January 25, 2017

UFC on FOX 23: It’s About to Get Real: Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone vs. Jorge “ Gamebred” Masvidal

By Schwan Humes

This Saturday night at UFC on Fox 23, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone will be facing Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal in a fight that will most likely guarantee the winner a top 10 slot and a potential title shot in his next one or two fights. Masvidal is one of the longest tenured, most skilled, and most talented fighters in MMA. This means that he is one of the biggest tests in Cerrone’s career, and definitely his toughest opposition since he has taken to competing in the welterweight division. That is what we are looking at discussing: who Donald Cerrone is, what he has accomplished, why his current run at welterweight is not nearly as impressive as the pundits would have you think, and which challenges are posed by his upcoming opponent at UFC on Fox 23.

Donald Cerrone was a longtime stalwart of the lightweight division. From WEC to UFC, Cerrone fought anyone, anytime, and anywhere. More times than not he was successful, becoming one of the few legitimate stars in the division, a consistent top five contender and a one-time title challenger. The list of names Cerrone has beaten is a basically a who’s who of high-level lightweights in MMA, fighters like KJ Noons, Jeremy Stephens, Benson Henderson, Jamie Varner, Eddie Alvarez, and Rob McCullough, to name a few. On top of that, Cerrone has won every sort of performance bonus the UFC has, meaning that not only was he one of the best, he was also one of the most exciting fighters in the division.

Cerrone has also been one of the most active fighters in the sport. His second loss to Rafael Dos Anjos, the aforementioned title shot, has Cerrone looking to regroup. During this process he decided to make a move, embracing the opportunities that a new division would offer him. That decision, along with a change in striking coaches, turned out to be a brilliant one, as Cowboy has won four in a row. He also looked more dominating physically and immensely better technically. Cerrone has gone from “also ran” in the lightweight division to the hottest thing in the welterweight division.

But has this resurgence been as incredible as we have been led to believe? According to the MMA media, this is a new Cerrone -- a Cerrone who is even better fighting in a new division, against bigger, stronger, and more durable opposition. While Cowboy has improved his boxing and his footwork, as well as addressed his issues with starting slow in fights, I think we are overlooking the real reason Cerrone has looked so impressive in his last four fights. He hasn’t been fighting guys with the skills, experience, physical ability, and durability to beat him. All the guys he’s recently faced have had a combination of these traits, but Cerrone hasn’t competed against a fighter who encompasses all of them. He has only lost to guys who were the best, or at the very least, fighters who could compete with the very best. This incarnation of “Cowboy” hasn’t faced one guy who fits that description.

Each fighter Cerrone has defeated has lost and done so in decisive fashion when facing the best in the world. Patrick Cote was outclassed by Stephen Thompson. Rick Story was dominated by Demian Maia and outclassed by Kelvin Gastelum. Alex Oliveira, who had never competed at welterweight, lost to Gilbert Burns. Matt Brown was outclassed and outworked by Robbie Lawler, stopped by Jake Ellenberger, and outwrestled by Johny Hendricks.

In the lightweight division, anyone from 1-15 was capable of beating you on any given night, the division was that deep. The fighters were that balanced in their skills, and most importantly the majority of these fighters were all young and athletic. That has not been the case regarding the guys he has beaten in the last year and a half. Cote, while durable, strong and powerful, is the epitome of slow, offensively limited, and shopworn. Brown, who has a high work rate, a punishing clinch game, a big heart, and a lot of experience in the cage, is also a defensive liability. He’s effective offensively at one range and one-dimensional in regards to what he can consistently be effective doing in others. Story is a powerful wrestler, a hard-hitting striker, and a vicious body puncher, not to mention being a very durable and experienced fighter. However, he is a head case. He’s someone who hasn’t been consistent in his choice of camps, much less his in-cage performances. All of these guys, while dangerous in their own rights, have clear limitations, mental, physical, technical, and strategic. When they have faced the best opponents they have, more times than not, lost.

This means that Cerrone’s streak at welterweight has some merit because he has become increasingly more impressive in each outing, but the weight of those wins is less than those at lightweight, because the level of opposition has been lower in every measurable and meaningful manner. To highlight my point, all the best wins I have listed for Cerrone have come at lightweight. The guys he has faced at welterweight -- at this point of their careers, or at their peak -- can’t hold a candle (technically or athletically speaking) to the guys he beat or lost to at lightweight.

This Saturday night we’ll find out how good the welterweight version of Donald Cerrone is, because this is the first time he will face an opponent with the full array of skills, years of experience, and depth in every area of mixed martial arts. This is a durable guy who is still in his prime athletically: none other than Jorge Masvidal. Masvidal is a 42-fight veteran. He’s competed in Bellator, Strikeforce, World Victory Road, Bodog. and the UFC. The only guy who has logged more miles, in more organizations, against a better level of opposition is former UFC and Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez.

Masvidal, much like Cerrone, hit a wall in the lightweight division and was looking to jumpstart his career by moving to the welterweight division. While he hasn’t had the success Cerrone has at welterweight, largely in part to facing a better class of opposition, he has still shown that he has all the tools and skills to compete with the very best in the world. This is what separates Masvidal from Cerrone’s previous welterweight opponents. He hasn’t been outclassed, dominated, or stopped. This is partly due to his durability, but mostly due to the experience and skills he has accrued over the many years competing in MMA. He can box, wrestle, grapple; he can win using each of those methods, not just against journeyman or third and fourth-tier opposition.

In many ways, Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal is the mirror image of Donald Cerrone, opposite in character and in standing with fans and media, but more than comparable in regards to skills, experience, and activity. He too is looking to truly establish himself at welterweight. He too is looking to not just be ranked, but to compete for and win a world title in his new weight class. This Saturday night at UFC on Fox 23, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is in for a special kind of fight, one that will tell us is exactly who he is and what he is truly capable of as a welterweight and beyond.

UFC on FOX 23: Shevchenko vs. Peña takes place January 28, 2017 at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

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