Cerrone reminds us how good he can be

Donald Cerrone gets a lot of credit for being exciting.

We laud his technical striking skills and proficient ground game, offering as evidence 14 stoppages among his 18 professional wins. We like to say he’s a “natural born fighter” -- a compliment in our world -- because he obviously loves his job so much. Spend a few minutes talking to the “Cowboy” and you come away feeling certain there’s nothing he’d rather do with his Saturday nights than beat somebody up for money.

He’s funny, flashy, confident-bordering-on-cocky and there’s an edge to him that’s just a little bit scary. In short, he’s everything fans want in an MMA fighter.

After watching him dismantle Jeremy Stephens on Tuesday at the UFC’s third live show on FuelTV though, one thing is clear: Amid all the praise we heap at his feet, we still don’t give Cerrone enough credit for being smart.

That’s a shame, because while the showy skillset and the flair for the dramatic will likely keep getting him big fights in the Octagon, it’s his brain that will give him a chance to win them.

Cerrone's unanimous decision win over Stephens was nothing if not shrewd. He clearly learned some things during his December 2011 loss to Nate Diaz, a fight where he let the prefight trash talk go to his head so badly that he sprinted out of his corner and into the teeth of Diaz’s attack at the opening bell. Though he lasted the full 15 minutes against the current No. 1 contender, the fight was clearly over by the middle of the first round -- it may have been over before it began -- after Diaz had already battered and frustrated him with his trademark speed-bag punches.

Leading up their showdown in Fairfax, Va., Stephens had tried his hand at getting into Cerrone’s dome, saying he thought Diaz “broke” the Colorado native during their bout. This time however, Cerrone proved above the verbal fray. Sure, he made Stephens eat his words (especially that ill-conceived line about how Stephens “[didn’t] care about his kicks”) but he did it with craft instead of wrath.

Getting suckered into a brawl against a power-puncher like Stephens is a good way to end the night explaining your strategy to the ringside doctor, so Cerrone opted for a slightly more advanced game plan. He engaged Stephens at range, punished his legs with a steady diet of -- ahem -- kicks and picked apart his defense with an unpredictable mix of punching combinations and even the occasional takedown.

That’s the longwinded way of saying Cerrone simply out-fought Stephens on this night.

The end result was that “Lil’ Heathen” looked completely out of his league and Cerrone reestablished himself as one of the UFC’s top-tier lightweights. Now 5-1 in the Octagon, he appears to have learned one of the cage’s most valuable lessons: Everyone loses. Everyone experiences adversity. The fighters that stick around for the long-term are the ones that make adjustments.

Cerrone made them wonderfully for this fight. Frankly, he needs to stay in that habit, because now comes the most important stage of his young UFC career. From here, he can either make his loss to Diaz look like an aberration -- that one time he let his emotions get the best of him and he got beat -- or he can fall back into the trap of being the guy who is good enough to defeat everyone except the best fighters in his division.

Of course, nobody wants to be the latter.

Ever active, Cerrone is angling for an appearance at UFC 150 in August, when the Octagon comes to his old stomping grounds in Denver. That timing would seem to dovetail nicely with the return of top contender Anthony Pettis, who reportedly had surgery for an undisclosed injury in March. If not Pettis, Cerrone could make a good first real test for Edson Barboza, provided the 26-year-old Brazilian can get by replacement opponent Jamie Varner later this month at UFC 146.

Whoever matchmakers line up next, Cerrone used his performance at UFC on Fuel 3 to remind us (and maybe himself) of what should be a golden rule for him moving forward: When he fights with his mind instead of running on pure heart, he ranks among the best in the world.