The Plight of the Company Man

By Jacob Debets Jul 5, 2018

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Donald Cerrone is the last of a dying breed. Coming into his main event bout at UFC Singapore last weekend, he had little to gain and much to lose by fighting the streaking but unheralded Leon Edwards. “Rocky” was riding a five-fight win streak and stood as a considerable betting favorite over “Cowboy,” but was ranked outside the Top 10 and had never fought in a main or co-main event slot before. A win would have done little to advance Cerrone’s stated goal of clawing his way back into title contention; the loss set him back considerably in the welterweight pecking order.

Not only that, but Cerrone was fighting on one of the lowest-profile cards of the year -- which says something in an era of utterly unremarkable events -- and was doing so in a foreign country over 9,000 miles from his home in New Mexico and his heavily pregnant wife. At the conclusion of the post-fight press conference, when asked if he was staying to explore Asia he flashed an endearing smile and said: “I’m on the next flight… my wife’s having a baby, so it’s time to get home. She’s holding it. We’re going to have a C-section as soon as I get home.”

Oh, and did I mention that Cerrone was also almost unable to get out of bed the day of the fight, suffering bouts of vomiting that almost persuaded him to call in sick? He said “screw it” and laced up the gloves anyway. Determined not to be “that guy,” he clocked in another 25 gruelling minutes in the Octagon, wearing crushing elbows and body kicks from Edwards in the early rounds before mounting an unsuccessful comeback in the fourth and fifth. When Bruce Buffer announced he’d fallen short of his adversary by one round, he was nothing but smiles, declaring, “I love my job. I’m not going anywhere man. This old dog has still got a lot of fights left.”

In an age of money fights, interim belts and divisional stagnation, Cerrone’s laissez-faire attitude towards fighting is as rare as it is unadvisable. Whilst company men -- and women -- were plentiful a few years back when Lorenzo Fertitta was running the show, those days are long gone now. A faceless conglomerate in William Morris Endeavor has supplanted the much-romanticized patriarch, and fighters have finally realized the need to have some semblance of a voice in decisions that affect their careers.

At the same time that Cerrone preaches the gospel of “anywhere, anytime,” many of his contemporaries expound the opposite sentiment. “Not until you give me equity in the company” has been Conor McGregor’s steady rebuke when asked to return to the Octagon. “Not until you revise my contract” was Stipe Miocic and Max Holloway’s preferred approach for the better part of 2017. Many other fighters are more selective in assessing the opponents they’re offered by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, waiting for matchups that make sense stylistically and in terms of rankings.

By contrast, Cerrone has shown little interest in shaping his career trajectory. Whether its pay or matchmaking, Cerrone seems content to take what the UFC offers -- a strategy that’s landed him three consecutive fights with young, lower-ranked contenders (Darren Till, Yancy Medeiros and the aforementioned Edwards), two of whom he lost to.

Granted, Cerrone’s subservient attitude seemed to briefly change in 2016 around the time of the UFC’s sale. First, he hit out at the promotion regarding the size of his pay checks, and then teamed up with the likes of fellow UFC fighters Tim Kennedy, Cain Velasquez, T.J. Dillashaw, Georges St. Pierre and everybody’s favorite former promoter Bjorn Rebney to form the short-lived Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. Cerrone and his compatriots spoke a big game: Kennedy confidently proclaimed the organization would “change the face of the sport,” and their aims included securing 50 percent of all revenues for fighters (fighter share is currently in the ball park of 15 percent) through collective bargaining, but the wheels fell off almost immediately. After barely a week, Cerrone was walking back his commitment to the group, affirming his loyalty to Dana White and to the promotion his peers had literally just finished eviscerating for “making money hand over fist.”

After that, it seems Cerrone’s revolutionary spirit was crushed. When he became a free agent in August of 2016, he stated the UFC was his home and that he had no intention of testing the free market. His last disclosed payout was $155,000 for his loss to Robbie Lawler back at UFC 214 -- nothing to scoff at -- but with a combined 35 fights under the World Extreme Cagefighting or UFC banner and headlining six of the last 15 events in which he competed, one wonders how much more he would have been offered by the likes of Bellator MMA.

Ultimately, Cerrone’s career will go down in the history books as one of the most noteworthy in the modern UFC era. Countless performance bonuses, an exciting, striking-centric fighting style, a tie for the record for most wins in the Octagon, and a personable character outside the cage have earned him the love and respect of millions of MMA fans worldwide. His willingness to fight young contenders, headline cards in new markets and always step in on short notice are literally the lifeblood that has made the UFC the powerhouse that it is today.

It’s just such a shame that the organization doesn’t reward that kind of thing; and that when it’s all said and done, questions will remains about what could have been if he’d operated with a bit more prudence. A world title if he’d picked his fights more carefully? A healthier salary to secure his family’s future?

We’ll never know. But hey, that pretty much personifies the fight game, right?

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