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Following the spectacular conclusion to UFC Fight Night 139 on Saturday in Denver, the talk of the MMA world was on Yair Rodriguez and Chan Sung Jung. In a sport where moments stand out much more than statistics, their fight will be remembered for years to come. Still, the biggest accomplishment on paper came in a different bout, as Donald Cerrone set the Ultimate Fighting Championship record for wins with a grudge match victory in his hometown and in front of members of his family. It was about as good as it gets for “Cowboy.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of Cerrone becoming the winningest fighter in UFC history would have seemed completely unrealistic. It takes time to accumulate wins in any sport, and when Cerrone entered the UFC, he was about to turn 28 years old. Max Holloway debuted in the UFC less than a year after Cerrone; Holloway will turn 27 in a few weeks. The fighters right behind Cerrone on the all-time list with 19 or 20 wins debuted in 2004 (Georges St. Pierre), 2006 (Michael Bisping) and 2007 (Demian Maia). Cerrone debuted in 2011.
Cerrone also didn’t enter into the UFC with the pedigree of a lot of other top stars. It’s largely forgotten now because Cerrone, Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis have done so well in the UFC, but at the time the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight division was merged into the UFC, it was perceived to be inferior. The perception was that the depth of the lightweight division in the UFC ensured that only the best of the best made it the top. When the WEC lightweights entered the UFC, a number of UFC incumbents were vocal about their belief that the top WEC fighters couldn’t compete.
Even among the top WEC fighters, Cerrone wasn’t thought to be the blue chipper. Henderson defeated Cerrone twice, and Pettis beat Henderson to become the final WEC lightweight champion. There weren’t a lot of people thinking the 27-year-old third-best WEC lightweight, 4-3 in his final seven WEC fights, was going to win more UFC fights in about seven and a half years than anyone else in the history of the promotion. It wasn’t just unlikely; it would have seemed basically inconceivable.
Key to Cerrone’s ability to accumulate wins was his level of activity. While other fighters are content to fight around two times a year, Cerrone prefers to compete as much as he can. That too created skepticism about Cerrone’s longevity. The thought from many was that fighting so often would wear out Cerrone and that he’d be more apt to decline in his mid-30s than others, particularly given his active lifestyle outside the cage. Instead, he has held up remarkably well. The most successful years of his career were when he was aged 30-33, rather than in his 20s.
The fighters with the most wins in UFC history are by and large former champions. St. Pierre, Bisping, Matt Hughes, Anderson Silva, Frankie Edgar and Rafael dos Anjos are a few examples of this trend. Cerrone fits into a second category with fighters like Jim Miller and Diego Sanchez who were often out of the title picture but who just kept competing even as they had their ups and downs. As the UFC roster has expanded, there are more fighters who have the opportunity to fight successfully for years without ever making it to the top of their division.
Cerrone only fought for a UFC title once; he was stopped by dos Anjos in the first round in 2015. His response was instructive. Many fighters struggle greatly after dropping a title fight in decisive fashion. It’s difficult to build up the motivation to go back to a lower level after having the opportunity to reach the top of the sport and coming up short. Cerrone, on the other hand, rebounded from his loss to dos Anjos by scoring four straight wins, with four finishes and three performance bonuses. It was prototypical Cerrone. He just keeps coming.
As consistent and successful as Cerrone has been, it seems unlikely that his run will last all that much longer. He has lost four of his last six and is approaching age 36. Over the course of his first 40 bouts, he never lost two fights in a row, but he followed that by losing three in a row. Age eventually catches up with all athletes. Still, it’s remarkable Cerrone has gotten this far. He has done it by consistently defying the conventional wisdom. UFC Fight Night 139 was an opportunity to celebrate what he has accomplished. If the past is any indication, the celebration will be short and it will be on to the next challenge. That’s Cerrone’s way.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.