Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone could well be walking to the biggest fight of his career against Al Iaquinta in the UFC Ottawa headliner this weekend.
The latter half of Cerrone’s career has seen him defy all of the logic we generally attach to a fighter who is advancing in age.
Genetic freaks like Yoel Romero and late-starters such as Daniel Cormier aside, the signs of ageing can often become noticeable very quickly – especially in the lighter weight-classes.
As your so-called athletic prime comes and goes, a string of brutal defeats can often signal the beginning of the end – no matter who you are.
Somehow, though, comprehensive stoppage losses at the hands of Darren Till and Jorge Masvidal along with a war against Robbie Lawler were not enough to quench Cowboy’s thirst for action.
To be honest, there’s an argument that this modern-day Cerrone is as good as he has ever been.
So many times, people were ready to count Cerrone out – citing those defeats and his career-long difficulty in gathering consistency at the highest levels as an omen for his imminent decline.
And in many ways, all logic seemed to point at a sharp descent for the famously active fighter. Donald had already established himself as a legend of the sport and if he had already chosen to bow out at this point, he would’ve done so with very little left to prove.
But as I mentioned before, logic does not seem to apply to the career of Donald Cerrone and now, after a memorable stint in the 170lb division, he finds himself back in the upper echelons of his natural home at lightweight facing Al Iaquinta, a man who potentially stands between him and the biggest opportunity of his career.
We, the fans and the media, have been played far too many times to not have learned anything from it at this stage.
In truth, we never can fully be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes but rumours often morph and then fade in and out of relevance based on how things are playing out when the cameras aren’t rolling.
The entire saga that saw Conor McGregor take the MMA world by the scruff of its neck was one that we should learn from, one that we should use to better understand how the game works.
And make no mistake, that game is still very much being played.
I’m going to stick my neck out on the line and say that Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone is still completely on the cards and in many ways, the fight that is at the forefront of the Irishman’s plans at present.
Yes, I believe that Conor McGregor will fight this year – I genuinely don’t understand how this isn’t obvious to most.
Of course, Conor congratulated Donald on his thrilling victory over Alexander Hernandez at UFC Brooklyn on January 19 – seemingly expressing his interest in fighting the veteran in his next outing after a few weeks of speculation linking the two to each other.
For a fight like that Donald, I’ll fight you.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) January 20, 2019
Sure, it could well have just been a throwaway tweet, which Conor is becoming increasingly known for – but you can always get a better impression of where McGregor’s training is focussed by asking his long-time coach, Owen Roddy.
The man who handles his coaching on a week-by-week basis isn’t going to throw petrol on a fire that has no business burning.
As soon as I saw a quote telling me that Roddy was ‘excited’ by the possibility of McGregor vs. Cerrone, I knew there was least some genuine interest from the Irishman’s camp.
In a circle that tight, with so much money on the line, nothing is left to chance.
Conor might speak freely and change his tune for the sheer f**k of it, but his teammates – who speak on his behalf, would be foolish to not know exactly what they’re talking about.
In a time where a stray comment can have so much power, you have to be extremely careful with your words.
Back in June, five months before UFC 229, when Roddy started talking about Khabib Nurmagomedov in a manner that was framing him as his fighter’s next opponent, it became clear that the post-fight announcement or at the very least, the negotiation process had begun.
He wasn’t giving praise to Nate Diaz at that point or talking about the skillset of Max Holloway. The comments made were deliberate.
So why is Cerrone fighting Al Iaquinta?
Well, and this is all just guesswork, but I would imagine that there was a negotiation process between the UFC and both parties. I have no doubt that Cowboy was down, but as we’ve seen in the past, the UFC and Conor McGregor are often at odds about the details and the dollar-signs.
Between Cerrone’s victory at UFC Brooklyn on January 19, the first whisperings of a matchup with Iaquinta on March 19 (via ESPN’s Brett Okamoto), and Conor McGregor’s ‘retirement’ on March 26, there was likely a window of a few weeks where all parties were attempting to get this fight signed.
Dana wanted it, Cerrone definitely wanted it, and Conor McGregor was doing his usual pre-fight hype tactics online – the slow drip that builds to an eventual announcement.
I think his arrest in Miami on March 13 is also worth mentioning – something that may have thrown things off course. I mean, a fight announcement after an arrest isn’t the move to make.
Who knows if the negotiations had already fallen apart by then but it has been pretty clear for some time now that Conor is angling towards a return.
Cerrone likely wanted to stay active, as he always does.
So why would Cowboy beating Iaquinta change anything?
Well, Conor’s going to come back at some point.
The UFC and Team McGregor will eventually figure this out as they always do. They both can offer each other so much that cooler heads will eventually prevail.
Even Dana White seemed a bit more spirited when it came to his update on the former two-weight world champion about three weeks ago, telling CNN the following.
“Conor McGregor will fight again.
“Conor likes to be in a position where he holds the cards and he does what he wants to do. And, you know, he and I figure out how to work together and how to make it all happen.”
“Me and Conor communicate every day. We’ve been talking all this week. Things are good with Conor and I and we’ll get something figured out soon.
If you don’t believe that Conor McGregor is going to fight again I genuinely don’t know what to tell you – the signs have been there for some time now and given that his last fight was about seven months ago, it’s not like he has been out of action for too long.
The steps towards understanding this process lie in taking a look into the weeks and months before each of his major fight announcements in the past.
This entire ‘will he/won’t he?’ process is such a bore at this point and you all should have learned your lesson by now.
The big ‘if’ here, is whether Donald Cerrone can overcome the biggest criticism that people have had for him over the course of his career to date.
Always known as one of the best on the planet but one to falter at the final hurdle, if you think that Cerrone isn’t aware of what may lie for him on the other side of Al Iaquinta, then again, I don’t know what to tell you.
The so-called ‘red-panty night’ is a life-changer in every sense of the word and even if it hasn’t been made completely clear to Donald that Conor is in his future, are you telling me that he couldn’t make that fight seem like a dream with a statement performance? If he can get the public sufficiently fired up?
If he doesn’t know it for sure, you can be damn well certain that he suspects it, and even more aware of the fact that a loss will close that door forever.
Cowboy’s in the top position right now for Conor McGregor.
The Irishman has had a rocky few months but if I had to guess – and this may be a long-shot, but based on Roddy’s words in January – he’s interested. Then based on Dana’s words three weeks ago – things are going smoother than they were when White wished him a happy retirement at the peak of it.
Who knows, perhaps the deal is already done.
Gun to my head, I’d say that Conor fights in Autumn.
If Donald Cerrone can finally not crumble when it matters most, I’d bet the house on it being him who throws down with him.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena