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Editorial: Donald Cerrone should retire, because retirement is never about defeat

Donald Cerrone doesn’t seem willing to retire following his loss to Alex Morono. But he should, because retirement is about respect for the fight game.

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Donald Cerrone on his way to the ring for UFC Vegas 26 versus Alex Morono.
Donald Cerrone on his way to the ring for UFC Vegas 26 versus Alex Morono.
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

It was pretty undignified, all things considered. For years, Donald Cerrone was a proud gatekeeper. Having fought for multiple titles throughout his career, his fight canvas includes battles through multiple divisions across multiple organizations. Saturday, he looked like meat for the journeyman grinder, as Alex Morono, a competent but unspectacular pugilist, made quick, somewhat awkward work of the Cowboy.

I say ‘awkward’ because it was a lazy punch entry for Cerrone. The kind of entry you know makes sense in his mind — a kind of stepping straight right I guess — but his mind wasn’t getting the same sense from his body. By the time Cerrone is square with Morono, his legs are crossed, and his hands aren’t even fully up. Then Morono smacks Cerrone with a hard, but funny-looking ridgehand.

I say ‘funny’ not as a criticism of Morono’s talent, but because it feels like the kind of aesthetic that should, in theory, underline when it’s time. Morono’s punch had the mechanics of a softball you throw when you’re trying to knock over milk bottles at the carnival. It wasn’t a graceful end either, with Cerrone stumbling around for twenty more brutal seconds just getting hit over and over, failing to even find his footing, over and over.

Maybe not to him, but it certainly creates the picture of someone who needs to call it a career. Cerrone’s loss looked and felt like procedure: the lack of balance, loss of senses, etc. Cerrone was been witness to many storms of flesh and bone. And he’s been able to create his own sound and fury in response. Not this weekend. If old age is a ‘ceremony of losses’, as the poet Donald Hall remarked, then perhaps the time to call it a career in the cage is when prizefighting becomes a ceremony of unrequited violence.

“No. Absolutely not. No way. I’ll never go out like this,” Cerrone told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto following Saturday’s bout. “There’s no way I’d end like this. I couldn’t let my legacy end like this. So yeah, better call the boss and say, ‘Hey man. I know it’s been a rough couple of years but when it’s time, let me bow out right’.”

As a fighter, you can see where Cerrone’s pride comes from. From 2008 to 2010, he fought nothing but title eliminators bouts and title fights with the WEC’s best. His fights with Jamie Varner and Benson Henderson were, and still are classics of the non-UFC genre. As a UFC prospect, he eventually fought for the title. For a minute he looked like he might even better as a welterweight, winning his first four WW bouts until getting stopped by Jorge Masvidal, and dropping a decision to Robbie Lawler in a swingy, tactical fight at UFC 214.

His return to lightweight looked like more of the same. Even once the losses began piling up, he could always blame it on quality of competition. But long gone were the days of five-round barnburners, and in their place: getting easily blitzed by Justin Gaethje, and taking more damage from shoulder strikes versus Conor McGregor than anything he gave back.

It’s easy to see why Cerrone is unwilling to ‘go out like this.’ He’s been to the top. He’s fallen short. Why would the same attitude that informed his ability to achieve most UFC wins (23), most finishes (16), and most performance of the night awards earned (16), leave him so suddenly? It’s the metaphysical dilemma of every fighter. When do you decide enough is enough? ‘Where do we go, Stallion?’

But it’s not complicated with the right dialogue. Start with the big question: ‘will you ever become a UFC champion?’ If not, no big deal. Plenty of great fighters never become champions. ‘Will you ever fight for the title?’ If Cerrone can’t beat Morono, certainly not. Again: no big deal. Plenty of good fighters stop just short. ‘Will you ever retire?’ Eventually. ‘Why not now?’ Now’s not the time. ‘So when is the right time?’

Cerrone won’t admit it. Fighters never can. But the time to go out is when you know you have nothing left to prove because what you’ve given is enough. And you know you’ve given enough when it’s no longer your opponents taking it away. That’s what the fight game does. It takes and takes. Retirement is not about defeat, but respect: respect for what the fight game takes, and when you’re willing to keep it from taking more. Submitting was good enough for the cage. Why not outside of it? Seems like a win in my book: walking away with a clear conscience, and the knowledge that the fight game didn’t take let you leave whole.