'Cowboy' Cerrone: 'Pretty sure Conor [McGregor] and I will be meeting in the Octagon'

Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone is returning to lightweight and envisioning a fight with Conor McGregor as his route to a title shot. Ron Chenoy/USA Today Sports

Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone has recorded more wins than any other fighter in UFC history, but he says he's going into 2019 with something to prove.

Cerrone (34-11) will return to lightweight for the first time in three years next month, when he meets Alexander Hernandez at UFC Fight Night on ESPN+: Cejudo vs. Dillashaw on Jan. 19 in New York City. Since 2016, Cerrone has competed exclusively at welterweight.

Before accepting the bout with Hernandez (10-1), Cerrone teased a potential matchup against former lightweight champion Conor McGregor. Cerrone says he got the sense the UFC was open to the idea but wants to see him safely return to 155 pounds -- and collect a win -- first.

"I think [McGregor's] side is interested in it, I know I'm very interested, and for the UFC, that's a money fight," Cerrone told ESPN. "By no means am I overlooking Alex. I'm focused on getting through him, and Conor is potentially what's next.

"I don't see why he would turn the fight down. I'm interested to see how it all plays out. I'm pretty sure Conor and I will be meeting in the Octagon soon."

The UFC -- president Dana White in particular -- has been lukewarm to the idea of Cerrone returning to 155 pounds. He has a long history of making the weight, but it's a difficult cut.

Cerrone says he's approaching the cut more professionally than before, however, and points to the fact that he never had the benefit of an early weigh-in at 155 (that process didn't go into effect until 2016).

"I weigh 175 pounds right now, and I've hired a full-time chef," Cerrone said. "I used to just starve myself and cut 20 pounds the week of the fight."

Cerrone's résumé at 155 pounds speaks for itself. At the time he elected to move up in weight, he was on an 8-1 tear. The UFC obviously still views him as a potential title challenger, considering the caliber of opponent Cerrone says it tried to pair him with.

"Four guys turned down this fight before Alex took it," Cerrone said. "I won't say who they were, but all are top eight in their respective divisions. I want to come back guns blazing. The UFC wants to make sure I can make 155, and then we're attacking the guys at the top. That's what this fight is about."

And once Cerrone has proved he can make the weight safely, and has shown he's still the same "Cowboy" at lightweight, he says he's going to be willing to do something he's never done in his entire career: wait for the big fight.

At age 35, Cerrone is focused on winning a UFC championship and understands it doesn't make sense to fight random opponents just to get five or six fights in within a calendar year.

On Jan. 19 in Brooklyn, it's Hernandez. After that, it's McGregor or whichever opponent gets Cerrone to the title shot.

"This first fight is about getting back into the rankings, but from that point on, we're going to have to sit and choose opponents," Cerrone said. "Because getting all the way to the front door, only to have the guys ahead of you say they want to wait, so you give an up-and-comer a shot at your position -- I'd just be turning myself into a gatekeeper, which is not what I want.

"It's time to get that belt. It's the last thing I need for my legacy. So I plan on doing that, and doing whatever it takes to get there."