’s opponent is already too close for the snap kick to be an option, Cerrone will look for the intercepting knee. Often, fighters try to move in behind level changes or head movement to close the distance — which is sound strategy — but a knee straight up the middle will interrupt it. Opposite a Southpaw, Cerrone will fire the right knee into the open side, whereas he’ll make use of the switch knee opposite fellow right-handed fighters (GIF).

Both of these strikes serve the same purpose -- prevent Cerrone from ending up in boxing exchanges with his opponent. In addition, both strikes are particularly painful and eat away at his opponent’s conditioning, meaning that trying to close the distance on “Cowboy” quickly becomes a miserable task. Once "Cowboy" establishes his range and successfully enforces it, he's one of the nastiest strikers in the sport. His emphasis is obviously on kicking, but Cerrone is an effective offensive puncher at distance as well (GIF). He commonly uses long, straight punches to push his opponent backward, leaving them open for his devastating low kick.

As mentioned above, Cerrone does a fantastic job of mixing up his kicks and punches, which goes a long way in setting up the high kick. In this week’s technique highlight, we took a look at a few examples of how Cerrone will score a shin to the dome.

Cerrone can kick with power at any height, but his low kick is something special (GIF). He keeps his leg very loose as he throws the strike, quickly slamming the snapping kick into his opponent's thigh like a whip. It's quick, damaging and quite difficult to catch. Before long, even standing up can become very challenging for his opponent (GIF).

Another staple of Cerrone's kickboxing is the switch kick. He disguises the quick step well, usually hiding it behind a punch or, more often, a feint. Early on, Cerrone will use the switch kick to dig into the inside of his opponent's lead leg, which quickens the destruction of that leg significantly. Then, Cerrone will change it up and go high with his switch kick, which has caught many of his past opponents (GIF).

Even with the addition of the snap kick/intercepting knee and better footwork, Cerrone’s defensive issues remain. The bottom line is that Cerrone is not a great boxer and avoids the pocket as a result. Unfortunately, each of his last three losses have come to slick boxers who applied smart pressure, which is undoubtedly the blueprint to defeating Cerrone even if it’s a tricky one to employ.

Wrestling

Cerrone has always been a solid wrestler, but it's another area in which he's shown a lot of improvement. In the last couple years, Cerrone has been more willing to mix in a takedown or two, which is a smart change. His kickboxing may be great, but so is his grappling, so working his top game can’t hurt him in the least.

Cerrone, like many tall strikers with strong distance control, likes to utilize the high double leg. When Cerrone takes the shot, he drives through his opponent in a combination of a double leg takedown and body lock. It may look a bit awkward, but it's rather difficult to defend, as a full sprawl can simply give Cerrone an easy shuck to the back clinch. That said, it's imperative that this type of shot be timed properly, as it will otherwise leave him in poor position.

In addition, Cerrone is skilled in the clinch with a variety of takedowns. He commonly looks for Muay Thai style dumps from the double-collar tie and will occasionally look to land trips from the body lock as well.

Cerrone's takedown defense has improved significantly since the WEC days. Outside of his loss to dos Anjos back in 2013, he's had little trouble staying on his feet in the cage regardless of division. His distance control is obviously a major part of this, as getting close to him is difficult. Plus, the step knee is a great deterrent as well, as a poorly set up shot could have his opponent run face-first into the knee.

Aside from all that, Cerrone is simply good at defending the shot. He keeps a wide base, balances well, and fights for underhooks only until he can rip off elbows or knees of his own. Cardio is also a factor, as Cerrone’s excellent conditioning means he tends to defend the shot in round two and three even if his foe managed to score an early double leg.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

With an impressive 16 victories via submission, Cerrone has proven both his killer instinct and technical ability. After stunning an opponent, Cerrone immediately looks to jump on him with a submission.

Usually, Cerrone immediately looks to hop onto his opponent's back and sneak his forearm around the neck for a rear-naked choke. The benefit of looking for the choke to finish is simply: If the rocked fighter leaves a single opening in his frazzled mental state for Cerrone's arm to slip through, the fight is over. His mental toughness and durability no longer matter, as it's simply impossible to "tough out" a sunk in rear-naked choke (GIF).

From his back, Cerrone is very good at fully utilizing his length. While pushing at his opponent's hips, Cerrone is constantly looking to push an arm through for a triangle, swivel his hips for an armbar, or overhook one of his opponent's arms to attack with the omoplata. Once he attacks with one of these submissions, Cerrone is excellent at transitioning between them.

Cerrone's fight with Evan Dunham was an extremely impressive display of his grappling, largely because Dunham has excellent jiu-jitsu and is rarely out-grappled. After being swept by Dunham's deep half, Cerrone flowed with the transition, trapping Dunham's arm in an omoplata. Instead of settling and accepting his position on the bottom, Cerrone quickly came back with his own offense. Dunham only held top position for a couple seconds, as he was quickly rolled by the shoulder lock.

In similar fashion, Cerrone reversed Myles Jury immediately after being taken down.

In the second round of his bout with Dunham, a similar exchange occurred. Once again, Dunham hit a beautiful deep half guard sweep. As he looked to come up into guard, Cerrone attacked with a triangle, which Dunham shook off. However, when he pulled out of the submission, he created a lot of space. Not wanting Cerrone to return to his feet and continue beating him up, Dunham recklessly pushed into Cerrone's guard.

As Dunham moved in, Cerrone caught one of his arms and pushed it through his legs. Having trapped him in a triangle, Cerrone smoothly grabbed one of Dunham's legs, adjusted his angle, and rolled him over. From that position, Dunham could not move and had all of "Cowboy's" weight on him, leaving him with the final option of submitting (GIF).

More recently, Cerrone reacted to the wildness and strength of Alex Oliveira with a takedown. From his back, Oliveira didn’t defend himself all that well, allowing Cerrone to move into mount quickly. Once there, Oliveira swam under one of Cerrone’s legs in an attempt to escape, but he did it slowly and without a sense of urgency. From there, it was easy for Cerrone to pull his opponent’s head off the mat and lock in a triangle, which he finished from his back (GIF).

Conclusion

Prior to his current skid, Cerrone had never lost consecutive fights before, let alone three in a row. Despite the defeats, “Cowboy” is once again returning the cage just about four months later against a hard-hitting foe. It’s a risky move, one that will either see Cerrone fall farther and take heavy damage, or Cerrone will be able to show that there’s still plenty left in the tank.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.