Issue 132

September 2015

The UFC’s most active gunslinger acts just like the outlaws of the Wild West, always spoiling for a fight and looking for a payday. But now, with the belt in his sights, he’s targeted the ultimate score.

Donald Cerrone holds court at his ranch in New Mexico. Fighters Only is given the tour. There are no frills here. Post and wooden railed-fencing border the perimeter, while livestock and horses create a cacophony of noise.

Wide-brimmed, turned-up 10-gallon hats and hunting paraphernalia decorate the farmstead, a functional home set in acres of open land. It might be a scene plucked from the time of the first settlers.

This is the alter ego of Cerrone the fighter. ‘Cowboy’ comes across as even more at home here than he is when fighting in the Octagon. And his natural aptitude for combat makes him one of the consummate ‘fighters’ of today. But if the fighting arena defines him as a combatant, then this land around him remains his spiritual calling.

There’s a deep relationship between Cerrone and his existence in the dust of the desert. The only anachronisms from the distant past of the pioneer settlers are the gym with weights, mats, and training cage, where Cerrone plies his modern trade as a mixed martial artist, and the shed which is replete with quad bikes, trail bikes, and roaring road bikes which ‘Cowboy’ relishes as his freedom away from fighting and farming.

An outdoorsman, his appetite for adrenaline sports is undiminished, unfulfilled almost. He rides bulls, goes on wakeboard excursions and rips the dry air as a petrolhead. Closer to nature, he rides horses and goes game hunting.‘Train hard, work hard’ remains the 32-year-old’s philosophy for MMA and, indeed, for life.

There is something quintessentially old school about Cerrone, who you might imagine settling a dispute with his hands and then buying his foe a beer in the saloon bar.

Budweiser, which is one of his growing coterie of sponsors, is keen to associate itself with a fighter admired for his stand-and-deliver style.

“Budweiser... I’m super excited,” he grins. “For me, it doesn’t get much bigger than Budweiser. Being sponsored by one of the biggest companies in the world is f**king awesome. I can sit back and think, ‘I’ve finally made it.’”

But it’s been a long, hard, rocky trail to get to the point where fight fans and promoters want his relentless energy and derring-do in combat zones. Ten bonus awards in the UFC and the WEC, a record, and now on an eight-fight winning streak, the challenge for UFC gold isn’t far away.

It always helps, of course, if your boss likes your work, and he is clearly admired by UFC president Dana White, even if he’s not a fan of his dangerous leisure pursuits. As a compromise, Cowboy made a deal with him to cut out the high-octane excursions on fight week, but not altogether.

“Life is for living. Just go and live, that’s what I tell people,” says Cerrone. “Don’t not do it because you’ve got a fight coming up. Don’t let that be the reason why you’re not going to do it. I’ll do anything a week before a fight. It doesn’t matter to me.” That can include scrambling about on his motorbikes on deserted, sun-speckled roads that lead to solitude, and communion with nature.

True grit

Cerrone is equally at home in the gym, or on horseback, surveying the ranch on which other fighters often come to immerse themselves and sample the unique culture created by ‘Cowboy’. As he herds away a few stray animals, shooing and cajoling them back into their pens and stabling, you can see he’d have been at ease out here 150 years ago. He’s never been corralled, and he’s molded an indomitable spirit that appears to straddle a bygone age.

Cerrone concurs: “I’d have been like the Wyatt Earp of the time. I’d have got myself a hell of a gang and done some bank robberies,” he chuckles, though, of course, Earp, in his pomp, 140 years ago, was a lawman who took part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which the sheriff killed three outlaw cowboys.

There are parallels, in thought, if not in deed. Like Cerrone, Earp lived a restless life, invested in many occupations, which included, buffalo hunter, bouncer, saloon keeper, gambler, brothel owner, pimp, miner, and boxing referee. Ring any bells? It’s not difficult to transplant the silhouette of Cerrone to Tombstone in the 1880s.

“I just got back from a five-day backpacking trip to the Rocky Mountains,” explains Cerrone. He’d been sleeping out under the stars, living off the land. “I’m stuck in this time. I like to think I’d have done a good job back then. I’d have run wild a little bit.

“They were outlaws and they were crazy and they were wild but they were loved by all, which is bizarre. When those guys came into town, people weren’t really afraid of them, they were opening their arms and welcoming them, hiding them from the law. It was cool. It’s cool to have the respect of all and the love of all and still be running crazy and wild.

“I watched westerns with my grandfather growing up and I’ve always been a fan. True Grit was great, but I liked the John Wayne one better. I love ‘The Duke’. The Young Guns and the Tombstone movies are some of my favorites.

“I always liked that lifestyle. My grandparents were both doctors and it wasn’t really a cowboy way of life. I wanted to be a cowboy and my grandmother told me I could do that. There was no problem. She was always supportive of it. It was a way of life for me. I’ve always been a fan of the cowboy ways.”

And it’s really not difficult to imagine Cerrone playing an acting part in a modern cowboy movie, when he says: “I’d love to do it. I think that would be quite funny on my part. I wouldn’t turn it down. I’d try it out, for sure. I’d do all my own stunts as well.”

Those comparisons with Earp, or even Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ bounty hunter from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, resonate with the life of Cerrone.

Hyperactive and troubled, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) at a young age and would often get into fights. Having attended Air Academy High School, in Colorado Springs, where he began professional bull riding, his parents divorced and Cerrone was sent to live with his grandparents.

It was an unusual upbringing, being raised by his grandparents, but he wanted for nothing. “I was overprivileged if anything,” he reveals. “They gave me anything and everything I wanted. At the time my parents weren’t ready for kids. I looked to them for all my advice and they’ve made me who I am. It didn’t matter what I did, they were 100% on board and there with me.”

His grandfather, he explained was a “very decorated doctor” in Denver, Colorado. “He wore cowboy boots but that was about it.” Aside from the fact that they nurtured the irrepressible youngster’s nature – and his dreams.

“When I was in high school, I used to keep my own company,“ he says of his teenage years he can remember. “I was kind of in control of my own schedule. As far as working for a boss, though, no way. I couldn’t do it. 

“If it wasn’t for MMA I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. I’d be working for myself probably. I’m kind of the black sheep of the family. My dad was in the fire department at Colorado Springs. My mum was a nurse, running the local ER.”

Some overactive children were corralled into sports, but Cerrone didn’t find his niche immediately. “In high school, I didn’t really play sports. I was always bunking off. All I wanted to do was go four-wheeling, shoot guns and have campfires. I wasn’t much into sport and hanging out with so many people. I had my core friends that I hung out with and that was that. 

“We were definitely wild, for sure. The whole group of gangs was a wild bunch. I would definitely have called upon those guys in the Wild West. I don’t know why I was trouble. If there was a chance to get into mischief, I’d be right there. I don’t know if my grandparents encouraged the rebel in me, but their way of teaching was to never ground me. They’d just say, ‘You know you were wrong, make sure you don’t do it again.’”

Life changed for him in his sophomore year, when Cerrone started kickboxing. He compiled an amateur record of 13-0 and then a pro record of 28-0 with 18 first-round knockout wins. He also began training in Muay Thai, which formed a base for his transition into mixed martial arts. 

For a few dollars more

Cerrone, by dint of endeavor, has become one of the new stars of the UFC. Fans love his attitude and his thrilling fights. Perhaps most remarkable is that his last eight fights, all victories, were secured in a period of 20 months.

And even without the belt, this all-guns-blazing mentality is guaranteed to secure the kind of legacy he wants to leave behind.

“I’m very content. Of course I want more. I want to win that championship and show that all the hard work has been worth it. I want to chase that championship down. But in the long run, I want my legacy to be secured through respect.

“I don’t want people years down the line to say, ‘Oh, that Cowboy, he was just OK.’ I want them to be like, ‘Man, Cowboy throws the f**k down, no matter who he’s fighting or where. He’ll fight anybody, any time, any place. He’ll go in there and just fight his ass off.’ That’s what I want. I want people to be on the road and have to pull over because it’s seven o’clock and they realize I’m fighting. They have to get to a TV to watch the Cowboy fight.”

Witness, then, his two fights in two weeks in January, triumphing over talented prospect Myles Jury and then former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. He talks the talk, and backs it up. 

Cerrone casts a keen eye over the current crop of fighters coming into the sport. He’s not sure many are like him. “My breed of fighter is dying, that’s for damn sure. They’re no longer around. I don’t quit. There’s no stopping me, I’m always coming. You’ve got to kill me,” he says with a look of real true grit on his face.

“It’s a dying breed. All of the fighters that were true fighters are no longer around the sport. It’s now athletes who are becoming fighters. I don’t even watch the fights. I’ll watch Cub Swanson and a few others. They’re guys I care enough about to watch them live. Other than that, I don’t watch any of it. I’ve got so much living going on in my life to worry about what everyone else is doing. I just think it’s best to let Cowboy be Cowboy. I don’t ever have a game plan. I just go in there and f**king let it all hang out.”

But he has a couple of regrets. Like his defeat to Nate Diaz. “I just didn’t show up that day and he did. He won the fight, no excuses. A loss doesn’t bother me at all. I’ll fight anybody. When I’m fighting, it means I’m not in the bar getting into trouble.”

A title shot is definitely within his sights this year, and it should come against Rafael dos Anjos, the last man to beat Cowboy. 

“They definitely told me I’m next,” he says. “That’s the only reason I’m waiting right now. My manager and my coaches are insisting we wait for the title shot. But who knows, man, I just love to fight; this is what I do. Revenge doesn’t mean anything to me. All I care about is getting another fight. I’m always in a hurry to make money. I just can’t stay away. I enjoy being in the gym and training and I feel like I’m unemployed right now. I’ve got nothing to work for, nothing to strive for. I’m just living day to day like I’ve retired. I need to get a date in the books and give me something to work for.” 

Home on the range

Back on the ranch, a few fowl have escaped, and one of his horses is out. Cowboy attends to the horse, and his dogs, of which there are five. Two Great Danes, a Golden Retriever and two bulldogs.

“Two of them are away at, I guess you could call it, boarding school. We’ve just got a brand new Great Dane, a purebred. He’s in obedience training right now. He’s a big-ass dog and whatever you say it needs to obey you. Lou, which is my other dog, is also getting her Ps and Qs all figured out. When I’m out hunting, she’s got to sit when I say sit, retrieve when I say retrieve and all the commands are very necessary. You’ve got to have them down and ready to go.

“Lindsay’s (his girlfriend) dog will be there for six weeks and mine will be there for almost six months.”

Shooting excursions are common, too, for the fighter, mainly for game, often ducks. He uses his Perazzi shotgun for those excursions. And, by all accounts, he’s a fine shot. Then there are the horses. “I’ve got a mare that I really love called Dasher but Jethro I’ve had for almost ten years now. He’s a big old horse, very pretty. Picking my favorite horse is tough, man.”

Rearing livestock for food is important to him, too. “It’s a very organic process. We have lambs, chickens, turkeys. Cattle are a real pain in the ass to take care of. Horses as well. Other than that, it’s all good.

“It depends on the animal. If it’s a large animal like a pig or a cow, it has to be done at a proper butchery. You can’t bring a dead animal to a butcher.

“We’ve slaughtered a couple of pigs and a couple of cattle at the house but it’s just so much work, man. Cleaning them, hanging them, quartering them. It’s a lot of work. We kind of stay away from all that. If it’s a chicken or turkey, we chop their heads off right here and pluck them and skin them.”

Then there are the big cook-ups, burying and slow-cooking pigs, Cowboy style. “We’ll slaughter a pig and then use pineapple, a lot of brown sugar and butter. We then let it slow cook for almost 24 hours. We then have a big old party. We use ceramic blocks. You get a rock and fire for like, 12 hours. All the coals get super hot. You throw the pig in there and slow cook it for a long time.”

The good, the bad, and the ugly

While Cowboy has returned to the source, it has been a process of finding himself, a journey of fights, and what seems like inner fulfillment. “If you’d asked me five or six years ago what I’d end up being, I wouldn’t have had a clue. It’s crazy and bizarre to me. Here I am today and it’s crazy, for sure.

“Five years ago I didn’t know who I was. That’s the biggest thing in my fight career – I was scared, I didn’t believe in myself. I look myself in the mirror today and I know exactly who I am. You can put me in a room with a ton of people and I won’t be a chameleon – I won’t change my shape or my colors to try and adapt to them. I’ll stand out. That, for me, is the cowboy hat and the cowboy way back when I was a kid. That was me trying to be different and trying to stand out.”

So is he a bad guy being good, or a good guy being bad when he fights?

“I don’t feel there’s a bad guy in there, but I feel my grandfather showed me some good tricks and ways to approach life and certain situations,” says Cowboy.

“Now I’m in the public eye I can’t just go do the crazy things I used to do as a kid. People come up to me with their 12-year-old sons and say, ‘Hey, man, he idolizes you.’ I have to take that as a responsibility now. I have to try and tone it down a bit.”

Why would we ever ask him to tone it down? You have to love all of Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone – the good, the bad, and even the ugly.

It's a long way to the top

The development of Cerrone’s career reflects his blue-collar attitude to life. Despite having the personality that makes him stand out from the crowd, he was never afforded the luxury of a big promotional push the sport’s crossover stars are given to shoot them over the top and into the mainstream. Cowboy had to go the old-school route.

“I took the long, hard way. I remember being with Tapout and the WEC and trying to build my name up and I saw people like Kimbo Slice come in hard, blow up fast and where are they now? I feel like if you take the fast track to stardom you’re short-lived. I really believe that,” he says.

“I’ve paved my own way. I haven’t asked for any handouts. I remember when I was kickboxing, no gym in Colorado wanted me. Now I go to Colorado and you bet your ass they want me in there and want my name associated with their gym. I’ve never had anybody hand me anything. I’ve never had someone say, ‘Here, Cowboy, here’s your title shot.’

“I’d go from gym to gym and trainer to trainer, I’d travel the world. I’d take fights in Japan on three days’ notice just because I wanted to fight. They’d send me out there to lose and I’d go hit the bars and party and have fun. Then I’d fight my ass off. It’s just something I do and enjoy doing.”

Don't break with tradition

Cerrone isn’t a superstitious man, but there’s one memento he always carries with him. He’s worn the same piece of old fight shorts sewn onto his fight night trunks since his days in WEC.

“I used to have a pair of the old Rocky shorts and when I started kickboxing I’d wear the same pair all the time. When I started MMA, it just wasn’t really a Thai short kind of sport.” 

“Now it’s just a thing I do – I always bring them with me. With the new Reebok deal, it won’t be allowed, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’ll get fined and get in trouble, but I’ll still put it on there. I don’t know if I want to say it’s lucky because I don’t believe in that stuff, but I do believe it has something to do with something, that’s for damn sure.”

Team 'Cowboy'

  1. Budweiser
  2. Hunt Brothers Pizza
  3. Ollie’s Bargain Outlet
  4. Monster Energy
  5. FRAM
  6. Greenlee
  7. Qore24
  8. E-Z-GO/Bad Boy Buggies