Donald Cerrone will make his third attempt at lightweight gold on Saturday night. That is the good news.
The bad news is that the “Cowboy” will face an old nemesis when he steps into the cage. Ben Henderson bested Cerrone over five thrilling rounds six months ago when the pair squared off to decide the interim lightweight title holder.
Cerrone hopes Saturday night will be different. Henderson hopes to win in more efficient fashion. The fans hope for a basic repeat of what was by many accounts the Fight of the Year in 2009.
Henderson won the October battle solely because he repeatedly put Cerrone on his back and followed most of those takedowns with excellent ground control that led to prolonged periods of effective ground and pound. The champ will undoubtedly look to do the same thing on Saturday night.
Cerrone, who comes from a Muay Thai background, wants to display better takedown defense so that he can rely on his superior striking. At least that is what most people probably think, though I’m not so sure.
To wit, the respective game plans for the rematch aren’t nearly as simple as Henderson repeating his takedowns and Cerrone shoring up his takedown deficiencies. Both could fight in exactly the same way that they did in the first bout and the outcome could be very different.
Despite the fact that Cerrone in undefeated as a professional kickboxer with more than a couple of dozen bouts under his belt, he has never shown dominant standup skills inside the cage. He has yet to win a mixed martial arts fight by knockout, which is downright shocking for someone with an extensive striking background. Instead, he has ended 10 of his 11 wins by submission.
Cerrone’s long, lean lightweight frame is perfectly suited for submissions, particularly from his guard. In most fights, he uses his striking to get an advantage on the feet and force his opponent to resort to a takedown attempt. He is surprisingly effective from his guard for a guy who entered the sport with a deep striking background. In fact, five of his first seven fights ended with Cerrone slapping on a fight-ending triangle choke on his opponent.
Cerrone did everything by throw the kitchen sink at Henderson in terms of submission attempts in their first fight. Twice in the first round, Cerrone sunk in what appeared to be very deep guillotine chokes, the first of which was an ultra-deep power guillotine. Yet, he failed to finish either hold.
If he wants to beat Henderson on Saturday night, Cerrone needs to find a way to finish if he is fortunate enough to sink a deep submission hold on his foe. Either that or he needs to focus solely on scrambling back to his feet following Henderson’s inevitable takedowns.
Henderson is one of the best in the sport at stacking up his opponent on the ground. He does that by standing up and leaning his hips into and down on his downed opponent’s legs. The champ is basically immune from any submissions in that position, except for leg locks. And he can drop bombs in the form of punches and elbows that arrive with far more force than those thrown from an attacker’s knees.
Cerrone had no answer for Henderson’s ground control in their first fight. He attempted a few submissions—mostly shoulder locks and triangles—when Henderson got a bit too lackadaisical with his ground and pound. But he never really had Henderson in any trouble when fighting from his back.
There is no doubt that Henderson will look to stack up Cerrone in the same manner on Saturday night. The only way for Cerrone to effectively defend that maneuver, since he doesn’t have BJ Penn-like flexibility and the submission skills necessary to really bring leg locks into play, is to use both feet to aggressively push away Henderson’s hips and quickly pop back up to his feet.
Cerrone did that a couple of times during the fight with great success. When he tried to play the open guard game during those moments, he was on the receiving end of an effective ground-and-pound attack.
Once the fight is back on the feet, Cerrone needs to avoid rushing in with wild attacks. He opened the first fight with a reckless high kick that resulted in him landing on his rear end. He later rushed in with punches, which led to a takedown. He also attacked with sort of a running leg kick. You guessed it. Henderson timed it, caught the leg and took down Cerrone.
He also bounces a bit too high as he moves in to strike. That is fine in a kickboxing bout because it allows a fighter to easily dart left and right or lift his front leg to check a kick. Henderson times Cerrone’s bounces for his double-leg shots.
Cerrone should instead take a page out of Chuck Liddell’s book of war and strike with a wider stance, his shoulders a bit more square and his weight forward so that he can sprawl and brawl more effectively. A wider stance makes it more difficult for an opponent to wrap up both legs during a shot. Squaring up a bit more helps negate the advantage Henderson, who fights from a southpaw stance, enjoys shooting against a guy who fights from an orthodox stance like Cerrone. And keeping his weight a bit more forward makes it easier to explode back with the hips during a sprawl.
In terms of attacking on the feet, Cerrone should keep it simple. He has much better hands, so that is where he should focus his efforts. Lead right hands thrown with a purpose should find the mark if Cerrone can keep his lead left leg outside of Henderson’s lead right leg, which opens up the perfect throwing angle for that punch. Clean-up left hooks work well against southpaws. And the jab, which is largely ineffective in boxing against southpaws, is surprisingly effective in mixed martial arts because vale tudo gloves don’t occupy as much space, so it is easier to sneak the jab past an opponent’s lead right hand.
Cerrone should also employ much more lateral movement. The best way to negate takedowns is to circle an opponent and dart in and out with strikes. Frankie Edgar did that brilliantly against Penn a few weeks ago in the biggest upset of 2010. Cerrone can use the same tactic to safely chip away at Henderson’s defenses on Saturday night. To do that, though, he must fight from the proper distance. He tended to start his attacks from much too far away in the first fight, which resulted in him rushing in. Cerrone knows how to set the distance and circle. Anyone with almost 30 professional kickboxing matches knows how to do that. He needs to bring that out of his bag of tricks if he wants to maximize his odds of winning.
If Cerrone can keep touching Henderson, he should be able to eventually score a knockout. Again, his standup is cleaner and he bangs with more power. Cerrone just needs to commit to an effective standup attack, which in my opinion, is the best way to deal with Henderson. Hoping to catch a guy with his wrestling base in a submission is a tough road to hoe.
Henderson, by contrast, will want to do a lot of the same things that he did in the first fight. He will use a lot of feints on the feet in order to set up takedowns. He will time Cerrone’s attacks and counter with takedowns. This time, however, he needs to be a bit more careful when he shoots. In the first fight, he left his head exposed time and time again. Cerrone wasn’t able to use a choke to squeeze his way to victory in the first fight, but I wouldn’t count on him missing those opportunities this time around. Otherwise, it should be status quo once the referee signals for the action to start.
Who is going to win this one? I’ve got to go with Henderson again. The first fight was pretty darn even, in my opinion. Take away those near submission attempts in the first round and Henderson wins by a comfortable margin. I just don’t see Henderson making the same mistakes with his head during shots this time around.
Of course, Cerrone scored two knockdowns in the final two rounds—the first via leg kick and the second with a solidly thrown right hand. Both were flash knockdowns that might have been the result of balance or fatigue. If he can tighten up his standup game and score a few more of those, he will have a great shot at erasing the prior loss. If not, I see Henderson fighting with the same demanding purpose and pounding his way to another closely contested victory.
• 26 years old
• 5’9, 155 lbs
• 70” reach
• 11-1 professional record
• Only 2 fights have lasted the distance (won both)
• Riding a 10-fight winning streak
• 2-0 in title fights (including interim titles; UD5 over Donald Cerrone on October 9, 2009; and SUB3 over Jamie Varner on January 10, 2010
• First defense of lightweight championship
• Current layoff is 104 days (SUB3 over Jamie Varner on January 10, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 167 days (SUB1 over David Dagloria on June 23, 2007, until SUB over Brian Corley on December 7, 2007)
• 27 years old
• 6’0, 155 lbs
• 73” reach
• 11-2, 1NC as a professional
• 3 fights have lasted the distance (1-2 in those fights)
• 3-2 in last 5 fights, 7-2, 1NC in last 10 fights
• 0-2 in title fights (including interim titles; TD5 loss to Jamie Varner on January 25, 2009; and UD5 loss to Ben Henderson on October 9, 2009)
• Won Fight of the Night 3 times (UD3 over Rob McCullough on November 5, 2008; TD5 loss to Jamie Varner on January 25, 2009; and SUB3 over Ed Ratcliff on December 19, 2009)
• Current layoff is 126 days (SUB3 over Ed Ratcliff on December 19, 2009)
• Longest career layoff is 270 days (NC against Kenneth Alexander on September 5, 2007, until SUB1 over Danny Castillo on June 1, 2008)