Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is one of the most popular fighters on the UFC roster, and a lot of that popularity has nothing to do with what he does inside the Octagon. That’s not to say that Cerrone’s exploits in the cage aren’t what earned him his constantly growing fanbase in the first place. “Cowboy” is one of the most consistently exciting fighters on the UFC roster. He finishes over half of his fights and he has earned 10 bonus awards since joining the UFC roster. His constant clamoring for fights places him in on fans’ television sets almost five times a year. It’s not hard to see why fans would love Cerrone for his work inside the cage, but it’s his attitude and lifestyle outside of the cage that have endeared Cerrone to a lot of fans.
As entertaining as some fighters are inside the cage, the majority don’t tend to concern themselves with anything more than that. For many veteran fighters, especially those at the highest level, MMA is a 24/7 job, and between training and family life there isn’t a lot of room for other interests. Cerrone is the rare fighter that openly flaunts his preference to go out and have fun. He spends half his time wakeboarding or rock climbing or attempting some other dangerous hobby he comes up with. Yet, when it comes down to it, no one ever wonders if Cerrone is going to be prepared come fight day.
Cerrone’s tendency to spend his time away from the gym doing pretty much whatever the hell he wants is part of what makes the UFC faithful love him, but it also has a tendency to drive his bosses—especially UFC President Dana White—crazy. Over the course of “Cowboy’s” UFC career, the UFC head has criticized his popular lightweight’s extracurricular activities on more than one occasion. It goes without saying that White would probably prefer his fighters not partake in dangerous activities during the days leading up to the fight, and following Cerrone’s mostly dominant decision win over Eddie Alvarez last weekend, White was a little more fired up than usual when he discussed Cerrone’s fight-week wakeboarding routine.
“Do you ever go to the lake, spend the day at the lake?” White asked in an interview on the Fox Sports post-fight show. “You know how you feel when you get home after a full day at the lake, let alone wakeboarding? This guy’s like a professional wakeboarder, you know? It takes its toll on your body. Listen, I take nothing away from the kid, he looked great tonight. He absolutely destroyed Eddie Alvarez. But imagine what he would have done if he wasn’t at the lake all week.”
If White was talking about any other fighter, the MMA community probably would have nodded in agreement and joined in criticizing Cerrone. However, when it comes to Cerrone, those extracurricular activities seem to serve more of a purpose than just a day of fun at the lake. Without those fight-week distractions, we may not see the same “Cowboy” we’re accustomed to seeing inside the Octagon.
It’s easy to criticize Cerrone’s lack of focus during fight week. But once he gets in the cage, there isn’t a lot not to like about the Greg Jackson-trained fighter. In terms of raw talent and ability, Cerrone is one of the top two or three lightweights in the world, and 90 percent of the time he fights at the level expected of him. However, even Cerrone has admitted that his mental game has suffered heading into fights on occasion. When “Cowboy’s” head isn’t on quite right, that’s when his performances start to decline. Starting with his title bouts in the WEC and tumbling over into his UFC bouts against Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis, Cerrone has come up short every time he has gotten into the cage for a fight with major title implications. Over and over again, we’ve seen him work his way up the lightweight ladder by winning three, four or even five fights in a row, and over and over again we’ve seen him struggle under pressure.
The vicious circle of climbing to the cusp of greatness and then falling back down the ladder has become the story of Cerrone’s career. But it looked like he took a big step in finishing off those demons for good this past weekend. For all intents and purposes, Cerrone vs. Alvarez was the main event of last weekend’s pay-per-view show. No disrespect to flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, but his title fight was probably the fourth or fifth most anticipated bout of the night for most fight fans. Cerrone and Alvarez, meanwhile, was at or near the top of that same list, and considering last weekend had more big time fights than the two months before it combined, that’s saying quite a bit.
With the spotlight firmly on Cerrone, not only did he overcome his mental block, he overcame the sort of in-fight adversity that would have demoralized him in the past. Cerrone overcame a huge flurry of offense from Alvarez to survive in the first round of their fight. While he’s a notoriously slow starter, Cerrone also had a tendency to lose his edge after a rough opening frame, turning him into an easy target for his opponents. This time, though, he turned things around in a hurry and produced two decisive winning rounds over one of the UFC’s biggest free-agent signings in years. As easy as it may have been for White to ask fans to imagine how Cerrone would have fought without spending the week at the lake, it should be noted that Cerrone may have just earned the most impressive win of his career, and it may have been because he gave himself those days to do what he wanted.
After letting the cameras and the added pressure get to him over and over again, it may have been the best thing possible for Cerrone to spend fight week having some fun instead of stressing about a co-headlining spot. For a fighter who has struggled under pressure like Cerrone has in the past, the ability to get as far away from the task at hand as possible for a few hours a day is almost essential. And even though the UFC would obviously like it if Cerrone was a skeeball enthusiast instead of a semi-pro wakeboarder, the company can’t change who the “Cowboy” is. Extreme sports are what Cerrone does for fun.
Physically, it may not be the best thing for the fighter to be wakeboarding the week before his bout. But mentally, it might be the thing that keeps him from freezing in high pressure situations like he’s done in the past. If that’s the case, I’d ask Dana White to consider the same thing about Cerrone that he asked of the fans on Saturday night: Imagine if he hadn’t been at the lake all week.