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To some, it was just a feather exchanged between Cowboys.
But it was also a symbol, of sorts, of what is a growing respect among his peers for Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who has quietly evolved from just a fan favorite into a veteran star now highly regarded by most everyone around the fight game.
When Cerrone, the New Mexico mixed-martial artist who trains at Jackson-Wink MMA, beat Brazillian welterweight Alex Oliveira, also nicknamed “Cowboy,” on Feb. 21 in Pennsylvania, he gave his defeated opponent a large feather from his cowboy hat as a thank you.
Five months later, Oliveira strolled out to the octagon for his next fight proudly displaying in his hat the feather Cerrone had given him from a peacock from his Edgewood ranch.
“It’s an honor for me,” the 28-year-old Oliveira told the Journal in Chicago on July 23 through a translator. “He made the gesture to give me that feather, you know, and I had (the hat) since I was 15.”
The 33-year-old Cerrone (30-7), who fights welterweight Rick Story (19-7) on the main card of Saturday’s UFC 202 in Las Vegas, Nev., has long been adored by fans for being a wild and crazy fighter who lives life hard and is very open about his need for high-risk adventure and love of beer drinking and good times, even while training for fights.
But almost lost behind all his brash talking and frequent social media posts showing him jumping out of planes and diving to the bottom of lakes is the fact that Cerrone seems to have moved into a new realm among those around the sport. Many now view him as a guy very much admired for his ability as a fighter and businessman who is looked up to as a respected veteran and mentor to younger fighters, including the dozens he helps train at his BMF ranch east of Albuquerque.
Respect from his peers isn’t something he seeks, but Cerrone acknowledges a certain satisfaction now that it’s here.
“Well, damn, I hope so,” Cerrone said. “I’ve been here long enough, right? … It is nice, though. A lot of places there are (people) who used to hate me, and seeing them have to respect me now, is kind of cool.”
You’d be hard pressed finding another fighter who has punched his time card as often as Cerrone under the umbrella of Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC, were Cerrone has fought 21 times, and the now shuttered WEC, home to 10 Cerrone fights.
It was in those WEC days – eight years ago to be exact – that Dave Sholler, UFC vice president for public relations and athlete marketing and development, first met Cerrone.
“He was still finding his way and was a bit of a wild man,” Sholler said. “In Cowboy terms, he was hard to rein in and took guidance and advice rather selectively. You could see the potential superstar, but you had to deal with the bucking bronco he was at that age first.”
The two often traveled around the country together trying to promote the WEC. Sholler insists, as do his coaches and teammates now at Jackson-Wink, that when it was time for business, nobody worked harder that Cerrone.
“When the red light turned on for his segment, he always delivered,” Sholler said, adding Cerrone in a lot of ways played a large role in bridging the gap for MMA between obscurity and the mainstream sport it now has become that earlier this year saw the UFC sold for more than $4 billion.
And as his hard work as a fighter kept paying off – he’s won 10 of his past 11 fights – Cerrone began gaining more confidence himself as a fighter.
“I think it’s inspired him to pay it forward to the next generation of MMA athletes,” Sholler said.
That doesn’t mean it’s been without bumps in the road, maybe most notably in his biggest fights with championship belts or title shots on the line. But Cerrone is often the first to admit those shortcomings, which also seems to have helped him become endearing to so many.
“Cowboy has earned the respect of staff, fellow fighters, trainers and, most importantly, fans,” Sholler said. “… Sure, he likes to make money. But I’ve seen the guy pay it forward more than just about any other human being I’ve ever met. When he signs on the dotted line, he makes a promise that he’s going to give you everything he’s got. When a fan or sponsor decides to commit to Cowboy, he commits right back.”
As for Cerrone, who readily admits he covets a lightweight title shot with Eddie Alvarez next, his status in the UFC world isn’t anything special. He got there by doing what has always come naturally to him.
“It’s the only way I know how,” Cerrone said. “I’ve only got one speed.”
Saturday, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nev.; main card 8 p.m. (pay-per-view); prelims 6 p.m. (FS1); early prelims 4:30 p.m. (UFC Fight Pass)
NOTE: Albuquerque’s Donald Cerrone and Tim Means each fight on the main card