UFC viewers guide: Gaethje-Cowboy in the cage, McGregor waiting in the wings

Cowboy-Gaethje is a fighter's fight (1:50)

Brett Okamoto details why all fighters will be tuned in for Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc (1:50)

There are two ways of looking at Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event between Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone and Justin "The Highlight" Gaethje in Vancouver, British Columbia.

On one hand, the outcome can be viewed as borderline irrelevant. This 155-pound matchup almost mirrors the recently announced "BMF championship" fight between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal. It's a fight for the fans. It transcends the typical prefight discussions of rankings and "climbing the ladder."

Nobody is tuning in to Cowboy vs. Gaethje to see who moves closer to a title shot. Fans are tuning in because this clash of styles and personalities guarantees excitement. And in that sense, neither of these men can really lose. Right?

Well, that brings us to the other side of the coin. The reality is, the result of this fight definitely matters.

After competing at welterweight for years, Cerrone dropped to lightweight at the beginning of 2019 and got off to a hot start, with wins against Anthony Hernandez and Al Iaquinta. Just a few months ago, he was well positioned for a possible Conor McGregor money fight and in the running for a title shot, but he suffered a resounding loss to Tony Ferguson in June. If he loses here, he'll still (and always) be a fan favorite, but will drop out of those McGregor/title-shot conversations.

Gaethje is in a similar position. A win could lead to McGregor or another top-five matchup. Gaethje has also mentioned, several times, his desire to negotiate a new contract with the UFC. A loss wouldn't send him tumbling too far, but a win could open the doors he's trying to walk through.

Come Saturday, the anticipation for this fight will undoubtedly reach a fever pitch. And in the moment, it might feel like it doesn't matter who wins. It's just two of the most entertaining men in the sport, doing what they do best. But make no mistake: Underlying this fan-friendly fight are lasting impacts on the winner and the loser.

By the numbers

0: Gaethje fights in the UFC that have not ended by knockout. He is 3-2 since joining the promotion in 2017, with the wins and losses all coming by KO. If Saturday's bout ends that way, Gaethje will join Thiago Silva, Ricco Rodriguez and Derrick Lewis as the only fighters to have each of their first six UFC bouts end via KO.

33: UFC fights for Cerrone (as of Saturday), tying Jim Miller's record.

1,494: Significant strikes absorbed in the UFC by Cerrone, the most in promotion history, according to UFC Stats. There'll be no reprieve on Saturday. Gaethje lands more significant strikes per minute (8.50) than any fighter in UFC history (minimum five fights).

98: Days it will have been on Saturday since Cerrone's last fight (TKO loss to Tony Ferguson, June 8). This will be Cerrone's 19th UFC fight that occurs within 100 days of his previous fight, and he will be fighting for the fourth time in 2019, making it the sixth time in his UFC career that he has fought at least four times in a calendar year.

2: Fighters who have appeared in main events in five of their first six UFC appearances: Anderson Silva and, as of Saturday, Gaethje.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information

A look back: UFC in Vancouver

Five vs. five

Donald Cerrone's most recent results
Loss: Tony Ferguson (TKO2, June 8, 2019)
Win: Al Iaquinta (UD, May 4, 2019)
Win: Alexander Hernandez (TKO2, Jan. 19, 2019)
Win: Mike Perry (SUB1, Nov. 10, 2018)
Loss: Leon Edwards (UD, June 23, 2018)

Justin Gaethje's most recent results
Win: Edson Barboza (KO1, March 30, 2019)
Win: James Vick (KO1, Aug. 25, 2018)
Loss: Dustin Poirier (TKO4, April 14, 2018)
Loss: Eddie Alvarez (KO3, Dec. 2, 2017)
Win: Michael Johnson (TKO2, July 7, 2017)

Fighting words

"Me and Cowboy go way back. In 2012, he brought me out to be a training partner when he fought Melvin Guillard. I stayed at the ranch with him for two weeks. Then I went to Vail, Colorado, and stayed in his RV with him for two weeks. He almost knocked me out. Dropped me, gave me a good concussion. Yeah, I was just a pure wrestler back then. So, for one, I'm glad to get that back from him." --Gaethje, speaking to ESPN about his history with Cerrone

Film study


The year of Donald Cerrone

Look back at Donald Cerrone's biggest moments inside the cage from his four fights in the past 12 months.

Brett Okamoto's pick

At this point, I've lost count of how many times I've been "worried" about Cerrone going into a fight. Just from the sense of, "Man, this seems like too much." It seems like too much for Cerrone, at age 36, with the wear and tear he has, to cut to 155 pounds four times in nine months. It seems like too much for him to face a 30-year-old pressure fighter like Gaethje, three months after absorbing the damage he did in the Ferguson loss. My head says Gaethje all the way here. But Cerrone has proved immune to the "too much" theory before. Cowboy by TKO, fourth round

Waiting in the wings

You know that as soon as Saturday's main event ends we'll be seeing a tweet from @TheNotoriousMMA, congratulating the winner and calling him out. Why do we know this? Because Conor McGregor does it after practically every main event. He's always waiting in the wings. Does that mean he wants to fight Saturday's winner? No one knows, because McGregor has yet to sign a contract to fight any of the guys he has called out.

But here's the thing: The Cerrone-Gaethje winner would be an excellent choice for a comeback opponent. Both guys are action fighters, and McGregor is at his best when someone is going right at him. Beating either of these guys would make Conor a legit title challenger, while maybe winning back fans who abandoned him during his troubled past few years.

What else to look for ... beyond the main event

Watch them go, go, go until someone is stopped

The light heavyweight co-main event should not be lacking for action, for a couple of reasons:

  • Glover Teixeira (29-7) has stoppages in 25 of his 29 victories. The former title challenger has won two in a row.

  • Nikita Krylov (26-6) has stoppages in all but one of his wins, His 5.5 significant strikes landed per minute represent the highest rate in UFC light heavyweight history, according to UFC Stats. He has won five of his past six.

You might see this fight on SportsCenter ... briefly

Heavyweight Todd Duffee (9-3), who ends four years of injury-plagued inactivity by facing Jeff Hughes (10-2), has the fourth-shortest average fight time in UFC history, at 3 minutes, 18 seconds. He also owns the fastest knockout in UFC heavyweight history: seven seconds, in his 2009 debut against Tim Hague. In all 12 of Duffee's pro fights, someone has gotten knocked out, with only two of his fights making it past the first round.

Will everyone's 0 survive, or no?

Four fighters are putting undefeated records on the line: Jimmy Crute (10-0, 2-0 in the UFC) opens the main card with a light heavyweight fight against Misha Cirkunov (14-5); and in a couple of men's bantamweight prelims, Hunter Azure (7-0) makes his UFC debut against Brad Katona, and Miles Johns (9-0), also in his first UFC appearance, faces Cole Smith (7-0, 1-0 UFC), who is fighting in his Vancouver hometown.

Nickname of the night

"Cowboy" is so iconic that it's become a primary identifier. There are fans out there who don't know that Cerrone's given name is Donald.

There are some other strong contenders on this card, though, one of whom will be standing right across the cage from Cowboy. Gaethje is truly the embodiment of "The Highlight." If you don't understand why, you will after the fight is over.

Beyond the main eventers, who'd want to step inside a cage with featherweight Jordan Griffin upon learning that he goes by "Native Psycho"? Light heavyweight Jimmy "The Brute" Crute is the poet laureate of scary nicknames, making his rhyme. Bantamweight Cole Smith's "The Cole Train" is kinda jazzy. Middleweight Antonio Carlos Junior is known as "Cara de Sapato," which is Portuguese for "Shoe Face." That one has to earn points for being perplexing in two languages. The winner for most aspirational nickname is clearly bantamweight Ryan MacDonald, who'll be introduced for the second bout of the night as "Main Event." And opening the evening with an onomatopoeic "Thud" will be lightweight Austin Hubbard.

But c'mon, even a city slicker knows it's got to be Cowboy. What did y'all say his real first name is?