If you want to take the time to follow Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone all the way through the UFC history books, you probably ought to pack a lunch.
Most of the records are tremendous, a testament to a legendary and legendarily tough competitor. The underside of the story is darker, though, and it has dogged Cowboy throughout his career. It's accurate to call Cerrone's career a roller-coaster ride.
When he faces Al Iaquinta on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night 151, he'll have at his back an emphatic two-fight win streak, including a bloody beating of mouthy whippersnapper Alex Hernandez in January.
Iaquinta, though, is a clear step up. How will Cerrone fare in the evening's culminating bout—a position that hasn't been so kind to him over the years?
On Saturday, the 36-year-old Cerrone (35-11-1) will be second behind Jim Miller for most career UFC appearances with 31. But that's just the beginning. No one has more post-fight performance bonuses than Cerrone's 16. He also has 16 stoppage wins—also a UFC record. Most impressive of all, though, is his mark for most UFC wins in company history with 22.
There are others. Per Mike Bohn and Abbey Subhan of MMA Junkie, Cowboy's 88.9 percent takedown defense rate is tops in the lightweight division. Per official UFC stats, he's tied for tops with 18 knockdowns and sixth with 1,312 significant strikes landed.
But there are counterweights. Although there doesn't appear to be an official record on the topic, Cerrone waited until his 19th UFC contest before competing for a title, and when it happened, it was over in 66 seconds following a hellish barrage from Rafael dos Anjos. Now, heading into his 31st fight, that's still his only time fighting for a strap.
Some of that was beyond his control, but there's a deeper trend that close observers know well. Cerrone has experienced plenty of disappointment when the lights are brightest. He admitted Nate Diaz "got in my head" after bruising decision loss in 2011. After a 2013 humbling at the hands of Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 6, Cerrone enlisted the help of a sports psychologist.
"It's like, I don't know if it's the camera or the pressure, but I've got to figure that out," Cerrone told MMA Fighting at the time. "Whatever makes me fight hard to get there, and then I seem to, like, fold under pressure. I don't know. I'm tryin' to [figure it out]. I got a new sports psychologist tryin' to work those kinks out."
That is an admirable level of candor to have with yourself, let alone the media. The mindset seemed to work to an extent, with various big wins over name opponents like Benson Henderson—whom Cerrone defeated in Bendo's last UFC fight at lightweight—but everyone including Cowboy seemed content to let him float along as a bonus-hunting action fighter and one of the biggest fan favorites in the promotion.
Nothing wrong with that.
Heading into 2017, Cerrone was cruising. He had 12 wins in 13 contests, with the title loss to Dos Anjos serving as the only blemish. Seven performances bonuses further sweetened the run. His move to welterweight after the Dos Anjos defeat seemed to pay off nicely with a 4-0 mark at 170 pounds.
But welterweight is filled with killers, and Cerrone eventually felt the heat. A substantial power advantage helped Jorge Masvidal cap their heated rivalry with a lopsided second-round knockout. Then Cerrone lost two more in succession. He stopped the bleeding with a win over Yancy Medeiros in February 2018, only for Leon Edwards to record a unanimous-decision victory in Cerrone's next bout.
After that, the relatively unknown Edwards suggested Cerrone may be near the end of the line.
"I like to take out the old guns and keep chipping away," Edwards said.
His body also has taken a beating over the years. If you think all those wars in the cage took a toll, wait until you add in the hellacious damage he accrued through his celebrated adrenaline-junkie lifestyle.
A motocross accident relieved him of much of his small intestine and part of his stomach. He suffered a serious eye injury in a hunting accident in 2016. According to one of Cerrone's health care people, he fought Robbie Lawler with his "groin torn off the bone." In November he posted a photo of himself in a hospital bed with a heavily bandaged arm. By his own account, he almost died in a caving accident.
So in all honesty, this is a shopworn guy. Now, he's reincorporating a steeper weight cut into his process; his bout with Hernandez was his first back at 155 pounds, after the three losses at welterweight forced a reevaluation. Usually fighters move up in weight as their careers advance. There's a reason for that. Weight cuts are not forgiving.
As with that extreme lifestyle Cerrone pursues outside of cage fighting, Cerrone's career always appears to balance on the edge of a switchblade. Every bout could be his last or it could be the key to a brand-new chapter. No matter what happens, each one seems to prove, beyond all shadow of a doubt, some theory or another about his up-and-down career.
That's the definition of unpredictable. That's accentuated Saturday by Iaquinta, who matches Cerrone well in skill set and record. As of Friday morning, Iaquinta was a paper-thin -130 favorite (wager $130 to win $100) with Caesars.
Cerrone will again have a size advantage (6'0" and a 73" reach compared to 5'10" and 70" for Ragin' Al). Iaquinta will move forward and try to close the distance on Cerrone, who always prefers to ply his multi-pointed muay thai game in open space. Can Cerrone stay clear of the pressure? It might be difficult, especially with Iaquinta's love of the body shot, which is a well-known Achilles heel for Cerrone.
In yet another turn, if Iaquinta moves in too quickly, he could be charging right into a Cerrone head kick. That's not how you win a fight.
It's tempting to say these two won't want to go to the ground, but that could be an ace in the hole for Cerrone. Three of Iaquinta's four losses have come by submission, and Cerrone's ground game is slicker than his reputation for the standup phase might suggest.
To sum up, a lot of Cerrone's career triggers are encapsulated in this fight. A main event, a recent change of scenery, a seeming career crossroads, an opponent with the pressure game to smother him, the promise of a frenetic and violent affair. Which way will the roller coaster go?
It's hard to trust a Cerrone streak, but his dominance over Hernandez was heartening. Give this one to Cerrone, with the cinching factor being Iaquinta's subpar striking defense of 4.05 blows absorbed per minute. Cerrone thrives in chaos. It doesn't always go his way—it is chaos, after all—but he prospers nonetheless.
How does Cerrone himself feel about his trajectory? It sounds like he's done pretending the belt is a luxury prized more by others than him. He's looking for it at lightweight, a division he calls stale. If anyone in the UFC has an antidote for staleness, win or lose, it's Donald Cerrone. Maybe that—the ride rather than its direction—is his true essence.
"There's so many years I used to stand here and everyone asked me about the title, and I'm like, 'I don't even care about it,'" he said recently, per Bohn for MMA Junkie. "I don't know why. I just love fighting so much it never meant anything to me. I've set records, and I'm here to get the...belt. That's my mission now. ... We talk about [the division] being stacked, but we're in such a weird, stale position. But when I get the belt, '55ers be ready to fight because I'm fighting so often. I can't wait."