July 29, 2017

UFC 214: Lawler vs. Cerrone for Dummies: Nine Things You Need to Know Before the Fight

By Schwan Humes

Saturday night at UFC 214 we have a matchup between two of the most popular and dependable action fighters in the history of mixed martial arts, two guys who will be first ballot in MMA’s “All-Violence” Hall of Fame, when Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone stands across the Octagon from “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler in this “fun” welterweight tilt. Both fighters are coming off of decidedly one-sided losses. Lawler’s cost him his UFC Welterweight Championship, as he was quickly stopped in the first round at UFC 201 by current champion Tyron Woodley,
ending what had been an impressive streak of victories in his return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, including one of the most dramatic title reigns in UFC history. Cerrone’s came at the hands of longtime mixed martial arts veteran Jorge Masvidal, who after a competitive first round, brutally dispatched Cowboy at UFC on FOX 23. Today I will provide and discuss nine talking points that explain why this fight was made, as well as take a closer look at the flaws, mistakes, and missteps that have brought these fighters to this point in their careers:

9) This is a “fun” fight, a fight that is less about shaping the division, jockeying for position in the rankings, or setting up the next title contender. This fight was made for one reason: to appease fans, and when fans are appeased, the money at the gate and from pay-per-view buys rolls in.

8) This fight isn’t an important fight, not in the sense that it truly impacts the division or establishes either guy as a potential champion. Even though Cerrone has only one loss at welterweight, it was competitively one-sided, and the manner in which it ended created questions regarding his durability and his ability to fight at this weight as a contender. (Think Kelvin Gastelum’s middleweight run.) And even though Lawler’s last loss was in a championship match, the title has been defended twice since his loss; on top of that, the division barely resembles the one he ruled with an iron fist. (That’s for you comic book fans.) When you factor in the way he lost, essentially being one-shotted -- albeit by one of the biggest hitters in mixed martial arts -- it makes the experts wonder what Lawler has left and how long it will last, given the nature of his fights, as well as the current inhabitants in the top ten of the division. A win by either man doesn’t really tell us anything as it pertains to their futures as elite welterweights. However, a loss tells us what most have already concluded, or at least considered: that neither guy deserves consideration for title talks.

7) This fight is a matter of perception. Lawler is being put into this fight for nostalgia, as fans and the organization are hoping he can do what he has always done and be who he “used to” be. Cerrone is being put into this fight based on who he, the fans, and the organization have made him out to be, when in fact Justin Gaethje is the fighter that the UFC has marketed Cowboy as being. This cachet this fight has is a direct result of how both guys are perceived by fans -- partly by the results in the cage, and in some cases as a result of hype and marketing.

6) Donald Cerrone is the better martial artist, though he has never been a champion, nor has he always performed in big fights. The fact of the matter is very few fighters have as well-balanced, broad, and developed skillsets as “Cowboy.” Cerrone is known as a striker, and at his core his approach to striking hasn’t changed, as he still prefers to keep opponents at range, punishing them to the head, body, and legs with a series of well-placed kicks. The change in his game has come in regard to the versatility he has shown with in his striking, as he has begun to show a sense of nuance in his game, using footwork to dissuade pressure and create avenues to strike with authority without exposing himself to return fire. Of more importance is the development of his hands, which used to be used exclusively to set the table for his leg and body kicks. Under the tutelage of Brandon Gibson, Cerrone’s hands have grown into an impressive and sustainable source of purposeful offense and counters instead of incidental sources of them.

But the area where the gap between him and Lawler is widest is wrestling and grappling -- Cowboy can do both very well. He has a gorgeous takedown game and times his shots beautifully, moving between singles, doubles, and knee-taps with great skills. On top of that, Cerrone has greatly improved his overall takedown defense, especially as it pertains to center cage takedown attempts. On the ground he is well-rounded, a threat from top or bottom. Cerrone is a willing grappler -- rare among strikers -- who has a knack for finding submissions, a willingness to hunt for them even in the face of losing position, a underrated guard passing game, and an innate ability to chain together submission attacks to finish an opponent or improve his position against him. When it you put the fight on paper, it’s very one-sided in the favor of Cerrone, as he is clearly superior in two of the three components of mixed martial arts and has won using all three of those components against a variety of styles, types, and levels of opposition.

5) Lawler is the better striker. While Cerrone has begun to flash the precision, defensive responsibility, and versatility a striker with his reputation should show, he has not mastered it. That was made painfully obvious in the fight against Masvidal; the improved footwork, head movement, counters, leads, setups, and combinations that led to highlight reel performances against Matt Brown, Patrick Cote, and Rick Story didn’t show up consistently or effectively against “Gamebred.” What was the difference? Those guys can’t box worth a damn and Masvidal can. The bad news for Cerrone is the fact that Lawler can too, and unlike Masvidal, Lawler has game changing, fight ending power. Tactical awareness and cage IQ is the difference, not so much in the skills used but in the consistency and efficiency in which they are used; that was the difference between Masvidal and Cerrone, and could very well be the difference between Cerrone and Lawler.

4) Cerrone’s run at welterweight was a mirage. Cote, Brown, Story, and Alex Oliveira aren’t elite welterweights. Regardless of the rankings, the facts are none of these fighters were considered high caliber fighters, or fighters who had consistently beaten first tier opposition. The hype from Cowboy doing so well was more about him moving up a division, much more so than it was about him beating guys who were considered legitimate title contenders. He won in impressive fashion, but he was doing it against guys who were physically and technically limited (Cote, Brown), inconsistent (Story), or inexperienced at this level (Oliveira).

3) Lawler is the kind of guy Cerrone historically loses to. Cerrone has been considered elite because he has beat the rest, not because he has beaten the best. When he faces a certain caliber of opposition, he loses. Benson Henderson, Rafael Dos Anjos, Masvidal, Anthony Pettis, Nate Diaz. With the exception of wins over Edson Barboza and Eddie Alvarez (I refuse to count Cerrone’s most recent “win” over Henderson), Cerrone has lost -- and lost in spectacular fashion -- to the top guys he has faced. Only two of the fights were competitive; the rest were brutal stoppages.

2) The Gift and the Curse. Part of Lawler’s success is tied to his long career in mixed martial arts, having fought in various organizations and weight classes, against a variety of opposition. He has familiarity working on his side when it comes to the support of fans and the UFC. Of more importance was how his resurgence was a direct result of the activity he had upon rejoining the UFC, having almost ten fights in essentially a year and a half. The activity raised his Q rating, as did the level of opposition and the nature of the fights (action). But on the downside, it racked up more mileage -- and we are talking hard miles -- on a fighter who has been competing in mixed martial arts since 2001. Once again, the question is: Was the Woodley fight an outlier, one which Lawler bounces back from as he continues his assault on the division, or is it a sign of things to come, and just the beginning of a series of ugly stoppage losses?

1) The Gift and the Curse part 2. Cerrone’s star has been made off of the “anytime, anywhere” mantra, as have his rather big and frequent paydays. fans love a guy who fights hard, fights a lot, and finishes fights. Cowboy has done all these things, and he has been rewarded with adulation from the fans, fight night bonuses, a healthy payday for fighting, and a reputation as one of the best fighters in the world in two divisions. That being said, there is a price for fighting that often, regardless of the caliber off opponent; your body has very little time to rest, and even less time to recover, which is fine when you are coming into your prime or even at your peak. But as you continue to age, that pace catches up to you in regards to durability, athleticism, and overall health; not to mention that constantly training and sparring has the effect of aging you more as a fighter (think a less exaggerated version of Jordan Mein). Cowboy has performed at a high level, but the signs of physical slippage are apparent, and it’s only a matter of time before they become determining factors not just against the elite, but against the second and third tier fighters.

Another aspect to this is that fighting doesn’t help you improve; the growth and development happens in the camps, it happens in day-to-day training between fights. If you’re always fighting, your timing, fight IQ, awareness, and execution will be top shelf. However, your ability to learn, develop, refine, and execute new skills will suffer. And if you notice, Cerrone’s big losses come after a series of closely occurring fights; eventually he works his way up the division, fights a name, and gets soundly trounced. The more time between fights, the better version of Cowboy we see. His welterweight run is an excellent example of both points, as he showed better all-round striking and more intelligent use of wrestling and grappling, but once he moved through the division, he had a quick turnaround fighting Brown then Masvidal, and was summarily dismissed in two rounds.

Saturday night on UFC 214, the fans are in for a treat with two fighters known for action fights and for finishing fights. In the aftermath, we won’t know who is a top ten fighter or title contender, but we will definitely CLEARLY know who isn’t.

UFC 214: Cormier vs. Jones 2 takes place July 29, 2017 at Honda Center in Anaheim, California.

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