Donald Cerrone has fallen into the role of the welterweight gatekeeper. Some would take offense to that term, but it is a proud tradition within combat sports and Cerrone is the best kind of gatekeeper. Cerrone is a fighter who is so good all around and so dangerous that even the best fighters in the world must fight clever or they stand to find themselves waking up from a short nap on the UFC’s blood-stained mat. Like Jeremy Stephens, Cerrone is the kind of fighter with very obvious shortcomings but even the absolute best fighters in the world are forced to fight to those weaknesses rather than simply butting heads with him.
Despite cutting out a niche for himself as a spectacular knockout artist on the feet, Donald Cerrone’s porous defence and flappy boxing have always caused him problems in striking exchanges. The level of striking continues to improve in the UFC and as Cerrone slows down and young fighters benefit from all the existing footage of him struggling, "Cowboy" has fallen back on his wrestling. Cerrone was one of the tallest fighters at lightweight and while this gave him every advantage in striking reach and range, height is something of a hindrance to speed on the level change. Now that he is fighting welterweights Cerrone finds himself more evenly matched in height and has made good use of the level change—particularly after drawing a striking exchange from his opponent. Against Leon Edwards, Cerrone was constantly looking to get in on his hips and capitalize with a takedown attempt.
Leon Edwards’s wrestling is also surprisingly good for just another British striker, though. Edwards caught most fans’ attention when he outright starched Seth Baczynski in just eight seconds, but Edwards has gone on to round himself out in the clinch and on the mat. From the first clinch of the Cerrone bout until the last, Edwards had an answer, was always in the right position, and was consistently able to capitalize with hard strikes on breaks.
Most of it started from good hips and head position. When a fighter can place his head beneath his opponent’s and use it to post, he can create space to strike, disrupt his opponents posture, and from even the worst grips he can prevent the opponent from getting their chest flush to his own. In the first clinch of the fight, Edwards turned Cerrone onto the fence and with the head pin and single underhook he began to work knees and those Paul Felder-esque upward elbows. Within moments the thin skin around Cerrone’s eye had been split open.
That underhook and head pin is one of MMA’s key offensive positions along the fence and American Kickboxing Academy fighters are famous for their use of it, but Edwards’s head position also helped him out in the open and during Cerrone’s takedown attempts. As Cerrone ducked in or pressed to clinch, Edwards could use the quarter nelson or a whizzer, before getting his head inside in order to set himself up to strike. In the example below, Edwards has a whizzer locked in over Cerrone’s left arm, levering against Cerrone’s thigh. His head allows him to create separation and assume a better position for striking, while his left hand is controlling a biceps tie. As Cerrone looks to change position and take a collar tie, Edwards shrugs him off and chins him with the left elbow.
That left elbow was the difference in this fight. Edwards fought well generally, but the fact that every single clinch exchange ended with Cerrone eating an elbow on the break really took its toll. Cerrone’s face was cut by an early knee, but Edwards’s elbow found that spot numerous times, and turned Cerrone’s jaw around just as often. Here are just a few examples of Edwards finding the elbow as Cerrone stepped in, as Cerrone was stepping out, and on breaks from the clinch initiated by either man.
It seemed as though Edwards had it down to muscle memory because even late in the fight when he conceded a takedown, the moment that Edwards got up he was looking to land the elbow on the break.
There was plenty to talk about in the clinch, including a lovely sasae-tsurikomi-ashi into front headlock, but it is worth considering the striking as that was supposed to be Cerrone’s area to begin with. In the last two years we have seen three young strikers take Cerrone apart in completely different ways.
Jorge Masvidal conservatively walked forward, wedging down the inside of Cerrone’s loopy punches with stiff jabs and catching kicks to return with counters.
Darren Till was far more aggressive, forcing Cerrone back to the fence from the get-go and slamming in his trademark left straight, never giving Cerrone space or comfort to kick and punishing the consistent flaws in his boxing.
Meanwhile Leon Edwards fought far more passively, inviting Donald Cerrone to come to him. Cerrone is at his best against static or directly retreating opponents because he likes to charge in on straight lines pumping his hands and running into his kicks. Jeremy Stephens is perhaps the best example of a fighter who simply kept retreating and allowing Cerrone to jog into his kicks. Edwards, however, broke the line of attack and left Cerrone jogging past him.
Being a southpaw, Edwards was looking to land counters through that open side when Cerrone charged, but rather than a neat straight left from the angle as Stephen Thompson and Conor McGregor use, he tried to check Cerrone’s chin with a southpaw left hook.
Edwards generally waited for Cerrone to begin an attack, then when he stopped or dropped the idea, Edwards would return with a body kick or a couple of straight punches as Cerrone was contracting back to his guard.
That step up left low kick which Cerrone uses when he’s struggling for ideas got him in trouble just the same way that it had against Darren Till, too.
Cerrone had his own moments in the bout though. He scored a takedown in round four, and noticeably rattled Edwards with a bit of foul play out of the clinch the round before that. As Edwards hammered Cerrone with the elbow on every break, Cerrone tried to catch him with a high kick on the exit, but held an illegal grip inside of Edwards’s right glove across the body.
While the scorecards read 48-47 across the board, the fight didn’t seem close. Cerrone wasn’t ever in danger of being put away but Edwards seemed to have an answer for everything Cerrone showed. A right straight to the body began landing for Cerrone as he gritted his teeth and ran into flurries in the later rounds, but it didn’t seem to be changing much. Cerrone doesn’t seem done yet as he can still smoke fighters like Yancy Medeiros and go even with Robbie Lawler, but Edwards is a young fighter entering his prime who seems to have committed the well-documented Cerrone playbook to memory. Cerrone’s stock won’t suffer much from the loss, he’s as entertaining as anyone in the game and will always have a following amongst the MMA masses. Let us hope that in spite of being on a quiet, largely forgotten card, aired at a weird time during the World Cup, Edwards gets the rub he deserves from that performance because it was close to perfect.