Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (18-4) was a prominent 155er and fan favorite in the WEC who vied for the lightweight championship on 3 different occasions, which accounts for 3 of his 4 career losses. He's defined by a ferocious mélange of Muay Thai and BJJ that's unshackled with coldblooded aggression and his stretchy proportions amplify his striking prowess considerably. UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson is responsible for a pair of Cerrone's defeats (unanimous decision, 1st-round guillotine) while Jamie Varner (a controversial decision) in the WEC and Nate Diaz (unanimous decision) in the UFC account for the others.
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Melvin "The Young Assassin" Guillard (30-10) has established himself as a devastating striker with explosive boxing, feisty takedown defense and a glaringly obvious Achilles Heel (9 of 10 losses via submission). Guillard accrued a jaw-dropping amount of experience early in his career but it was apparent when he arrived in the UFC that he'd been getting by on exceptional athleticism and raw fighting instincts. The bulk of his Octagon career unfolded with gradual improvements in his balance, footwork and Fight I.Q., but mostly in his takedown defense and defensive scrambling, both of which have become quite technical and effective.
The enhancements propelled Guillard to a 5-fight win streak and title aspirations, but consecutive losses by rear-naked choke (Joe Lauzon, Jim Miller) shattered those hopes and reignited the criticism about his chronic vulnerability to submission grapplers. He did, however, notch a decision win over Fabricio Camoes on last month's UFC 148 card. Guillard recently parted ways with the renowned Jackson/Winklejohn team, where he trained for years with Cerrone, and migrated to the burgeoning Blackzilians team.
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The obvious factor here is Cerrone's wrestling as, once he's on the mat with him, "Cowboy" definitely has the submission acumen to exploit Guillard's known weakness. Cerrone has a legit wrestling game and a nice duck-under double leg, though it's predicated on his timing, quickness and how well he sets it up with strikes rather than perfect fundamentals or a stout wrestling pedigree.
Should he pursue takedowns, open space is the ideal location as Guillard has been consistently effective in scooting backwards on his butt and pressing his back against the fence to regain his footing. Once he's tied up in the clinch, either before or after a takedown, Guillard's balance, agility and Judo background makes him a ultra-slippery and a challenge to contain. The defect lies strictly within his submission defense -- not his wrestling.
Guillard does throw kicks (mostly front kicks) but his boxing, particularly his searing overhand right, and his violent knees in the clinch are his weapons of choice. Guillard's freakish physical abilities are always stressed heavily because they're so integral to implementing his offense: it's not that his kickboxing technique is unparalleled, rather his combinations are unreeled with blinding quickness and bone-spitting power after he bursts into range.
It's worth noting that Guillard hasn't tackled many high-level strikers, 4 to be exact: Nate Diaz (submission loss), Jeremy Stephens (controversial split-decision win), Dennis Siver and Marcus Davis (both TKO wins). In those bouts, Guillard assumed the role of the brawler and countered his opponent's artistry with a gritty street-fighting mentality. Cerrone's a bit of a brawler as well but would be wise to play the technician against Guillard.
Many fighters boast Muay Thai as their striking style yet few exude the essence of it like Cerrone does. His stance, clinch characteristics, the way he turns his hips over on kicks and adopts the "if you're moving back, you're losing" philosophy are distinctly reminiscent of traditional Muay Thai.
While his forward-geared movement and refusal to retreat has made Cerrone an exciting fighter and earned him several wins, it's also what got him in trouble against Nate Diaz. Instead of staying on the outside and nipping away on the fringe while circling out, Cerrone was willing to engage Diaz in a phone-booth fight, which is the exact range where Diaz excels and the reason he lost the fight. It's also the range where Guillard is at his best, though Melvin pops in and out more whereas Diaz trudges ahead relentlessly.
If Cerrone makes that same mistake against Guillard, here's why he'll be in trouble: while his offensive technique is phenomenal, Cerrone's striking defense can be dangerously relaxed; he has poor head movement, he relies on his iron chin too much and his straight boxing isn't nearly as effective as his overall Thai arsenal. In other words, Guillard, who has more power and better boxing, will mangle Cerrone if he stands right in front of him and trades leather recklessly.
Now, Cerrone does have devastating power in his kicks, particularly his low kicks, which he's been using regularly. Cerrone can open or close his combinations with cracking low kicks, and he also defends himself well by keeping his hands up and cutting an angle after throwing them. When attacking with his hands, Cerrone is quick, long and accurate, albeit lacking a bit of snap. The risk comes in defensively, as Cerrone is far too willing to block counter-punches or slip them and parry rather than get the hell out of Dodge. Against a knockout artist like Guillard, who doesn't chip away at openings methodically like Diaz, bailing out of the pocket and resetting in open space when he unloads bombs is a must.
Stephens represented a similar threat and Cerrone showed a better grasp of distance by keeping him on the fringe with active movement and rangy kicks. As long as he protects his chin from uppercuts and knees, and regardless of whether he's successful, Cerrone should shoot takedowns just to make Guillard hesitant to plant his feet and commit to punches, or to capitalize on Guillard's hands drifting downward in anticipation of defending the level drop. Melvin's come a long way with takedown defense and defensive scrambling, but forcing Guillard to defend in those scenarios limits his ability to generate offense.
Along with his wrestling, Cerrone's Fight I.Q. will play a huge role. It will dictate the distance and range of the fight, which should in turn dictate the ebb and flow of the striking. If Cerrone doesn't keep Guillard on the fringe and can't or doesn't snare takedowns, Guillard's perilous boxing will probably overwhelm him. Even if Cerrone does everything right from a strategy standpoint, there will still be instances where he'll be in Guillard's cross-hairs, and Melvin can end the fight with a single blow.
Overall, Cerrone's more polished striking and diversity give him the rightful edge on the betting lines, which I agree with. I think he'll be smart enough not to absorb punishment or go tit for tat, and out-finesse Guillard from a distance while working in the occasional takedown attempt or rattling him on the feet before pouncing with his potent grappling.
My Prediction: Donald Cerrone by submission.