January 30, 2017

UFC on FOX 23: It’s About To Get Real: Numbers Don’t Lie, But They Don’t Tell The Whole Story

By Schwan Humes

Saturday night at UFC on Fox 23, the Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone hype train came to a screeching halt at the hands of Jorge Masvidal. To many it was a shock; Cerrone had been one of the top five guys in the lightweight division and had won four straight on his way to a potential top five ranking at welterweight. Each win for Cerrone came in a different but more technically or devastatingly impressive manner, while Masvidal was only 2-3 in his time at welterweight and never really sniffed the top five at lightweight. Those numbers, those facts, those highlights gave people unshakable faith in the victory for Cerrone, which would ultimately lead to a name fighter (Demian Maia or Robbie Lawler) or a call out of current champion Tyron Woodley or potential champion Stephen Thompson. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell the plan to Jorge Masvidal, who upset the apple cart. He ignored the numbers, the win streak, and the spectacular finishes; he fought and won in a dominating and decisive manner.

I get no joy from the loss by Cowboy; he is a great fighter. Not good, not very good, he is great and will probably go down as one of the best of all time, even if he never wins a title. His activity, his amount of fights, the level of opposition and variety of ways he has won fights all say all time great, but like any great fighter or any great competitor in any sport, there are holes, certain lines to take when attacking them, certain things to look for when scheming them. Cerrone is no different; the issue was he hadn’t faced an opponent who was good enough to exploit the holes he has.

Now to be fair, Cerrone has improved. During his time with Brandon Gibson, his footwork, setups, and delivery of strikes -- especially as it pertains to his boxing -- have all improved. Cowboy no longer short-arms his strikes, now he extends punching through targets, increasing his punching power and ability to put legitimate combinations together instead of just throwing a flurry of punches whose goal is to open you up for the leg kicks. His jab, which used to just serve as a distraction to set up his legs or create a lane of delivery for his knees, is now a line of defense and a line of offense, which has limited guys’ ability to walk in on him and get to his body with strikes or to land big counters. What also helped was an increased focus on angles and being light on his feet; it allowed him to peel off kicks in a quicker manner and effectively mix up punch and kick combinations. All these things he did well enough, but he was starting to do them at an amazingly high level of efficiency and frequency.

So I won’t act like he hasn’t improved; had he not, I don’t know that he puts four in a row together at a bigger weight where the fighters take shots better, are physically stronger, and hit a bit harder. However, he wasn’t facing guys with the layers, nuance, and depth of skill to force him to go to Plan B in his new approach. They didn’t force him to show that this new style was second nature, they couldn’t pressure him to the point where his resolve, his understanding of these developments, and his ability to execute under duress was put to the test. Patrick Cote -- old, slow, and offensively limited. Alex Oliveira -- one-dimensional and inexperienced. Rick Story -- shoddy defense, limited footwork, terribly inconsistent. Then you had Matt Brown -- physical, great in the clinch, and super busy, but past his prime with suspect durability and athleticism. There were all good fighters, but none had the skills -- physical or technical -- to really challenge what he was doing; they were all a step and half behind him physically and technically.

Masvidal wasn’t, he was in his prime, quick-footed and long, with good power, and excellent durability and recuperative ability. Most importantly he checked off every box in MMA: he could grapple, wrestle, and strike. There was no line to victory that wouldn’t have Cowboy meeting some sort of adversity in the cage, and that was the difference. Unlike the other four fighters I mentioned, Masvidal was able to work into range, put punches together, effectively counterpunch, and use angles and positioning to allow him to do all three of those things. For the first time in almost a year and a half, Cerrone wasn’t able to rip off combinations, using his length and volume to keep guys outside, put damage on them, and make them hesitant to open up. Masvidal cut the cage off, put his punches together (head and body), jabbed with Cerrone, and punched with him (instead of waiting til he finished his combinations and firing back). He came in on angles to land shots and exited on subtle angles to interrupt Cerrone’s momentum when he tried to overwhelm him. He essentially limited Cowboy to ones and twos instead of threes, fours, and fives; by doing that he also eliminated Cerrone’s ability to exit cleanly.

Of more importance was how Cerrone’s lack of head movement was highlighted once the other things had been taken away from him. Cerrone began staying in front of Masvidal, and that was essentially what won the fight in the first round AND the second round; it wasn’t just luck, it wasn’t toughness or athleticism, it wasn’t aggression. It was the craft and the comfort in executing that comes with fighting so often against so many top tier, skilled guys. Cowboy had to fight with no real area of advantage -- he had no way to slow the fight, nowhere to take the fight to that would allow him to escape or turn the tide, and that was the story. It was the story I told last week and it became the story of the fight. Donald Cerrone isn’t a hype job; he just isn’t untouchable. No one is -- as good as he has been and as great as he is, he has things to key in on. Jorge Masvidal found each and every one of them, by taking away each and every layer of defense that allowed Cowboy to mask them or protect them from being consistently attacked. The numbers told one story about Donald Cerrone the welterweight, it didn’t tell the whole story, and that is what laid the groundwork for Part one of this two-part series and for one of the “upsets” of the year.

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

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