Anytime you're watching an MMA fight in an organization other than the UFC, it's quite common to speculate whether the competitors could succeed in the Octagon. History has shown us that the vast majority of non-UFC fighters, regardless of hype or potential, are highly unlikely to replicate the success they've found elsewhere in MMA's ultimate proving grounds.
However, there are always exceptions. And when it comes to posing that question in regards to the status of WEC fighters, there are exactly 3 exceptions: Benson Henderson, the current UFC lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis, the reigning WEC lightweight champion when the fight league closed its doors, and 3-time WEC title contender Donald Cerrone.
The latter pair will square off on the main card of Saturday's UFC on Fox 6 event in the Windy City, which is captained by a flyweight title fight pitting champion Demetrious Johnson vs. John Dodson. A lone bout on Facebook will lead off the evening's festivities, followed by a 6-piece preliminary card on the FX channel (5:00 p.m. ET) that will lead into the 4-fight main card on the Fox channel at 8:00 p.m. ET.
Wrestling is cool and all. It's an invaluable tool that allows a fighter to control his opponent, dictate which phase of combat the action transpires in; blah blah, you know the drill. While wrestling is essential to winning fights, highlight-reel knockouts and silky-smooth submissions are essential to winning fans. And, in plain terms, that's what Cerrone and Pettis are known for: chopping off heads and choking ninjas out.
"Cowboy" Cerrone (19-4) boasts 13 submissions and 2 TKOs in his 19 career wins, giving him a respectable 79% finishing ratio. "Showtime" Pettis (15-2) clocks in with a balanced 6 subs and TKOs apiece for a nearly identical 80% finishing ratio. Out of their cumulative career losses, Cerrone has only been finished once -- the rest for both were all decision losses -- by current champ Henderson, who Pettis defeated in the final WEC event to earn the promotion's lightweight title.
Due to Pettis' monumental victory and the unforgettable "Showtime Kick" that facilitated it, the spotlight rested squarely on the 25-year-old's shoulders when the WEC clique invaded the UFC, and Pettis was expected to rise higher and faster than the lightweight counterparts he'd left in his wake. After all, he'd just cemented himself as the best 155er in the WEC by defeating Henderson, who'd twice picked off Cerrone in title fights -- first by decision (for the interim championship) and later definitively with a 1st-round guillotine.
Of course, things in MMA rarely play out like it seems they should. Henderson took the Octagon by storm and man-handled 3 contenders en route to a title bid, and has since spent the same amount winning and defending the belt while becoming the world's alpha-lightweight for a 6-0 UFC record. Cerrone started ablaze by blitzing a quartette of opponents and currently stands at 6-1 in the Octagon while accruing a shocking 6 win bonuses in the process (3 Fights of the Night, 2 Submissions of the Night and 1 Knockout of the Night).
Ironically, Pettis, the original frontrunner of the WEC triumvirate, has fared the worst: in only 3 turns, he premiered with a decision loss to Clay Guida, eked out a split decision over Jeremy Stephens (who was dominated by Cerrone) and finally got back to form with a 1st-round TKO via head kick against Joe Lauzon in his last.
Given their similar styles, Cerrone will have a miniscule size advantage with 2" in height (5'11" vs. 5'9") and an inch in reach (73" vs. 72"). While that doesn't seem like much, it could be a factor in a striking-centric brawl where mere millimeters can be the difference between a grazing punch and a solid one, as well between as a solid shot and a knockout blow.
Other edges that I'm giving to Cerrone include a slight edge in wrestling and, definitely, his adeptness at controlling the distance with his striking. In fact, when contrasting their performances against Stephens, Cerrone's wrestling didn't even come into play because he commanded the range with his crisp and long Muay Thai whereas Pettis spent a lot of time trying to extract himself from Stephen's grasp. Perhaps the most significant aspect I see for Cerrone is the way he's come into his own and matured as a fighter during his UFC tenure. His fan-friendly (but risky and predictable) approach of going for broke on the feet, leaving himself susceptible to takedowns and trying to regain ground with fiery guard play has been replaced by methodical stalking on the feet, intelligent control of distance and a more judicious strike selection.
In plain terms, Cerrone has evolved farther while looking better and more complete against a greater quantity and quality of competition.
Cerrone's best weapons are his switch kick with the left foot/shin, his right low kick, his straight 1-2, and the way he bobs to his low-left before ripping a nasty left hook to the head or body to close his combinations. Motion wise, Cerrone tends to use more straight-line, in-and-out patterns. The good parts: he excels in backing opponents off with cracking low kicks from the fringe or his crisp 1-2 when the perimeter is breached, as well as bursting forward with rapid-fire punches and ending the sequence with the aforementioned low kicks or off-center left hook medleys. The bad part is that Cerrone gets in trouble by retreating in a straight line, especially when he's pressured -- as he was versus Diaz, who sloshed through his rangy punches to get inside.
Pettis is more of a side-to-side artist. He's not bashful about letting foes get inside because he's been able to cut sharp counter-pivots and exploit defensive holes with blinding speed. Even offensively, Pettis likes to operate in close quarters -- the positives are that he's a feisty in-fighter for being a skinny kid and formulates good punching combinations on the fly, and the high kick he uncorks out of nowhere is considerably unexpected and devastating in the pocket. The biggest negative is that it leaves him more vulnerable to takedowns and tie-ups against certain opponents (such was the case with Guida and Stephens).
Overall, they're both phenomenal strikers with the potential to wobble or finish the other, and I don't think either deserve a significant edge. I'm fine with anyone who considers this category altogether even. However, Cerrone's superior control of range should be a pivotal factor and my personal opinion is that his boxing and timing are just a tad better, and his height and reach will undoubtedly complement those observations as well.
Advatage: Cerrone (slight)
I would typically rattle through the comparison of their clinch/wrestling and grappling, but my summary wouldn't result in any major or tangible advantages for either. I do feel that Cerrone is a little more effective and accomplished with his wrestling, and he might be a slightly better clinch-fighter with his height and deadly Thai plum, yet he's so offensively volatile that his defense occasionally suffers, which is a big reason Henderson caught him with that guillotine. Cerrone has also been much more offensive than Pettis with his wrestling, yet Pettis broke even on takedowns (2 apiece) with 3-time D1 All-American Shane Roller and even out-performed Henderson by going 2 for 2 whilst stuffing 7 of Bendo's 10 attempts.
Really, I feel the wrestling, clinch and grappling categories are too close to call, and likely dictated by timing, on-the-fly instincts, Fight I.Q. and whoever capitalizes on mistakes more effectively.
This is one of many fights on the card that could go either way. Past performance steers me toward Pettis but current events are all Cerrone, who'll also have intangibles on his side like momentum, more UFC experience -- and therefore more confidence -- along with Greg Jackson in his corner. They both have unbreakable chins, equally voracious BJJ (including positions, transitions/scrambles, sweeps and offensive submissions) and comparable wrestling, so it's the finite set of advantages for Cerrone on the feet that determine my choice.
My Prediction: Donald Cerrone by decision.
Open workout video