Just In Trading Shots: Can a more mature Donald Cerrone finally become UFC champ, and does he need the belt to be an all-time great? MMA Life

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Donald Cerrone said he wasn’t feeling it against Al Iaquinta at first, but experience helped him over that hump en route to victory. Is that the missing piece of the puzzle that kept him from becoming champ? And does he need a gold belt to justify his career? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.

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Fowlkes: Tell the truth, Danny. Now that you see how much success Donald Cerrone is having in the cage after becoming a father, are you not a little bit tempted to get your own dadbod in there and give it another shot? “Cowboy” got his third straight win with a unanimous decision victory over Al Iaquinta on Saturday, but what struck me most were Cerrone’s comments after the fight:

“I was telling my corners, I felt terrible starting that fight. I couldn’t find it, man. In the locker room, didn’t want to warm up. Didn’t want to get ready. Didn’t want to hit pads. Didn’t want to wrestle. Didn’t want to fight until the second round. People always say I’m a slow starter and, ‘What Cowboy are you going to get?’ And we train hard, we train so hard and we try and find ways for our opponents to beat us so that we can show up and beat them on our worst day. And today was my worst day. Thank God it’s been 41 fights in Zuffa that I’ve been here because I was able to, like, fake it until you make it. Because you fake it long enough and you find it.”

This strikes me as a disarmingly honest take from the winner of the night’s main event. It also seems to explain a lot of the Cerrone idiosyncrasies.

It’s true that he’s been inconsistent at times. It’s also true that he’s been criticized for being a slow starter, and no one’s been more upfront about the psychological difficulties he faces in the lead-up to fights. But it’s also true that this is an unforgiving sport in that sense.

Whatever else you did in the weeks of training, we judge you based on a few minutes one Saturday night. You’re not guaranteed a halftime or a timeout to get your act together if things start badly. And we’re not known for an abundance of sympathy if you show up later and tell us you just had a bad night.

But can’t anybody have a bad night without it necessarily telling us everything about their career? And how much do you think Cerrone’s abundant experience could balance out his tendency to have bad nights at the worst times, especially now that he’s once again talking about a title shot?

Downes: A fighter should be able to have a bad night without it telling us everything about his or her career, but fans, media and promoters aren’t that forgiving.

No matter what Jose Aldo does with the rest of his career, people will still post gifs of that Conor McGregor fight. Being on the receiving end of one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history is different than a TKO loss to Darren Till, but the point still stands. It’s not something that’s unique to MMA either. Fans of any sport can find a way to diminish a career. Don’t believe me? Just read the comments section when the NFL or NBA announces the new Hall of Hame entrants.

Cerrone’s busy fight schedule is both a help and a hindrance to his legacy. On the one hand, it endears him to fans and the stink of a loss never lingers that long. On the other hand, he fights so often that his wins never seem to stick. He’s fought three times since November. Would you call any of them “signature” wins?

The abundance of UFC fights in general may contribute to this, but seeing “Cowboy” fight doesn’t have that “rareness” that a lot of fight fans crave. Whether it’s Conor McGregor or Brock Lesnar, the infrequency of appearances creates hype. Imagine if Nate Diaz fought six times a year. Would it have the same panache?

It would be nice to see Cerrone get another title shot. The UFC gave Michael Bisping a lifetime achievement title opportunity, and that worked out pretty well for him. If Cerrone becomes lightweight champion, would that change your opinion of him? What if he loses in the first round again. What if he gets bored and fights some random guy in a few months (something he admits is possible)? Would any of those outcomes change your thoughts on the ol’ Cowboy, or is his legacy already cemented?

Fowlkes: The Bisping example is a useful one, and something I was thinking about recently when people were discussing Ronaldo Souza’s place among the all-time best middleweights. I think it’s entirely possible to have a great career without ever winning a UFC title. I also think you could have a cup of coffee with the belt and it doesn’t necessarily make you an elite fighter.

But I can’t deny it, there is something about that title victory that elevates someone to a higher plane in our minds. Bisping might have gone down as a good-but-not-great middleweight if not for his title win as a late replacement in a rematch with an opponent who trounced him the first time they fought. It was shocking and surprising and totally out of nowhere, but it forever changed the way we think about him. Same with Matt Serra, honestly.

I can see why it would be great for Cerrone to have that, and I certainly understand why he wants it. But does he need it? I don’t think he does. I think he’s clearly one of the greats without it, just based on the statistics alone. He has built for himself a certain kind of legacy, one based on frantic activity and willful embrace of risk.

Maybe those same qualities have, to some extent, kept him from a title. Maybe it was because he just couldn’t get it all to click on the right night. Regardless, I don’t look at Cerrone and see a man who needs to do anything else to convince me that he’s a great fighter. Do you?

Downes: Not at all. Cerrone’s accomplishments in the sport overshadow a lot of other fighters who have become champion. Whose career would you rather have: Cerrone’s or Johny Hendricks’? How about Cerrone or Luke Rockhold?

More than the fights themselves, Cerrone serves as an interesting example as to how you can choose to manage your career. There’s nothing particularly strategic about how/when he accepts fights. He doesn’t like to sit out for a long time. Even if he would be better served by sitting on the sidelines, he just can’t do it.

Outside Justin Gaethje, there are few professional fighters with the same mindset. Neither one wants to remain inactive for long. They’d rather fight and lose than sit around and wait.

It’s an attitude fans and promoters say they love – until they don’t. Dana White loves “Cowboy” until he asks for more money or a title shot (I suppose the whole MMAAA thing didn’t help either).

Being the guy who will fight anytime, anywhere has a lot of advantages. It also has a lot of drawbacks. Cerrone was able to navigate those difficulties over the course of an impressive 13-year career. He will never be one of the most decorated MMA fighters of all time, but you can’t deny he’s one of the greatest.

Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.

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