Cerrone's original opponent was Mac Danzig in what would have been a pivotal collision in the UFC's high octane lightweight blender, but Danzig became one of six fighters to withdraw from the card due to injury. Matchmaker Joe Silva spun his Rolodex to the "Reserves" section and selected Rocha, an esteemed BJJ black belt from Team Pablo Popovitch with a daunting submission acumen, experience at lightweight and welterweight, and only one loss in six fights.
The name Vagner Rocha first echoed throughout the annals of MMA in 2009 when he upset Igor Gracie, son of Rolls Gracie, at Bellator 11. Even more impressively than the win over such a reputable name is that the bout was contested at welterweight, so considering his swagger on the mat, Vagner Rocha is a spark plug at lightweight.
From Rocha's UFC.com Q&A, here is his list of grappling accomplishments:
What ranks and titles have you held?
I have no title in any MMA organization. I do have a lots of titles in BJJ such as: North American ADCC Trials Champion, 3rd Abu Dhabi World Pro Weight & Absolute, several times NAGA and Grapplers Quest Champion, Brown Belt Pan American Champion, 3rd Brown Belt Gi Worlds.
His breakout win over Gracie was by decision in his second pro-fight, and Rocha tied first round submissions to his first, third, and fourth opponents, then returned to Bellator and remained undefeated with a TKO over Francisco Soares.
Rocha's first and only loss came at the hands of Bret Bergmark, who deserves a detailed mention: Bergmark is a Cesar Gracie product and former WEC welterweight with UFC caliber wins over Brodie Farber and Brian Ebersole, and has only lost to Mike Pyle. Rocha rebounded with another first round submission in his last outing.
To summarize, with all the marquee fighters that have dropped out of UFC 131, don't devalue their replacements based on name recognition. Rocha has submitted everyone he's fought except for a decision win over a Gracie and a decision loss to a solid prospect; both welterweights.
They key aspect with Rocha is that he's very wisely tuned up his wrestling game to match his predatory submission arsenal, so even though his striking is rather vanilla, he has a level of weaponry that few can match, and the means to force you to deal with it.
We'll tackle a quick refresher on Donald Cerrone and analyze the match-up after the break.
There's just not much to dislike about Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.
It's almost as if the WEC had a prerequisite for the simmering combination of violently aggressive BJJ and Muay Thai, as Miguel Torres, Carlos Condit, and Donald Cerrone compounded those styles to cement themselves as some of MMA's most exciting fighters.
"Cowboy" has only lost three of his eighteen fights: the tight split-decision to Jamie Varner, the competitive unanimous decision to Ben Henderson, and the submission in the rematch. A very surprising stat on Cerrone's record is that he's finished every win save two by decision, and every single stoppage has been via submission. It's bewildering that such a treacherous striker has never delivered a TKO.
Standing, Cerrone is like a mechanical Muay Thai wood-chipper, whirring a blinding assault of punches, knees, and kicks of all design. He surrounds himself with a perimeter of oscillating strikes and is adept at keying off his opponent's movements and habits to formulate his offense.
He's a purely offensive-minded clincher, which could get him in trouble against Rocha, who is one adversary that the trusty ol' "strike until they take me down and then win with Jiu Jitsu" strategy shouldn't be applied against.
Rocha is mostly a boxer that uses his hands to set up takedown attempts, preferably against the fence. He likes the lead left hook, has a decent straight right and pretty good power. Cerrone should be able to hammer low kicks freely, as long as he focuses on not over-committing with his footwork and mixes in straight punches and knees.
If Rocha can consistently breach the boundary and snare a limb, he will devour any and every opportunity for a takedown with fervent determination. Cerrone should stay completely free of Rocha's grasp, and if a clinch is initiated, attack sparingly.
The only way this is a one-sided beatdown is in the free movement phase, where Rocha has the clear advantage on the ground, and the scales are more evenly balanced in the clinch.
Even though Cerrone has an avid ground game himself -- just as in the clinch -- he doesn't want to mess around with Rocha's grappling.
He is by leagues the more well rounded fighter, but we actually haven't seen Cowboy execute a flawless sprawl-and-brawl strategy. He has the ideal height and reach to do so, but the fact of the matter is that he's yet to maximize that advantage with evasive footwork, with a wider base, while keeping his adversary on the end of his long punches. Most of the grapplers he's faced were able to succeed in taking him down.
Since Jamie Varner almost took him down at will, Cerrone definitely sharpened up his wrestling, as evinced by putting Varner on his back in the rematch. However, Cerrone hasn't really shown a bulletproof sprawl with any consistency, again, because he's violently reckless with his striking and comfortable with his dynamic rubber guard.
I'm not sure that his ground is good enough to confidently trudge into a grappling match with Rocha like he has with other opponents, but what I am absolutely sure of is that there's no sense in risking it considering his advantages everywhere else.
There's no question Cerrone should win this fight, but his willingness to duel on the ground and absent history of repelling takedowns make me a little nervous in this one. The aforementioned WEC fighters with Cerrone's style all have the tendency to stand more upright and let their combinations fly with vigor, and a dedicated sprawl-and-brawl striker has to change up his stance, selection of strikes, and footwork quite significantly. Cerrone's yet to show that.
Now, factor in that all of his stoppages are by submission, and I think we'll either see Cerrone's first win via TKO or the setting for an upset. I'll play the odds, but once again, don't count Rocha out.
My Prediction: Cerrone by TKO
All gifs from Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com