Donald Cerrone is a one-of-a-kind figure in mixed martial arts — one of the most beloved, respected, and consistently entertaining fighters to ever grace the Octagon.
It takes a certain amount of stardom and clout to reach a point where you’re simply known by one name when you’re not someone who has spent the entirety of your professional career only going by a single name like Prince or Cher or Zendaya, but the veteran gunslinger who grew up in Denver and now resides at the BMF Ranch in Edgewood, New Mexico has achieved that status because when you say “Cowboy,” there is only one person who comes to mind.
Cerrone has spent more than a dozen years competing under the Zuffa banner and has etched his name in the UFC records books, boasting the most fights (34), most victories (23), most finishes (16), and most post-fight bonuses (18) in the company’s history, doing it all with a smile on his face.
This Saturday, Cerrone returns to face an old rival in the form of Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, and while UFC 249 may be the most stacked card in the promotion’s history, if “Cowboy” has his way, he will return home with another post-fight performance bonus check in his pocket and another clip for his highlight reel.
Their first encounter was just a fight that came together through the natural course of things, as Varner was the reigning WEC lightweight champion and Cerrone had earned back-to-back wins over Danny Castillo and former titleholder Rob McCullough to establish himself as the No. 1 contender.
For much of the fight, Varner’s experience and polish was the difference, as the champion outworked the challenger and appeared on his way to a relatively easy, uneventful victory. But just after the midway point of the fifth round, Cerrone threw a knee strike that glanced off Varner’s forehead while he was still grounded, bringing the fight to a halt.
Varner couldn’t continue, earned the nod on the scorecards, and both guys felt bad about how things ended.
In the 20 months between their two fights, a real grudge developed, as many believed Varner was over-selling his injuries to avoid a rematch with Cerrone, and the two had plenty to say about one another. “Cowboy” won the rematch at WEC 51 and the battles with Varner served as two of the early scraps that elevated Cerrone into the greater MMA consciousness.
WEC 43 vs. Benson Henderson
In between his two fights with Varner, Cowboy fought four additional times, including a pair of championship bouts opposite Benson Henderson.
The first of those contests was for the interim lightweight title at WEC 43 and it was an absolute classic.
This was right in the sweet spot of the WEC, when the blue cage was littered with elite talent that didn’t get as much attention and recognition as they deserved, but seeing Henderson and Cerrone battle hard for 25 minutes made it clear that they were two of the top lightweights in the world.
The opening round showcased elements that would become calling cards for both men, with Cerrone’s still underrated ground game and submission skills putting Henderson’s legendary defensive abilities to the test from the jump. While the close calls weren’t as frequent as they were in the opening five minutes throughout the remainder of the fight, this was a terrific back-and-forth that ended with 48-47 scores across the board for Henderson.
If the Varner bouts were the ones that made you fall in love with “Cowboy” in terms of his personality, this was the one that let you know he was going to be a fixture in the lightweight division for years to come.
UFC 126 vs. Paul Kelly
Cerrone’s UFC debut closed out the preliminary portion of the pay-per-view card in Las Vegas and was surely an impressive performance, as “Cowboy” dominated and eventually submitted the durable, dangerous Brit midway through the second round.
While his first UFC victory might be worth mentioning regardless, what makes this an automatic addition to this list is what happened before Cerrone got to the Octagon.
Cerrone was raised by his grandparents in Colorado and his grandfather, who had been instrumental in his pursuit of a fighting career and been to all of his grandson’s fights, had fallen ill and was in the hospital in the time leading up to this bout. As Cerrone started making the walk to the Octagon, his friend and teammate Leonard Garcia was on FaceTime with Cerrone’s family back home in Denver when “Cowboy” saw his friend’s face drop.
His grandfather had passed.
With a heavy heart, Cerrone crossed the threshold into the Octagon for the first time and picked up the first of his 23 victories to date.
And if you wanted to know just how big a part of his life his family is, understand that Grandma Jerry might be even more beloved within the MMA community than her grandson, and remains a constant presence at every one of his fights.
UFC 150 vs. Melvin Guillard
Guillard had bounced back from consecutive losses and relocated to South Florida to join the Blackzilians after spending a little time at Jackson-Wink, which gave this a little “former teammates rivalry” feel, while Cerrone had rebounded from his first UFC loss with a victory over Jeremy Stephens.
Most looked at this as a crossroads fight for each man, with the winner remaining on the fringes of contention and the loser likely to take a step back in the ultra-competitive lightweight division. It was also expected to be a barnburner and still somehow managed to exceed expectations as these two came out of the gate swinging and packed all kinds of excitement into a 76-second fight.
Just 11 seconds into the bout, Guillard dropped Cerrone with a counter left hook to the chin that had “Cowboy” on shaky legs and “The Young Assassin” hunting for a finish for the next 30 seconds. But Cerrone steadied himself and clipped the top of Guillard’s head with a left high kick a minute into the fight that shifted the momentum.
Guillard was immediately on roller skates and Cerrone took advantage, charging forward and connecting with a clean right hand that ended the fight on contact.
UFC on FOX 11 vs. Edson Barboza
A fight like this is representative of why lightweight is widely considered to be the most competitive, most entertaining division in the sport because talented, entertaining dudes like this square off all the time in bouts that don’t carry any immediate championship significance. They’re important in moving the winner forward, sure, but it’s not like anyone went into this one thinking, ‘The winner has next.”
It’s just one of those competitive, undeniably intriguing matchups that get you excited as soon as it gets announced and it delivered when they hit the Octagon in Orlando.
Barboza came out swinging, stinging Cerrone with a punch in his initial flurry that had the veteran gunslinger looking to clinch and wrestle less than 30 seconds in. Cerrone recovered and started to settle in, but Barboza’s speed advantage was clear and allowed the Brazilian to get the better of things as they traded in space.
By the three-minute mark of the first round, it was all Barboza, as he started opening up a little more, but just when it seemed like Cerrone was going to be in for a long night, he stuck Barboza with a swift jab that put him on the canvas.
Cerrone followed him to the mat, climbed on his back, and laced up a rear naked choke. The entire finishing sequence took 11 seconds and showed not only how quickly the momentum of a fight can shift, but also just how dangerous Cerrone is at all times.
UFC 178 vs. Eddie Alvarez
Eddie Alvarez’ arrival in the UFC was a big deal, as he had been one of the best lightweights in the sport for a number of years and was finally going to compete inside the Octagon. Cerrone was an obvious choice to welcome him to the UFC, having followed up his win over Barboza with a victory over Jim Miller to extend his winning streak to four.
This was one of those fights where many observers forecasted Cerrone being just a little out of his depth. He’d come up short in big moments in the past and Alvarez was regarded as a Top 5 talent in the 155-pound ranks, which left a lot of people believing he was a recognizable name being marched into the cage to help get the new guy over.
Alvarez controlled things through the opening five minutes, battering Cerrone in a prolonged dirty boxing exchange and getting the better of the striking exchanges in space overall. But Cerrone weathered the storm and assumed control in the second, finding his range while taking the fight to Alvarez, utilizing a lot of body work and a bevy of low kicks.
By the third, all those investments were showing dividends, as Alvarez’ lead leg was lumped up and his gas tank was running dry as Cerrone continued to press forward and punish him. When the final horn sounded, it was clear who deserved the nod, as “Cowboy” scored one of the biggest victories of his career and spoiled Alvarez’ first appearance in the Octagon.
UFC Fight Night 89 vs. Patrick Cote
After climbing to the top of the list of contenders in the lightweight division during an eight-fight, 25-month run of success, Cerrone’s hopes of claiming championship gold were dashed in just 66 seconds as Rafael Dos Anjos made quick work of the streaking fan favorite at the end of 2015. Looking for a new challenge — and happy to avoid cutting weight — Cerrone moved up to welterweight at the outset of 2016, registering a first-round submission win over Alex Oliveira in an all-Cowboy affair in February.
While it was a quality win and an impressive performance, the bout that really made this move to welterweight seem like it could be something more than just a fun little dalliance for Cerrone was his co-main event clash with Patrick Cote in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in June of that year. A former middleweight title challenger, “The Predator” was a seasoned veteran with an iron chin who entered on a three-fight winning streak.
Cerrone was brilliant, catching the French-Canadian veteran off guard by utilizing his wrestling and taking advantage of his clear edge in the speed department to pick him apart. It was the most complete version of Cerrone we’d seen in quite some time — a dynamic blend of the striking everyone came to expect with smart tactical decisions that left Cote searching for answers and swinging at air more often than not.
By the third, Cerrone was home and cooled on the scorecards, but still pressing forward, as he knocked down Cote less than 30 seconds into the frame and put him away with strikes midway through the frame.
UFC 202 vs. Rick Story
If the fight with Cote was Cerrone’s most complete effort to date, this bout with Story offered the most memorable striking combination of his lengthy career.
Cerrone again surprised observers early by being the one to initiate the wrestling and largely controlled the action in the opening round, attacking Story’s lead leg with low kicks and out-quicking him in general on the feet. A couple minutes into the second, Cerrone uncorked what remains one of the best combinations landed in the UFC.
After setting his range with an outside low kick, “Cowboy” hit Story with a quick jab, followed by a straight right to the body, a short left to the head while he was ducking down, and a head kick as Story was lifting himself back up, which sent the veteran from the Pacific Northwest retreating into the fence. Cerrone attacked, continuing the onslaught and securing the finish just a few seconds later, pushing his winning streak to three and establishing himself as a true person of interest in the welterweight title chase.
UFC Fight Night 139 vs. Mike Perry
Everything about this fight and how things played out was awesome for Cerrone.
Serving as the UFC’s 25th Anniversary event, the show at Denver’s Pepsi Center was also a homecoming for Cerrone, who grew up in the surrounding area, and his first fight since the birth of his son, Dacson Danger. Entering off a loss to Leon Edwards and in the midst of a rocky 1-4 run that had some people questioning how much “Cowboy” had left in the tank, facing off with Perry felt like a real test to see if the veteran pugilist could still hang with the toughest hombres in the division.
To everyone’s surprise — including Cerrone’s — the heavily favored Perry ended up being the one to take the fight to the ground and it cost him, as Cerrone dipped into his bag of tricks and found a finish.
After landing on his back with Perry in side control, Cerrone reversed the position with a sweep and took Perry’s back when the knockout artist offered it up. After failing to connect on a rear naked choke and getting dumped over the top, Cerrone threw up a triangle choke attempt and then transitioned to an armbar, locking out the left arm and securing the verbal submission as he went belly-down on the canvas.
Cerrone immediately exited the Octagon and called for his family to join him in the cage, creating an incredible scene as Danger, his wife Lindsay, and Grandma Jerry were all front and center as the partisan crowd showered their favorite fighting son with adulation.
UFC on ESPN+ 1 vs. Alexander Hernandez
During his post-fight interview following his win over Perry, Cerrone announced his intentions of dropping back down to lightweight and making a run at the title. For his first appearance back in his old stomping grounds, the UFC paired him off with Hernandez, a promising up-and-comer who knocked out Top 10-ranked Beneil Dariush in his debut and appeared poised to make a run of his own in the 155-pound ranks.
It was “Youth vs. Experience” and experience won out, though it wasn’t easy.
Hernandez landed a right hand right out of the chute and had Cerrone backing up less than 30 seconds into the fight, which prompted “Cowboy” to wrestle. Even when Cerrone found a home for his strikes, Hernandez was right there with one of his own, pushing a rapid pace in an attempt to suffocate and tire out the veteran.
But late in the first, Cerrone started to figure out Hernandez’ approach and get his timing down, busting him up and assuming the role of the aggressor. It was a classic case of a veteran who had seen it all weathering an early storm and finding his footing as his younger foe struggled to adapt once the momentum was no longer running in his favor.
By the end of the first, Cerrone was battering Hernandez and brimming with confidence, and less than 90 seconds into the middle stanza, he was right back at it, punishing Hernandez every time he came forward and picking his spots with an assortment of heavy strikes. Late in the second, an unexpected right high kick rocked Hernandez, sending him to the canvas, where a series of piston-like right hands brought the fight to a close.
It was an impressive victory for the veteran and another memorable addition to his long, entertaining highlight reel.
For more information and updates, sign up for the UFC Newsletter here.