“Cowboy” Cerrone stepped up like a boss to take on Benson Henderson on less than two weeks notice in the co-main event at UFC Fight Night in Boston. Eddie Alvarez suffered an injury leaving Henderson without an opponent, that opened the door for Cerrone, who wanted to fight five times last year but only managed to get in four. This year he will have two in before we are out of the month of January.
Credit needs to go to both fighters for taking this fight on less than two weeks notice. Cerrone is getting a lot of attention for it since it will be his second fight in 15 days but Henderson should also be commended. Sure, he was already scheduled to fight but Cerrone is a very different opponent than Alvarez and a tougher one based on Cerrone’s UD win over him.
It says a lot about Henderson and his fighting spirit that he was willing to take on Cerrone for a fight that means something. Both Henderson and Cerrone are seeking title shots with Cerrone being closer right now. The winner of this fight will find themselves very close to one. While the loser will have a long road to get back to the title.
This is a sick fight and is the third one between them. The first one was a classic five round war to determine the WEC interim title holder. That fight was back and forth with Henderson’s wrestling being the difference that fight. The second one was Henderson’s first title defense after beating former champ Jamie Varner and was over before it really got started. Fans were expecting another battle. Instead ,Cerrone got caught in an early guillotine and Henderson got the quick first round submission win.
Those fights took place between October of 2009 and April of 2010. Since then they both have evolved as fighters and became well-rounded ones. It looks like Henderson may have peaked though while Cerrone is still improving. That could be because Henderson was a little better earlier in their careers and had less room to grow. What really matters is who is the better fighter going into this fight?
They both are 9-2 in their last 11 fights. Each of them lost once to Anthony Pettis and Rafael Dos Anjos with Henderson being finished both times. While Cerrone was stopped by Pettis but went the distance with Dos Anjos. I want to look at those fights and the first two to see how this one might go down.
Jack of all trades but master of none
Henderson is the classic version of this type of fighter. When you think of him to be honest the first thing that often comes to mind is decision. He fought 11 times in the UFC with eight of them going the distance. This is a byproduct of his style of fighting which has no real dominant base. There is his wrestling but while it is strong it is not dominant. He has strong jiu-jitsu and solid striking but nothing that scares you. In his most recent finish win, a submission of Rustam Khabilov, he was taken down six times by Khabilov. Before that fight he had not finished an opponent since Cerrone in April of 2010.
Instead of looking to dominate his opponent and put them away he is looking to control the fight with his grappling. Now, some of this has been due to him fighting some of the best in the world. Early in his career he finished fighters who made mistakes against him. The area where he struggles is in creating his own openings against top fighters who do not make mistakes. Instead he is adept at doing just enough to win these fights. His title defenses against Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez are some of the best examples.
Then he ran into Pettis again. By the time they met for the rematch Pettis had perfected his rear-leg kick and used it to setup the submission win over Henderson. He rebounded with a classic win over Josh Thompson and then got the finish of Khabilov. This fight seemed to signal a new Henderson, first he stunned Khabilov in the standup and then finished him with a choke.
The lead uppercut was perfectly timed but it is the followup that is beautiful. Henderson pounces on the stunned Khabilov with a lefthand that sent him into the cage and down to his knees. Flowing from the strikes into the submission Henderson went right for the choke and got the tap.
In this fight we saw the most aggressive Henderson that we had seen inside of the octagon. He dictated the action more than usual and it led to his first finish in the UFC. The win gave him momentum going into his fight with Dos Anjos.
As Henderson made his entrance for the Dos Anjos fight, Jon Anik and Brian Stann discussed the Khabilov one. Stann referenced John Crouch working on Henderson being more aggressive during his career but the problem was his natural ability as a counter striking. It was a style that had led him to the UFC title but also lead to three split-decision wins during his time in the UFC. A more aggressive Henderson seemed poised to regain his title. Then he got caught.
It was just more than that one strike that lost him this fight. It would be easy to just dismiss it as he got caught but there were a couple of things that indicate a little more than that. Dos Anjos was able to back Henderson up and he was quicker to the punch. It is hard to say how the fight would have evolved but it was not just one well-timed shot that won this fight for Dos Anjos. He was winning the early part of the first round. Henderson is known for his toughness but he lost this one.
To me this fight says more about Dos Anjos’ rise than Henderson’s demise. It would have been nice to see it play out deeper but Dos Anjos showed great timing and ability to take advantage of the opportunity. He caught Henderson with a perfectly timed shot as he was rising and vulnerable. The result of that loss is a very hungry and dangerous Henderson who will be looking to avoid a two fight losing streak.
Save a horse, ride a Cowboy
The UFC is riding the momentum of Cowboy to start 2015. The year will barely be a little over two weeks old and he will have his second fight already. It will be his sixth fight in 12 months but you have to look beyond just the number of fights. In his previous five fights he has gone a total of 10 rounds with six of them coming in the last two when they went the distance. During that stretch he finished Jim Miller in the second round and Edson Barboza and Adriano Martins both in the first.
While Henderson only fought three times during that time period he racked up the same number of rounds. In 2012, Henderson’s most active year in the UFC, he fought three times with all of them going the distance. He logged 15 rounds that year. You would have to go back to Cerrone’s last seven fights to total fifteen rounds for him. While Cerrone fights frequently he does not spend that much time in the octagon.
It is only because he took essentially no damage in the Myles Jury fight that he is able to make this quick turn around. I would guess he has harder sparring sessions than his fight with Jury. It is more than just taking no damage though it is his attitude that separates him from other fighters. There are very few fighters who are in line for a title shot that would take a fight against a guy who has beaten you twice already and is ranked #5. Cerrone is one of those few. I also think the short nature of this fight gives him an advantage going into it.
The Cowboy way
One of the traits I associate with a Cowboy is not making a big deal about doing the hard work that needs to be done. While he does not make a deal about it, you can tell that Cerrone has worked hard on his wrestling since the first fight between these two. In his first six fights, including their first one, Cerrone was taken down 21 times while scoring 4 of his own.
Since their first fight, Cerrone has been taken down 7 times while scoring 21 of his own in 20 fights. The most telling one was his rematch with Jamie Varner. In the first fight Varner took him down 9 times to take a five round split-decision. In their next fight Cerrone scored 3 takedowns and shut Varner out. You do not hear him make a lot of noise about it but he has obviously worked hard on his wrestling. That does not bode too well for Henderson.
In the first fight it was definitely the takedowns that made the difference in a close battle. If Henderson cannot get the fight to the ground he will have a hard time winning a striking battle with Cerrone. While Henderson has improved in the standup he is not at Cerrone’s level and has not shown the consistent power to hurt or scare him.
How it all plays out
The more I look at this fight the harder it is for mind to find ways for Henderson to win the fight. I feel that Cerrone’s wrestling has improved enough to negate Henderson’s advantage in that area. In the second fight Cerrone got a little too confident in his jiu-jitsu and made one mistake. That will not happen again against Henderson.
When I look at the Dos Anjos’ fights with them the one that stood out was his hand speed advantage against both of them. It seemed like the difference was closer with Cerrone than Henderson. It is part of the reason that Henderson needs to get this fight to the ground if he is going to fight a typical Henderson style of fight.
Against Khabilov he was more aggressive and took the fight to Khabilov but in his very next fight, the one with Dos Anjos, he struggled with that. Instead, Dos Anjos took the fight to him. If he allows the naturally aggressive Cerrone to dictate the fight he will be in trouble. It is his natural tendency to counterstrike. In the past Cerrone has been a little too aggressive but now walks that fine line of being aggressive without over-committing himself.
Now, Dos Anjos also had success against Cerrone and even dropped him in the first round. Dos Anjos set him up with a the faked left uppercut and then brought the right hand in on the distracted Cerrone. It almost seemed to surprise Dos Anjos as much as Cerrone.
In typical Cerrone fashion he recovered quickly and battled the rest of the fight. Dos Anjos took advantage of the slow starting Cerrone who usually finds his rhythm and range as the fight progresses. With Henderson’s natural tendency to counterstrike he usually does not start too fast himself.
I think that to win this fight Henderson will have to go outside of his comfort zone and take the fight to Cerrone. One area he could exploit with the tools that he possesses is with his kicks. In the Pettis fight and the Dos Anjos ones Cerrone has shown a vulnerability to rear leg kicks to the body against the southpaw stance. Pettis used them to stop the fight while Dos Anjos hurt him with them during the fight.
Henderson, like Pettis also has a taekwondo background and has shown solid kicks. He mostly has used them to attack the legs of his opponents. There are instances where he has gone to the head and body of his opponents but not with any regularity. In this case I think that he would do well to go to the head first and then body of Cerrone.
If he attacks the body first Cerrone will look to protect that area. This is actually a standard plan of attack for a high level striker. Work the legs and body to get the arms to come down and then go to the head. The problem with that plan of attack against Cerrone is hitting him the head is not the best idea. Even if he gets dropped or rocked Cerrone is capable of getting up and winning the fight. Whereas an attack to the head first would open up the body for Henderson. Especially against Cerrone who likes to pick off his opponents strikes with his hands and arms.
I think it is going to difficult for Henderson to fight his natural instincts. It is one of the elements of a fight, getting hit a couple of times will often have you reverting to your instincts. It also hurts Henderson more taking the fight on short notice than Cerrone.
Of the two fighters Henderson is a much more game plan oriented one. Cerrone says he does not game plan at all. Two weeks are enough time to game plan for a fighter you have already fought twice but it is not enough time to have it seep in deep. It is made more difficult given that Henderson just spent six weeks preparing for a very different fighter than Cerrone. Again, it speaks to the heart of these men that they were both willing to take this important of a fight on such short notice.
I like Cerrone to use his pressure to out strike Henderson in the standup. While using his wrestling to keep it off of the ground. If Henderson does get the fight to the ground look for Cerrone to get back up quickly instead of spending too much time going for submissions. The three round element of the fight also works to Cerrone’s advantage as he used to that kind of format. Also, do not be surprised if this fight is an early contender for FOTY.
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