Jack Slack: Donald Cerrone's Game Changer

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The change in Donald Cerrone has been profound.

You have seen a thousand fighters rebound from losses, be advertised as a complete technical and strategic rebirth of themselves, and then lose because of exactly the same faults as before. And you could be forgiven if you bought into the storyline. You're lied to on a daily basis by promoters and people who either don't know what they're talking about, or intend to misinform you in order to build hype.

Spend long enough around the fight game, and you'll become jaded by all this horse muck about the “new” fighter x. But when you see real, provable improvement in a fighter's area of weakness, it becomes something truly exciting. That is what I see in Donald Cerrone.

The Troubles of The Gangly Man

With Jon Jones fighting this weekend, the internet has been splattered with the usual spray of uninformed opinion about Jones winning fights purely because of his reach. As if anyone with his height and reach could become a force in mixed martial arts, let alone a dominant champion. People get bogged down in what they see—how excellently Jones uses his reach and length—and ignore what they cannot.  There are a great many disadvantages to being the tallest, rangiest man in your division, and you'll see them amply demonstrated by every division's slender man except Jones.

Yes, the reach advantage is a real one. But every movement you make risks giving away that advantage. Once an opponent is in his own punching range, and inside of your own, the advantage is gone and you are now working at the disadvantage.

Want to see it at the highest level? Look no further than Semmy Schilt. When Schilt played his A-game, always with a knee in between himself and his opponent, always at a distance advantageous to him alone, he was unstoppable. When opponents got in on him and started swinging without him tying them up, Schilt looked as helpless as a newborn child.

The truth is that the tall man with the ramrod straights at range becomes a great deal less effective once you get too close for his comfort. Inside of his straights, those long limbs—which acted like halberds at range suddenly—become more akin to spaghetti. In exchanges, the elbows start to flare  out and give space for the shorter man's straight punches. It doesn't help that so many ganglier men fail to develop the uppercut except as a rangey, combination weapon. A tall man with a great uppercut that he can use to time shorter fighters stepping in, like Lennox Lewis, is a killer.

Spaghetti Western

Donald Cerrone's career has been plagued by his length, rather than aided by it. Typical Cerrone used to be to get his opponent backing up, then punt their legs out. Mix in the occasional high switch kick and that was all Cerrone really did. The problem was that he loved a brawl, and his gangly arms, upright posture, loopy punches, and his complete lack of head movement, made him very easy to win a trade against.

It cost him against Nate Diaz, who got in his face for the first round, and left Cerrone too battered to recover. In his bout against Melvin Guillard, Cerrone jumped in with punches and was immediately countered. It is joked that Cerrone is regarded as exciting because he gets dropped in most of his fights, and it's those long, loopy punches that often caused it.

Cerrone's wide, loopy punching form, squared stance and flared elbows cost him against the straight punches and slappy hooks of Nate Diaz.

Anthony Pettis made use of range and zero-telegraph body kicks to take Cerrone apart, but even he had spells of getting in Cerrone's face. Fighting as the taller man is a minefield if you don't know how to maintain range, and it seemed like Cerrone didn't have a clue in that regard.

Again, the upright stance and looping blows get Cerrone torn up in exchanges.

So... what's changed? Cerrone always wins a few, then falls short. Why am I convinced he's improved?

The Almighty Knee Strike

Cerrone has had five fights since his bout with Rafael Dos Anjos, where Dos Anjos out-thought and outworked the American, yet I'm only interested in three of them. Why? Adriano Martins and Edson Barboza didn't test Cerrone in the area we know he's weak. They didn't step in on him, they tried to strike with him from distance with zero pressure. Maybe they had a plan, but both ended up getting stopped in the first round.

No, I'm interested in the men who attempted to get in Cerrone's face. He's never passed up a brawl, and he stands a great chance at losing them with his loopy punching form and lack of head movement.

It first started to appear in Cerrone's bout with Evan Dunham. Dunham bum rushed Cerrone at the opening bell and tried to step in and crowd Cowboy at every opportunity. But Dunham was met repeatedly with a beautiful, brutal intercepting knee.

The most important point on these knees is that either the hands are up in a guard, or on the opponent where they can forcibly stop him from punching effectively by moving to biceps ties or being thrown out straight in what Edwin Haislet termed the Leverage Guard.

Jim Miller isn't the most polished fighter in the world, but he's as crafty as they come. It's no coincidence that despite appearing less technically crisp he submitted Charles Oliveira and dropped Duane Ludwig. He knew he had to get in on Cerrone too, but every time he tried, he ran onto that knee like the corner of a worktop. It visibly sapped his gas tank.

Any time a fighter steps in straight against Cerrone, they run the risk of folding over that knee. It's more of a barrier than a strike, the attacker provides the force.

In his most recent fight, Cerrone took on Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez was Cerrone's best opponent in some time and promised a challenge, but the height disparity was marked. Cerrone got in trouble early on, getting stuck between his comfortable punching range and a true tie-up clinching range, where Alvarez was free to work with his shorter, crisper punches. Alvarez went berserk from a single collar tie and had Cerrone in real trouble.

But once Cerrone got free and made some time to recover, he started to look a lot smarter. The intercepting knee was back. A nice switch knee worked a treat, especially as Alvarez often changes levels and steps deep for a right straight to the body.

The key point was Cerrone's recognition that he didn't have to brawl. When Alvarez stepped in on him, Cerrone wouldn't swing back or stand there with his head bolt upright as he did against Diaz and Pettis. He would leave range:

Or he would pivot off or duck in and look for a single collar tie to land a knee strike from. In this sequence, Cerrone shows both, and then lands a Badr Hari favorite—the intercepting switch kick. Works absolutely perfectly if you can convince the opponent to open up his right side by throwing his right hand, but not so well otherwise. Against Alvarez you could see him visibly winded as he opened up his ribs and ate the kick.

Right under the arm and across the ribs. That's how you injure someone.

The rest of the fight showed exactly what Cerrone has been doing for years when his opponents stand back and give him room. He kicked Alvarez's legs, combo punched into hard leg strikes, and looked for switch head kicks. It became one way traffic and it all hinged on stopping Alvarez from comfortably and repeatedly stepping into Cerrone's face.

While Cerrone's new anti-brawling measures have been a remarkable success, what Cerrone faces against Myles Jury is nothing like what he faced with those three men. Jury is another lengthy striker, one who uses quickly, snapping kicks to bait the trap for slick counters. A guy with a pool cue right straight and lovely footwork. It promises to be a fascinating match up and it will tell us whether Jury is the next big thing, or whether Donald Cerrone deserves another shot at Anthony Pettis.

Read Killing the King: Jon Jones, tune into UFC 182, and get back here on Sunday to read about the pivotal points of the fights.

Pick up Jack Slack's ebooks at his blog Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out these related stories:

Killing the King: Jon Jones

Donald Cerrone's Inevitable Rematch with Anthony Pettis

Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone