Five fights, five wins. Just once during a calendar year filled with Zuffa-promoted UFC action has that happened, and Roger Huerta's 2007 campaign, along with his place in the Octagon, are distant memories.
Donald Cerrone, a lightweight like Huerta, can match that stretch with a victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 141 on Friday in Las Vegas. Not that "Cowboy," 28, cares much about records or rankings. All he seems to be enticed by is the challenge in front of him, and since January they've come often enough for his liking, even if it means waking up once in a while feeling "like a 100-year-old man."
"I haven't had a day off," Cerrone said this week. To which he added, "I keep improving and improving." He sure has. Imported from World Extreme Cagefighting at the start of 2011, Cerrone has handled the transition into UFC as well as anyone. Ever. Those famed Octagon jitters we've heard so much about? Nonexistent, perhaps in part because of the grueling tests Cerrone faced during the three years Zuffa owned WEC. His time there was not without trials, most notably a stretch from 2009-2010 resulting in three losses over five fights. Keep in mind, two of those defeats came against Benson Henderson, one of which was universally lauded as the best mixed martial arts contest of 2009.
"I wasn't mentally ready," he said. "Those were big fights, title fights."
Cerrone (17-3) is one of three WEC-stamped lightweights that pundits figured could do well in the UFC. He was arguably behind Henderson and Anthony Pettis on the list, but Cerrone was certainly considered capable of handling himself against UFC-caliber lightweights. While Henderson skyrocketed into a title fight scheduled for February against Frankie Edgar, Cerrone has outshone Pettis this year to the tune of three $70,000 performance bonuses. With the extra cash, he purchased a new Hummer for his sister over Christmas, and everything he wanted for himself. Life has changed for Cerrone. Winning fights in the UFC will do that.
What Cerrone can't buy with money, he's working toward in well-earned fight business capital. Cerrone covets a UFC championship. He doesn't know when or how it will come, but he has no problem acknowledging that's what he wants. In that respect, a win over Diaz represents much more than taking his place alongside Huerta, who was close to shot himself. Before Huerta was awarded the opportunity, he had to face a gauntlet. Kenny Florian derailed Huerta, then Gray Maynard ruined him. The next thing Huerta knew, he was fighting for Bellator.
Huerta is a case study in the notion that today's success guarantees nothing for tomorrow. Inside the UFC this may as well be a maxim. Five straight wins in the UFC led Huerta to believe he was special. But reality strikes hard in mixed martial arts, and beginning with the Florian fight he dropped five of six.
Cerrone, in all the beneficial ways imaginable, doesn't resemble Huerta. He doesn't fancy himself an actor. He doesn't demand paydays above and beyond what his contemporaries earn. And he certainly doesn't buy into the idea that he deserves a title shot. Not yet at least. That's something he has to prove first, mostly to himself.
"Am I mentally ready to hold the belt?" he wondered aloud. "That takes a lot of pressure. You have to be an upstanding citizen to be the champion of something."
After suffering the only three losses of his career, Cerrone sought the help of a sports psychologist. He remains a work in progress. But, Cerrone said, he's much better about bringing what he does in the gym directly into the Octagon on fight night.
Even Diaz (14-7) admitted Cerrone fights with a style -- quality striking combined with dead-to-rights submissions -- that's effective and appealing to watch.
"I like coming out and getting it over with," Cerrone said. Look no further than the last 12 months for proof of that.
To put it mildly, expectations are through the roof for this one, which sits as the co-main event for UFC 141. So much so that UFC PR flacks have engaged in late-night Twitter conversations in anticipation. Not that there isn't just cause. Cerrone and Diaz are surly, no-nonsense guys. Their fighting styles appear to mesh perfectly. They don't like one another, and the animus has escalated as the fight approaches.
Wednesday, at the final pre-event news conference at the MGM Grand, Diaz flipped Cerrone's $1,000 cowboy hat from his head and shoved him. This, UFC president Dana White said, was a reaction to Cerrone's verbal jousts. Diaz, 26, tends to perform better when he's angry. Cerrone might too, though he's not entirely sure. He's still working on figuring that out.
"Hate me, love me. I don't care," Cerrone said. "Let's fight."