Stinton: The Cathartic Zen of the ‘Cowboy’

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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You can never truly know what lies inside the mind of another person, but I can’t help but wonder two things about Donald Cerrone. One: Does he want to become a UFC champion? Two: Did he ever?

These questions sound more easily answered than they actually are. In the aftermath of his win against Yancy Medeiros at UFC Fight Night 126 on Sunday in Austin, Texas, Cerrone stated pretty clearly that he wanted to drop back down to lightweight to get the belt. Case closed, right? Not so fast. In the same interview, he fell back into his usual demeanor: “I’ll fight whatever they tell me. They’ll call me and say, ‘We need you at 170,’ and I’ll be like, ‘OK.’ They all pay the same to me, so it don’t matter what it is.”

Those are contradictory sentiments. If Cerrone wants the Ultimate Fighting Championship belt, it stands to reason that he’d be more consistent about which weight class he fights in and more strategically selective about his opponents. This isn’t the first time he’s vocalized contradictory feelings about the title. In a 2014 interview, he said: “Chasing the belt, that’s the overall goal, for sure.” A year later, before challenging Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight title, he said: “That belt don’t really mean much to me.” In the buildup to his first fight after the loss to dos Anjos -- only two months later, mind you -- he talked about how much more fun it was to not fight with the pressure of keeping a win streak intact or for a title.

That’s just “Cowboy” Cerrone, though, and part of the reason he’s so beloved. It’s not just that he fights excitingly and frequently; it’s his attitude, the casual fun-loving air surrounding his otherwise insane career path. It makes more immediate sense for someone to pursue combat professionally when they are hyper-driven to become the best. The word “champion” is central to the identity of most high-level fighters. Look at the way Anthony Pettis, Jose Aldo or George St. Pierre have gushed about what it means to be a champion and then compare that to when Cerrone shruggingly concedes that “it would be cool” to win the belt. It’s like he yawns his ambitions.

Something about that is exceedingly relatable. Most people probably fall somewhere in the “ambitious lazy” or “lazy ambitious” gray areas between slovenly indifference and cutthroat competitiveness. I may be projecting here, since I personally identify as “lazy ambitious,” but I’m banking on the fact that I’m not terribly special or unique and thus there are people who feel similarly. It would be cool to win the belt -- or a Pulitzer, or to start a business, or accomplish any other long-term goal -- but it’s also a lot easier to, you know, not do those things. Most of us experience acute bouts of ambition that eventually dissolve in the fizz of immediacy: our jobs, our families, our friends, our bills. Enjoying life day-to-day tends to be more important.

There are prices to pay for putting ambition into practice. It takes consistent sacrifice. You have to coordinate your everyday routines to align with a multi-year plan. You have to live with your feet in constant motion and your eyes fixed on the horizon. It’s a tough balance to achieve and even tougher to maintain for any meaningful amount of time. You have to be present but also elsewhere; you have to exist to a large degree in the future. You have to forego the moment in hopes that it will pay off eventually.

To be clear, Cerrone is clearly on the higher end of the lazy-ambition spectrum; just making it to the highest level of MMA means he’s pretty damn ambitious. However, when that scale is calibrated to the pool of UFC athletes, “Cowboy” lands somewhere in the middle. He kinda sorta wants to be the champion, but mostly, he enjoys the moment. He’s more concerned with putting on good fights and letting the rest sort it out. The sheer joy he has for the sport is an oasis of honesty. It’s refreshing to see someone who embodies the distinction between being a fighter and being an MMA competitor.

This is why those two questions fascinate me. Clearly, he has wanted and still wants to become a UFC champion, but at the same time, he does so with a sort of hopeful fatalism that everything will turn out all right as long as he’s doing what he loves. “I love my job more than anything,” Cerrone said after his win over Medeiros, “and there’s no other place I’d rather be tonight.” While his mind at times fast-forwards to a future where a belt is wrapped around his waist, for the most part, that’s a distraction from what lays ahead of him. “Cowboy” is eminently here, in the moment, joyous in the ephemeral chaos of professional fighting. That’s why he’s loved.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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