Can Donald Cerrone Join the UFC Elite?

September 23, 2015

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is a simple man.

He enjoys cold beer, hunting, fishing, and calmly obliterating opponents inside of the Octagon.

His tactics are world-class, preparation undying, and appetite for combat voracious. These tendencies have in turn rewarded Cerrone with a UFC lightweight title shot opposite current champion Rafael dos Anjos this December at UFC on Fox 17, which will cap the longest layoff (seven months) of Cerrone’s career since 2007-2008 (eight months).

With a masterful eight-fight win streak to call his own, the 32-year-old was the obvious choice to test RDA in his first title defense since defeating Anthony Pettis at UFC 185. The fact that dos Anjos is the last man to defeat Cerrone, winning by unanimous decision back at UFC Fight Night 27, only adds fuel to the fire.

Despite the mighty task at hand, fight fans can’t help but wonder how well Cowboy can do if he’s able to get past the Brazilian at the end of the year. Chalk it up to his likeable personality or addiction to staying active inside of the cage, Cerrone is a fighter capable of flourishing under the bright lights.

The only thing that has eluded him throughout his 10-year career has been a championship belt. He lost twice to Benson Henderson and once to Jamie Varner in the WEC, and has yet to fight for a UFC title since joining the promotion in 2011.

Mixed martial arts is hands down the most difficult sport to predict, so for argument’s sake lets assume Cerrone is going to defeat dos Anjos, earn the lightweight strap, and finally receive the vindication that his illustrious striking and finishing ability warrant. Then, and only then, can Cerrone reach into the MMA stratosphere.

But does the Greg Jackson protégé have the wherewithal to join the UFC elite? Can Cerrone stand alongside the likes of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor as one of the promotion’s bankable stars?

It depends.

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To this point, Cerrone has done everything he needs to do in order to get there. Outside of his upcoming title shot, he’s already locked down one of the more loyal fanbases in MMA today. People love to watch him fight and enjoy seeing him win in dramatic fashion. Furthermore, Cerrone was able to remain with reputable sponsors like Budweiser and Fram, despite the UFC’s recent deal with Reebok.

Donald Cerrone UFC 187 Post Press 750x370Mix in his wild bravado, country charm, and willingness to fight as many times as possible, and it’s easy to see how prolific and productive Cerrone can be for the UFC if he’s crowned champion in December.

However, and this goes a long way in Cerrone’s ability to one day join the organization’s elite ranks, the 155-pound division is a land of killers. Guys like dos Anjos, Pettis, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Eddie Alvarez, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson, and Tony Ferguson roam the lightweight streets like thirsty wolves. Cerrone will essentially take over a booming faction with little to no forgiveness. One slip up and it could take eons to regain his divisional status.

Not to mention guys like McGregor and UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo could one day move up and cause an even more tumultuous traffic jam.

But dismissing Cerrone’s potential as a future champion on the grounds of his supporting roster mates would be a cop out. Instead, we need to focus on his apparent evolution over the past few years. This includes a polished takedown defense, quicker footwork, stronger combinations, and a redesigned ability to find his range earlier in fights. On the heels of these modifications, the lightweight phenom has produced five finishes during his current win streak and avenged two career losses by beating Henderson at UFC Fight Night 59 in January.

Needless to say, Cerrone is at the pinnacle of his career. Sure there is some room for improvement and refined execution, but the kickboxing specialist has never looked better. He has never looked this dominant against a group of lightweights known to bring heat (Henderson, Alvarez, Barboza, Myles Jury, Jim Miller, John Makdessi, Evan Dunham and Adriano Martins). As a result of his excellence, Cerrone has transformed his opponents into mere amateurs.

December will be his last step towards greatness, one that could very well catapult him to the forefront of the promotion, making him one of the most marketable and likeable characters on the roster. Once he’s in that position, Cerrone can begin his dissection of the lightweight crop in order to build a legacy comparable to other UFC champions.

And even though he may only have a few prominent years left in the tank, Cowboy is more than capable of harnessing any newfound fame and using it to promote fights, sell tickets, and serve as one of the organization’s top-flight stars.

(Follow Daniel Hiergesell @DH_MMA on Twitter)

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