If Donald Cerrone doesn’t get a few “Fighter of the year” nods when the smorgasbord of end-of-2011 MMA retrospectives breaks out across the Internet next week, it sure won’t be for lack of trying.
Perhaps only because Jon Jones put together the greatest individual campaign in mixed martial arts history during the last 12 months, Cerrone may not get a ton of love from the pundits this year. Owing to the fact that Dan Henderson also won a title, defeated a heavyweight legend and then took part in what could be the best fight the sport has ever seen, Cerrone might not even finish second in the voting.
None of that, however, can or should be seen as a reflection on Cerrone’s year, which by any reasonable measure was an unbelievable, smashing success.
When he takes the cage opposite Nate Diaz next Friday at UFC 141, Cerrone will be looking to cap this year with his fifth consecutive win, which -- if you're scoring at home -- would be more than any other fighter on the company’s roster during 2011. To put that in perspective, it would be an achievement for most UFC fighters to simply participate in five fights in one year, let alone notch five straight wins.
The magnitude of that only increases when you consider the performance came from a guy who began his career in the Octagon in February after a good, but not mind-blowing run in the WEC.
After dropping three chances at the smaller organization’s lightweight title during 2009-10, Cerrone effectively lobbed himself into contention for UFC gold this year, defeating an increasingly difficult slate of four opponents. Three of those came by stoppage and all of them came behind Cerrone’s trademark smirk.
Simply put, this guy loves his job with a clarity and wholeheartedness that most fighters simply can’t muster. Cerrone has said he doesn’t care about the title, but rather just wants to be the kind of fighter UFC matchmaker Joe Silva can call at a moment’s notice; a luxury the UFC will obviously take advantage of early and often. Cerrone has been his own worst critic, judging rather harshly his performance in a unanimous decision win over Vagner Rocha at UFC 131 and lambasting himself for being "a slow starter" during a year that included two first-round wins.
He also provided a number of moments that were classic "Cowboy" during 2011. For example: Saying he couldn’t wait to get in the cage with Charles Oliveira in August because he felt that the 22-year-old Brazilian had looked at him funny before their fight; referring to Dennis Siver as a “one-trick pony” before UFC 137, then submitting him in the first round; repeatedly calling out longstanding rival Cole Miller and then in October, declaring that he’d also cut to featherweight just to get a piece of Nam Phan.
Both Miller and Phan had previously defeated Cerrone teammate Leonard Garcia, which seemed to bother him more than any of his own three previous losses.
It’s been clear for some time that Cerrone is a singular personality in mixed martial arts, this year he emerged as a singular talent as well.
To prove it of course, he’ll have to beat Diaz, who shapes up as his most difficult test yet, despite amassing a 1-2 record while spending most of this year fighting at welterweight. Diaz turned things around with a 155-pound victory over Takanori Gomi at UFC 135 and now looks to take Cerrone's spot in the lightweight ranks by stealing the thunder he spent a year building.
Cerrone’s 2011 may have been overshadowed by the performances of others, but if he can top Diaz and keep the momentum rolling into 2012, that won’t be the case for long.