MMA/boxing crossover sensation Conor McGregor is fighting again this weekend. If you’re a passive fan of fight sports, that’s all you need to hear to tune in and watch it. But while the spotlight has long been on McGregor because of his “Notorious” self-promotional skills, equal attention must be paid to his opponent: Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. With a number of UFC records to his name—including the most wins and finishes of all time—there’s no reason to think he’ll be a pushover. Still, oddsmakers have him a three-to-one underdog.
Cerrone, who’s been fighting pro for 14 years, is 36. He has a wife and child now. And he’s struggled to stay in title contention in both the lightweight and welterweight classes the past few years. But with the same damn-the-torpedoes, devil-may-care attitude he’s always had, Cowboy might just be more dangerous than ever. Time hasn’t mellowed him, and family life hasn’t softened him. (He still wakeboards and races snowmobiles and dirt bikes days before big fights.)
On the eve of his bout with McGregor, Cowboy talked to us about why nothing Conor says can rattle him, why his heart is bigger than the Irishman’s, and why, win or lose, this ain’t his last showdown.
Onnit: Conor has to be your most famous opponent yet, and this is your most high-profile fight. How is that motivating you to train for it?
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone: [Laughs] Nooo, I AM CONOR’s most famous opponent, buddy. He’s fighting Cowboy. Lucky him. I’m preparing the same as always. Making sure I’m having a lot of fun, enjoying fight camp. I’ve got great energy around me and a great team. I’m not doing anything secret, extra, or different. Same old song and dance, baby.
You’ve always walked the line of training hard to win and doing things you enjoy to be happy. Does happiness have to take a back seat for this fight so you can perform at your best?
Hell no. I’m not laying off the extreme sports. It’s snowing up here and it’s snowmobile season, baby. But don’t let that fool you. Everybody thinks all we do is have fun at the ranch, but we train just as hard. We get it in.
Critics call you a “wild man,” but it’s McGregor who’s had a number of legal problems in the past year. Does that make you the good guy in this fight?
Oh man, I’m just as wild as him. I’m just wild in a different way. The thing that sucks is that there’s so many eyes on that guy. If he does something stupid that probably anybody else would get away with, he gets in trouble for it. It’s hard to live under a microscope all the time. I kind of feel for the guy, you know? But I’m just like him. I give my address to the ranch out all the time so people who talk shit can find me. Someday, someone’s going to show up [laughs].
But you’re a family man now. You have a wife and a kid. It would seem that he’s still out there getting in trouble in bar fights.
That’s just because I don’t go to the bars anymore. My wife won’t really let me go out. But seriously, my fun has always been extreme sports. I’d rather shoot guns, ride dirt bikes, than go out.
How can you get the American fans to support you the way the Irish fans have McGregor?
That’s what I want to know! I’m the all-American cowboy, baby. Jump on board. Let’s do this. Support your local cowboy. People have been asking me if I feel any extra pressure for this fight because I have America behind me. That is the only added pressure I feel going into this fight. I have an entire nation to support.
Conor has won in the past by making opponents lose control of their emotions so they make mistakes. What would it take for him to rattle you?
He couldn’t. He’d have to cross the line and say something about my kid, and he’s got a kid himself, so I don’t think he’d go that route. I’ve been down this road so many times [with trash talk], so it would take a lot. If he tries to bring up something I’ve done to make me look bad, and it’s true, I’ll be like, “Yeah, that’s true. I did do that.” But there’s not much shit he can talk about me because I’m pretty much a straight shooter and a good, all-American dude. There’s not much he can come at me with.
He’s questioned your heart in the past. He said that if you were willing to die in the Octagon you wouldn’t be able to fight as frequently as you do. You’ve got the most wins in UFC history, so what’s your reaction to that?
I go in there willing to die every time, man. Unfortunately, the refs stop it sometimes. I’ve got no control when a ref stops it. I’ve never once turned and given up. Im not sure what heart he’s speaking of, but hey, I’ve seen him tap several times.
What do you think is going to determine victory in this fight? Is it going to be his power, your cardio? Heart?
For sure, heart. For sure, conditioning. I’m excited. I hope he’s training hard because we’re coming. I’m going to unleash an all-American ass whipping.
You’ve always put entertaining the fans ahead of strategy. Do you think your most loyal fans would be happy to see you put on a great fight and lose, or fight more conservatively and win? At this point in your career, wouldn’t the latter be the smart choice?
No, I think the entire world would rather see me have a great fight and lose than fight conservative and win. That’s shit. I’d way rather fight my ass off and end up with a loss than go out there and touch and play and bullshit around and try to get a victory.
Win or lose, at age 36, it seems like you’re nearing the end of your career….
I’m in my prime, baby!
But will every fight now take on a little more meaning, as there are fewer ahead of you than there are behind?
No, they all mean the same thing: nothing. It’s fun. That’s all it is to me, man. There’s no other place in the world I’d rather be than in a fight. I’m going to fight until they tell me, “Cowboy, you can’t come down here on that walker. It’s dangerous. You’re clipping people with your walker walking down the aisle.”
You’ve said that letting people down was the hardest part of being in this sport. If you lose again, who would you be letting down now?
Nobody on this one. This one’s just for me. We got a solid camp, America will be behind me. It’s going to be unreal.
At this point, do you even need to fight to support your family?
No, it’s just for me. I’ve got money in the bank.
How do you feel about some critics saying that you’re just a gatekeeper now? That you’re a test for younger talent.
When you’re winning, people talk good about you. When you lose, they talk bad. But if we just step back and look at all the people I’ve fought, every one was either for a title or in line for a title. I’ve been top 5 my entire career. If I was just a gatekeeper, I’d be fighting guys way down the chain. I’m happy where I’m at in my career and I just want to fight my ass off and have fun. That’s all I can ask.
When you eventually retire, what are you going to do?[Laughs] I don’t know. Maybe I’ll come down and work at Onnit.
Your wife is a doctor and you’ve joked that she’ll have to take care of you one day. Do you ever imagine taking a step back and letting her be the bread-winner in the family?
She’s the bread-winner already. So, hell yeah, make that money. You mean I could just play all day and not have to worry about nothing? Go get it, mama.
You’ve said that you’ll never let your kids play video games. What kind of life do you want your son to live, and how are you going to prepare him for that?
He’s going to learn how to build. How to play. How to fix things. How to ride and how to jump. Everything I did and more.
What if he’s as rebellious and wild as you were as a teenager. How are you going to handle that?
Oh, he’s going to be. He’s going to be worse, for sure. He’s already smarter than me, so he’s going to be smart and wild and it’s going to be hard to question him because he’s going to have better answers than I did. I’ll be asking about what he did wrong and probably end up like, “Damn, he got me again.”
How do you picture yourself as an old man?
I’m going to be sitting on a porch talking about all the good old times with all my buddies.
You’re a man who’s had a million adventures already. What’s left on your bucket list?
I need to go to the moon. And I don’t mean on mushrooms. That’s all that’s left.
Watch UFC246: McGregor vs. Cowboy, this Saturday, January 18, on pay-per-view. Follow Cowboy on Instagram, @cowboycerrone.