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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

UFC's Donald Cerrone rides herd on a brand new Cowboy

UFC lightweight Donald Cerrone appears at Gleason's Gym

UFC lightweight Donald Cerrone appears at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn on Jan. 16, 2019, ahead of his fight at UFC on ESPN+ 1 in Brooklyn on Jan. 19. Credit: Newsday / Ryan Gerbosi

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone stood in front of the cameras after his UFC fight on Saturday like he has done dozens of times before.

Unlike those times, however, he didn’t complete his thought the same way.

“I’ll fight an . . . ,” Cerrone said before catching himself.

No he won’t fight anyone, anytime, anywhere. Not this Cowboy. The old Cowboy, heck yeah, he’d fight tomorrow if there was a fight to be had and a commission to sanction it so quickly after Saturday night’s win at UFC Brooklyn at Barclays Center.

The new Cowboy, he’s a different man. He’s focused on the one thing that has eluded him after 47 professional MMA fights, the last 40 of which have been under the Zuffa banner with UFC and WEC: a championship.

No more of those “I know a guy” tweets from Cerrone when someone in his lightweight division pulls out of a fight on short notice. No more self-sabotage from not wanting to sit around idle. No more blindly saying yes when he gets a call about a fight, regardless of the opponent. Heck, Cerrone very often didn’t even know, care or pay attention to the name being offered, just the date and the city to be. It was this attitude that in part helped endear Cerrone to fans.

“Being the newfound goal that I want to get this belt, I can’t be that guy anymore,” Cerrone said. “I can’t. I want to go after a top five [fighter]. So if next week, they say ‘Hey man, somebody got hurt, Cowboy, you want to fill in?’ I’m going to have to go, ‘What’s his ranking? Top 5? No? I can’t. That’s going to be the issue, man.”

A focused Cerrone is a dangerous Cerrone, as Alexander Hernandez found out Saturday. Maybe Cerrone, 35, wasn’t the old man Hernandez tried to portray him as just yet. Cerrone dominated Hernandez, ending the bout via TKO in the second round.

For years, and even Cerrone admits this, people never knew which Cowboy would show up on fight night. Would it be the dominating fighter who regularly can land combinations almost better than anyone in the UFC? Or would the “bad Cowboy” show up, be out of the fight mentally before he even walked to the octagon?

Cerrone knew Saturday morning when he woke up “in the flow state” which Cowboy was a-comin’ to Barclays Center. He can’t explain exactly what that means, but it appears to be a good thing.

“First fight I’ve ever had where I made a whole night’s sleep all the way though,” Cerrone said. “Usually I’m lying in bed tossing and turning thinking of everything that could possibly go wrong. Last night, went to bed, woke up feeling good, picked my boy up, we went on a bunch of subway rides. It was crazy. We just rode the subway around.”

Ah, yes, there are the two keywords. The two words that have triggered something in Cerrone even he didn’t expect would happen: “My boy.”

That would be Dacson Danger Cerrone. (Yes, his son’s middle name is Danger, yet another reason fans love this guy.)

Fatherhood, as it does for so many men, changed Cerrone. Seeing his infant son cageside, wearing his denim jeans, cowboy shirt, belt buckle and headphones, inspires Cerrone like nothing else in his life. Not even any or all of his daredevil activities (the latest of which is cave diving and it has nearly killed him).  "It’s like a primal feeling, man,” Cerrone said. “It’s nothing I’ve ever felt. It’s so cool.”

Cerrone said he wants to fight someone ranked in the top five or maybe the top eight. He has mentioned Conor McGregor in the past, and again after Saturday’s fight. McGregor responded on Twitter that he would fight Cerrone. McGregor has the star power and proven deliverables — ticket sales, pay-per-view buys, fight skills — to pick and choose his opponents. But he also must await a hearing and the subsequent ruling from the Nevada State Athletic Commission in relation to the post-fight melee between him and Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 last October.

“I want a top-five guy. Conor’s two, right, so that equals top 5 to me,” Cerrone said.

This new Cerrone may be difficult for some to grasp. But don’t worry, the old Cowboy still lurks somewhere.

“As soon as possible,” he said when asked when he’d want to fight McGregor. “I’d love March, April. May. Sun’s out, I’ll bring my boat and RV to Vegas. I’m sure it’ll be in Vegas. Or Ireland. Let’s go.”

He also said he doesn't even know the names of the fighters ranked in the top eight. Classic Cowboy.

Cerrone has the most wins in UFC history with 22. He said he wants to get to 50 fights for Zuffa and maybe beyond that as well. Only now has he decided to stop taking any fight that comes up and start focusing on the championship quest. When he left the lightweight division three years ago after losing to Rafael Dos Anjos in his one title fight in the UFC, he was ranked No. 2. Cerrone now wants to fight a high-ranked opponent, win the fight and next challenge for the title. That may seem like a short path to the champion Nurmagomedov, especially in the UFC’s deepest division, but it’s possible.

“I can see the end of this tunnel. At the rate I fight, 3 or 4 more years, realistically,” Cerrone said.

“Once I get this belt and I start fighting for the belt, I’ll fight anybody then. I’ll open the gates back up. Let’s go, C’mon, let’s fight every weekend boys.”

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