Set to square off this Saturday, we chart the years of back-and-forth between The "Notorious" Conor McGregor and the eternally game Donald Cowboy Cerrone Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Patience is a virtue. Especially so, in the case of Donald Cerrone vs Conor McGregor. Their mounting animosity has been left to simmer for over five years. Although they’ve both spent the past few years flitting between the 155 & 170-pound divisions, the two have ostensibly been ships passing in the night, travelling on completely different paths that seemed like they may never intersect. While Conor was brokering a lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather, before coming up short in the culmination of his feud with Khabib Nurmagomedov, “Cowboy” has been competing at an expeditious rate.
Conor McGregor at UFC 229 - Harry How/Getty Images
For clarity, Cerrone has stepped into the Octagon seven times between 2018-2019, with his McGregor bout serving as his 51st professional fight. Within that same sample, the Notorious two-time UFC champion has fought once and had his athletic accomplishments overshadowed by his antics outside of the cage. Peculiar as the matchmaking may seem to the uninitiated, a square-off between McGregor and the Cowboy hasn’t been hastily thrown together. In fact, it’s the culmination of years of near-misses and confrontational run-ins.
However, it wasn’t always this way. And during their initial encounters, the two fighters from blue-collar backgrounds were actually cordial to one another. When they appeared on the same card at 2015’s UFC Fight Night 59 in Boston, backstage footage revealed that the two exchanged pleasantries before the veteran told the fast-rising Irish newcomer to give Dennis Siver “hell” for good measure. But as Conor’s star rose and he morphed into the sport’s biggest crossover star, so too did the irrepressible need to make an enemy out of every unsuspecting fighter within a mile radius. At the UFC’s star-studded “Go Big” conference, Conor shifted his focus from his upcoming contest with featherweight titan Jose Aldo to take aim at then-lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos and his opponent, Donald Cerrone.
"I see stiffness when I look in that 155-pound division," McGregor remarked. "I feel like they’re stuck in the mud almost. The featherweights, they hit like flyweights. So, it’s nice down there just destroying them and killing that whole division. But I have my eye on that 155 division."
Never one to suffer perceived fools gladly, Cowboy didn’t hesitate to ridicule the prospect of McGregor moving to a heavier division: "Conor has no right coming up to ’55. There’s no way; he’s not gonna stand a chance. We’re too big for him, too strong, so you can take your little English ass and get on."
UFC 205 - Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Yet as the years rolled on, Cerrone would have to eat those words when Conor snatched the 155 strap from one of his former foes Eddie Alvarez, with undeniable finesse at UFC 205. On the other hand, an opportunity to fan the flames of he and Cerrone’s brewing beef fell into his lap in 2016 when he decried Cowboy’s performance in a losing effort to Rafael Dos Anjos. Contested for the Lightweight title, The Notorious One chalked up Cerrone’s 66-second TKO defeat in the biggest fight of his career to simple cowardice. "Cerrone pussied out on that big time," McGregor proclaimed. "He’s fighting again this week or sometime soon. Ask [Jose] Aldo if he can fight this weekend. He cannot fight. When you win by KO, by stoppage, by a true stoppage, you put your opponent out of action for 10 months to a year. He quit in there inside that Octagon. That’s why he can go now next weekend and say ‘Oh, I fight every week’ and this and that — you can fight every week if you go in and quit. If you were willing to die in there, you wouldn’t have those turnarounds."
During a February 2016 fan Q&A that preceded his bout against MMA’s other "Cowboy," Alex Olivera, Cerrone trashed McGregor’s remarks in succinct fashion, stating, "Conor called me a quitter but I didn't even get started in that fight." With McGregor heading into the stratosphere, 2016 onward saw the trail go cold as Conor became too much of a transcendent star to be within the reliable Albuquerque-based scrapper’s grasp.
As Crumlin’s most famous son began to reconcile with his own uncertain future, Donald’s resounding victory over Alexander Hernandez within two rounds encouraged McGregor to re-open the door via Twitter: "For a fight like that Donald, I’ll fight you. Congratulations." Fourth months later, Cerrone would lobby for the fight after rendering Al Laquinta unconscious, declaring, "I want the title, whatever that means. Unless, Conor McGregor you want to fight me in July. I'm ready." Now, almost one year to the day since McGregor’s call-to-arms on social media, the two will finally meet in the middle of the octagon tomorrow, Saturday, January 18.
Both record-breakers in their own right, it’s a fight that, if kept on the feet, is combustible in the best way imaginable. Similarly adept in the striking realm, the disparity comes in the ground game and it’s an area of the sport that Cerrone unquestionably has the edge in. A black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu that harbours considerable wrestling skills to boot, a recent interview with Brett Okamato would suggest that Conor’s Instagram side-swipe of “the first one to shoot’s a cowbitch” has compelled Cerrone to keep things standing: "You know, I probably should," Cowboy said of taking him down, "but I don’t think I will. I like to fight too; I like to get in there and throw down. Everyone says his stand-up is amazing, so why not go and test it?" Regardless of what game plan Cerrone implements, Conor and his team seem to be treating victory as a foregone conclusion.
Alongside McGregor claiming that he’d still beat Cerrone while afflicted "by the flu," his longstanding coach John Kavanagh told Ariel Helwani that he sees his prized fighter besting his adversary with little to no exertion. "Whether it’s something that happens in the first minute or if it goes the distance, if it goes 25 minutes, I don’t see it being a war. I see it being very one-sided."
UFC 202 - Steve Marcus/Getty Images
However, there’s no shortage of esteemed figures that believe the fight won’t be as cut and dry as Conor and his SBG comrades believe. "I see a lot of people writing Cowboy off," protested UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, "like he’s just a wash because he’s won some and lost some, but Cowboy’s a very dangerous fight for Conor. I know he’s a professional and he’s going to come prepared but I think… Conor has underestimated an opponent before [Nate Diaz] and he paid for it. And when you light a fire under Cowboy, he’s going to get going."
Amid all the speculation that surrounds UFC 246’s main event, one thing that’s certainly changed is that the two are now operating within a headspace of mutual respect. Exhibited in numerous interviews, it’s perhaps expressed through a newly-humble Conor’s chat with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani: "Me and Donald have a history. Not a long history, but we’ve had a history. It’s an exciting bout. It’s a fan-friendly bout. It’s a fight that excites me. I appreciate Donald, I have to say," McGregor revealed. "He’s fought a lot of times since the last time I saw him, at the Aldo press conference many, many years ago (in September 2016)."
A bout which could realistically go either way, we as fans should approach this action-packed contest without getting bogged down about what it means for the rankings or where either man goes afterwards. Ever the picture of contentment, this was epitomized by Cerrone’s typically blasé response to Brett Okamoto when asked what it truly represents. "This is like a fan’s dream fight and I’ve got the best seat in the house. So, I think I’m going to be super pumped. And at 170? Thank you. All the way around, a good time."
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