Former lightweights turned welterweights battle to get closer towards a title shot for at least one of the belts at 170 and below this January 28, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
One sentence summary:
Phil: Somehow they never fought at lightweight, but two of MMA's finest technical scrappers meet during separate welterweight resurgences.
David: Technical street fighter meets street-wise cage fighter in this remarkable battle of violent yin versus pugilistic yang.
Record: Donald Cerrone 32-7-1 (draw) Jorge Masvidal 31-11
Odds: Donald Cerrone -145 Jorge Masvidal +125
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: We have previewed Cowboy many times, and at some point talking about things like his absurd longevity or the sheer pace he can keep gets... old. He's some kind of lanky Budweiser-powered Energizer bunny, and I think he's literally outlasted our ability to write about how he'll suddenly decline one day. A career LW, we now find him in the middle of an incredibly successful run at welterweight. I mean... 11 years? Most of it fighting elite competition? Now at a higher weight class and debatably even more of a buzzsaw than he used to be? At this point I'm just willing to accept it.
David: Listen, Phil. We live in the age of Stuxnet and mitochondrial replacement therapy that your country made legal in December. In the era of three parent babies, I’m totally willing to accept that Cerrone has access to military bio-nanoware that repairs damaged neurons on the spot. But back to the point about Cerrone, for whatever explains his performance enhancement, I don’t really see a transcendent change in his game. We’re shocked that his durability has withered against bigger competition, but I think that’s because we’re so used to presuming that being bigger in an MMA fight automatically means more dangerous. And really, I think he’s experienced several benefits; most notably given opponents he was markedly faster than. This is a strange step up in competition given Masvidal’s own predominant history at lightweight, but who isn’t salivating over this high in protein diet of fisticuffs?
Phil: Masvidal's position in the bad-ass gatekeeper hierarchy always came just beneath Cerrone's, and I think that rankled. Long-running bad blood between the two is on the surface about Cerrone taking fights away from Masvidal, but it's also just one of those situations where two people are just too damn similar to ever like each other. They're unquestionably incredibly athletic, but it's obvious where they come on the "athlete vs fighter" spectrum. Masvidal was the backyard brawler who layered on slick technique, but he too is someone who enjoys fighting more than he loves winning. He's perfectly happy to get lost in the middle of a fight, focusing on countering an opponent's entire game, while meanwhile they're winning a round or two with concentrated lines of attack. Like Cerrone, though, he's looking better than ever right now.
David: Masvidal has one of the weirdest career trajectories of any fighter I know. What began as a fun replica of old Van Damme movies against Kimbo’s porn production company prospects in the booze riddled backyard suburbs of Florida has become one of the more respectable prospect-turned-gatekeeper story in years. Masvidal’s ceiling is a little harder to pin down than Cerrones. ‘Cowboy’ has already had opportunities against the elite, so we have an idea about where the pendulum will swing, but ‘Gamebred’ has been too sporadic, never really finding that hierarchy sweet spot in the division to define for us who he can be. I’m not trying to build some sort of mythos around the dude, but the fact that no one has just plain dominated the guy gives him an aura I think even his opponents respect.
What’s at stake?
Phil: How's the welterweight picture looking? *glances over.* Hm.
David: If Tyron Woodley wasn’t making Stephen Thompson squirm in his seat being forced to talk identity politics, and racism, I’m not even sure I could tell you what was going on at welterweight. Johny Hendricks is as done as his steakhouse. So really, a Cerrone win puts him in prime position to negotiate a title shot since he’s fun to watch, a legitimate talent. Masvidal is too mercurial for Dana’s tastes, so Jorge would need more wins.
Phil: I think both guys will take more fights afterwards- Masvidal because he'll need to, Cerrone because he'll get bored. Maia has next, but the Thompson/Woodley situation is starting to form a logjam.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Cowboy is always going to want it at kicking range, where he works that tenderizing body kick / leg kick / switch head kick game. However, his recent improvements have been around the intangibles which always eluded him before. He pivots off to avoid strikes more, moves his head which previously used to be left bolt upright, and lets that left hook go liberally. In addition, he hits lovely reactive takedowns. I'm not sure why he's kept these in his back pocket for so long - his rematch against Jamie Varner was the first time he used them, then he kept them shelved for literally years. I always just assumed that Varner was the only guy that he hated enough to bother actively wrestling against; that it was some weird machismo thing, but who knows? May simply be that he's now fighting bigger, taller, slower fighters and can hit their hips more easily.
David: Can I copy and paste old Cerrone toe-to-toe previews? As I’ve repeated over and over, the biggest improvement Cerrone took with him in coming up in weight was the more dramatic inclusion of active, pressure style boxing. He’s let his hands go, literally, in a way he was downright averse to at lightweight. So Cowboy has brutal knees, elbows, submissions, et cetera. But am I the only waiting for the shoe to drop? I feel like Cerrone has had matchups that didn’t do much to stress his flaws. At least until Matt Brown. And that was a brutally tough fight for him. Fighting Masvidal isn’t technically a step up in competition (Brown has an established record at welterweight, Masvidal does not), but in terms of the challenges it presents to Cowboy stylistically, it’s tougher IMO.
Phil: Masvidal is an exceptionally slick boxer, working behind a jab and then pulling back to counter with the right hook. He feints both strikes and movements with his hips, and has a mean right body kick and outside leg kick. Fairly iron-clad TDD, a good takedown game of his own, and high-percentage single collar and head control clinch and snapdown games. Masvidal genuinely has no real technical weaknesses. His historical problem is similar to his teammate Robbie Lawler's - he gets caught up in enjoying the fight and his obsession with landing the perfect shot means that he can be overloaded if enough options are thrown at him.
Masvidal has shared one improvement with Cerrone in his move up- he's not nearly as slow starting as he used to be. This may (as with Cerrone) be partially an artifact of fighting bigger and slightly slower men- he feels like he has more of a grasp of their speed earlier in the fight. It may also be because he's more physically comfortable as he's no longer cutting a ton of weight.
David: Masvidal has always been a technical marvel in my eyes. He’s calm and poised on the feet in a way that feels like cheating (perhaps he’s been reading chess grandmaster’s stashes?). With movement that is not only economic but a weapon onto itself, swift reaction striking, there are few guys in the entire sport I would bet to make him look foolish. The biggest hurdle for Masvidal is his sense of urgency. He shares something in common with Mousasi, whose troubles could always be traced to the fact that the very concept of rounds boggled him. There was never the snappy rhythm needed to crack a fire judges all swoon over. You want to win the judges’ heart? Throw strikes like you’re an octopus fighting rainy weather (read: be not like water, but Leonard, Garcia). As you point out, welterweight has hurried his urgency, but his pace remains methodical to a fault.
Insight from past fights
Phil: One of the commonalities with people who have beaten Cerrone has been southpaws who box him up. Perhaps the commonality isn't so much being a southpaw, but maintaining a certain distance- most of the orthodox fighters he's fought tended to be blitzers, or inside fighters. I'm interested to see if Masvidal sits at the tip of boxing range (as he is wont to) whether he can lower Donald's volume like Henderson did in his final fight with Cowboy. Also interested to see whether Masvidal kicks with Cerrone, specifically attacking Cerrone's lead leg, as Henderson troubled Cerrone greatly there.
David: Watching the Brown fight, it’s clear that Cerrone still has trouble defending a straight forward, but efficient boxing attack. Masvidal may not be as aggressive as dos Anjos and Nate, but he’s aggressively technical if that makes sense: as in, he still fights with pressure fighter mechanics (a jab, technical leg kicks, counter hooks, etc). If Cerrone gets impatient for even a minute, Masvidal will scalpel through his attack.
Phil: They don't like each other, but I doubt that Masvidal has "gotten into Cerrone's head", or vice versa. Even if he had, Cruz-Garbrandt kind of showed just how much that kind of thing is worth. Two incredibly consistent, experienced professionals.
David: I honestly haven’t paid too much attention to the pre-fight hype. I was more fascinated by Shia Lebeouf shouting down Nazis. What is it about people that preach hate that makes them look more likely to lose an actual fight?
Phil: Close fight. I still think that there's every chance that Masvidal can simply sit on the range which Cerrone doesn't like and box him up. However, one of his problems has been dealing with multiple options, and Cerrone is one of the most variegated, borderline-sadistic offensive threats around. He's also just a more dynamic finishing threat, more likely to pick up on the big moments. Donald Cerrone by decision.
David: I swear I’m not just picking Latinos as a personal statement in service of my own identity politics. But I consider Masvidal a tough matchup for Cowboy. His unbroken rhythm really disrupts people that try to strike with him, and Cerrone is not the kind of fighter I expect to respond well to that rhythm. If Cerrone can’t finish, and I don’t think he will ignoring Masvidal’s historically perfect durability (the TKO to Damm is such a comical error of incompetent reffing), I have a hard time imagining Masvidal losing the kind of decision (not that this doesn’t happen often) it would take for Cerrone to stay ahead each round. Jorge Masvidal by Decision.