For most fans, WEC champion Anthony Pettis and the final challenger to his crown, Ben Henderson, were the only two fighters who might have an eventual impact at the elite levels of the UFC's lightweight division after the two promotions merged in December. They were obvious choices due to their status within the promotion's lightweight ranks, and a showdown between the two fighters at WEC 53 that became a fight of the year candidate only furthered the focus. In hindsight, we might have forgotten someone.
Donald Cerrone, who fought for the WEC lightweight crown three times and failed, wasn't thought of as a man who could become a relevant fighter in the UFC. His aggressive and entertaining style of fighting would almost certainly pit him against beatable opponents for fan-friendly action, but questions still arose about whether he could ever compete against the better competition that awaited him. Those same questions were asked about Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis, so why would anyone think Cerrone could have an impact when he couldn't sneak past Henderson on two separate occasions?
Almost a year later, our assumptions couldn't be further from reality. Henderson, while playing second fiddle to Pettis at the end of the WEC's existence, has become the promotion's top import while Pettis faltered in his debut. And Cerrone? He's been quietly and efficiently dispatching of every fighter the UFC has put in front of him, stringing together four straight wins in 2011.
Saturday night's performance at UFC 137 was icing on the cake for Cerrone. After beating up Paul Kelly, Vagner Rocha, and Charles Oliveira, he was finally given a challenge that fans felt was appropriate. The match-up had many of us questioning whether Cerrone could prevail. Unlike his WEC counterparts who were thrown tough opposition from the start, Cerrone was allowed to mature over the course of the year. That slowed progression has allowed Cerrone to develop his game, a more mature style than what we've seen from him in the past.
Impressively, Cerrone dominated Siver at his own game, landing multiple head kicks that caused Siver to put on his best dance routine in front of the fans at the Mandalay Events Center on Saturday night. Siver, who's well known for his powerful punching and unpredictable kicking prowess, couldn't answer, eventually succumbing to Cerrone's grips on the ground.
The victory puts Cerrone is a surprising position. He's gone from failing to win the WEC lightweight crown to sitting on the outside looking in at UFC lightweight contention in just a year. Even more impressive is Cerrone's focus and dramatic shift in his mentality. While he remains a fighter fueled by emotion outside of the cage, it couldn't be further from the truth inside the cage. The massive improvements he's made make a run toward the top a possibility next year. Is it possible we'll hear Donald Cerrone's name involved in contention next year? I think we will.