The past few weeks have seen the world thrust into a whirlwind of COVID-induced chaos. But whilst other sporting organizations have postponed their seasons indefinitely, the UFC seems determined to push through the pain. And with UFC 249 now “confirmed” for May 9th, the promotion promises to end the live sports lacuna with one of the most pyrotechnic fight cards of the year.
Tucked neatly away in this list of potential wars is an inconspicuous bout between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis. This fight has flown somewhat under the radar. And with both fighters in the closing stages of their career, and both coming off consecutive losses, it’s easy to see why. But with each fighter looking to add to their long list of achievements, not to mention the combined 45 finishes between them, this fight is sure to be as violent as it is competitive.
Paths to Victory – Donald Cerrone
Having lost his last 3 fights, it’s easy to underrate Cerrone’s talents heading into this bout. But we mustn’t read too much into the veteran’s record. Throughout his career, Cerrone has only really lost to the most talented fighters. And his recent losses came at the hands of fighters such as Till, Edwards, Ferguson, Gaethje, and McGregor. Given just how talented this pool of fighters is, its important we don’t write Cowboy off from the start. But this is not to say that Cerrone is about to walk through Pettis. And in all likelihood, Cowboy is in for a highly competitive fight.
If Cerrone is to break his losing streak, however, it will most likely be done on the feet. Although Cowboy’s grappling is wildly underrated, I would be surprised to see him wrestle Pettis to the floor. Especially knowing how dangerous the former champion’s guard can be. Rather, it seems we’re in for an intriguing stand-up battle between a master of Muay Thai, and a master of Taekwondo.
For Cerrone, the danger comes from Pettis’ power and creativity. Showtime throws an array of wild punches and explosive kicks that can put anyone to sleep. In fact, these explosive strikes are what finished Cowboy the first time these two met. There are, however, two strategies Cowboy can use to slow Pettis down and help nullify his explosive style.
The first, and probably the most likely, is for Cerrone to target Pettis’ legs from the off. Coming from a Taekwondo background, Pettis stands wider, and tends to put a little more weight on his front leg than most conventional strikers. The problem with this is that it makes it easier for his opponents to land kicks on this front leg. And, being a Muay Thai fighter, Cerrone could look to land some big leg kicks in this fight. This strategy has two main benefits.
Firstly, and most importantly, this would help drain Pettis’ power. More often than not, explosive strikers get their power from their legs and hips. And the more Cerrone can damage Pettis’ legs, the slower and less dangerous his strikes will become. Secondly, the more Cerrone hurts Pettis’ legs, the easier it will set up his patented head kicks. As Pettis’ legs start to feel the pain, he’ll naturally start anticipating and trying to avoid the leg kicks. This, however, acts as a distraction, forcing Pettis’ attention away from protecting his head and body. This is a tried and tested way to set up the head kick. And if Cerrone can get Pettis biting on his leg kicks, the head is never far away.
Demonstrated beautifully by Pettis’ last two opponents, the second tactic revolves primarily around distance control. Both Diaz and Ferreira managed to nullify Pettis’ creative and explosive style by pressuring and clinching the former champion against the cage. At this distance, Pettis’ best weapons become essentially useless. He’s not only afforded much less creative freedom, but forced to spend a lot of energy defending knees, and pummelling for a position. Particularly against Diaz, Pettis’ strikes appeared ever more labored and predictable as Nate drained his energy against the cage.
Cerrone has some of the best techniques in the game and has put together some of the slickest combinations. But given how he has struggled against explosive strikers, he would do well to use both of these tactics to slow Pettis’ attacks. This is especially important considering Cerrone’s reputation as a slow starter. It has always taken Cowboy a round or so to find his timing, and start putting together the combinations that make him so dangerous. But against both Diaz and Ferguson, Pettis landed sharp, powerful strikes that posed a real danger to both fighters in the earlier rounds.
Thus, if Cerrone is to survive the early rounds, find his rhythm, and come to dominate Pettis in the striking. It is imperative he finds ways to nullify and drain the former champion’s power. Obviously, Cowboy is known more for his ‘gangsta’ attitude than his strategic game plans. I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes into this fight looking to piece Pettis up in the center of the Octagon. But if he’s looking to win more than entertain, clinching Pettis early on and working the leg kicks could be a valuable tactic.
Paths to Victory – Anthony Pettis
Much like Cerrone, it is easy to underestimate Pettis’ skillset looking at his last few fights. Other than his latest loss to Ferreira, Pettis’ recent defeats have come at the hands of well-established fighters. And with his spectacular knockout of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson only a year ago, Pettis has shown just how dangerous he still is.
Of Pettis’ 22 professional wins, only 4 were decisions. And if the former champion is to overcome Cerrone, it’s likely to be via knockout. Pettis could always catch a submission if Cerrone decides to shoot. But his simplest path to victory is to take the fight to Cerrone early, hunting for the finish with his creative and explosive striking style. Cowboy has always been a dangerous striker, but it takes him around or so before he really starts to find his rhythm. And in his last two fights, Cerrone fell prey to hard-hitting, fast starters Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor. Bearing this in mind, it’s important that Pettis goes after Cowboy from the start.
In fact, this strategy worked well for Pettis when the pair first met. Back in 2013, Pettis finished Cerrone in the first round with a heavy body kick. And in this fight, Pettis would be smart to target Cerrone’s body yet again. Cowboy has always struggled against body shots, thanks to a motocross accident that saw him lose some intestines. And if Pettis can start landing kicks to the body, he will not only test the grizzled veteran’s endurance but start setting up his more creative head kicks as Cerrone’s attention begins to focus on the painful body strikes.
But besides starting fast and targeting Cerrone’s body, Pettis needs to control the distance a little more than Cerrone. Generally speaking, Showtime is happy to move backward. He feels comfortable fighting with his back to the cage, and he does a good job countering his opponents as they move into the space he leaves. But in a few of his more recent fights, his opponents have been able to corner him against the cage, and smother the best of his attacks in the clinch.
At such close range, Pettis has much less space in which to work his creativity. In fact, it becomes nearly impossible for him to make use of the powerful strikes that are his best weapons. It also, as it happens, sees him spend a lot of energy defending. And this only drains the explosiveness that makes him so dangerous. Half of the struggle in MMA is in determining where the fight takes place. And Pettis will need to employ a lot of lateral movement to avoid getting trapped against the cage. But against Cerrone, he could also find good success simply standing his ground and inviting Cowboy into the pocket. Neither of these fighters is afraid of a brawl, and given his power advantage, Pettis might fancy his chances in a scrappier exchange.
This fight stands out from a great card as one of the most competitive and difficult bouts to predict. However, Both fighters are coming off losses, both are strikers in the later stages of the career, both are known for finishing their opponents, and both are as game as any on the roster.
At a push, I’d give Cerrone a slight edge going into this fight. Pettis is explosive, but he’s not known to come flying out the gate in the way that gives Cowboy trouble. And if Cowboy can make it out of the first round and find his rhythm, he stands a good chancing of dominating Pettis as the rounds go on. Saying this, I worry about Cowboy’s durability. Facing Tony Ferguson, Conor McGregor, and Justin Gaethje all in a space of 8 months is plainly ridiculous – especially given how these fights went. It remains to be seen whether this wear and tear will impact Cerrone’s performance. But if we know anything about these two men, its that they love to fight.
Nothing is guaranteed in MMA, but if this fight promises anything, its violence.
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