"My first year in the UFC was really about doing everything fast," Cerrone told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
). "Get my fights, make my money, get my title fight. Just go, go, go. It was too fast and I wasn't ready. Mentally, I wasn't prepared for that."
The 30-year-old Cerrone was forced to come to terms with that after a TKO loss to Anthony Pettis in January, he said. It made him reflect on his own "path of destruction," and it also made him get serious about the mental side of his physically taxing profession. That's when he started working with sports psychologist Brian Cain, he said, and he has no doubt that it enabled him to rebound with a unanimous decision win over K.J. Noons at UFC 160.
"One hundred percent, it helped," Cerrone said. "I know for a fact. We went [to MGM Grand Garden Arena] before the fight at 10 o'clock that morning, and we did the rehearsal walkout three times. That way, when those lights and those cameras hit me, I'd already been there. It was just a matter of going out and doing it."
And, against Noons, Cerrone did it. Now he has to do it again, this time against Brazilian lightweight Rafael dos Anjos, who's on a four-fight win streak in the UFC. The way Cerrone sees it, his challenge at UFC Fight Night 27 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Wednesday night is not so much a battle against what dos Anjos brings to the table, since he's pretty sure he's got that part covered.
"I think my ground game is better than his, my wrestling is better, I know my striking is better," Cerrone said. "It's a lose-lose-lose situation for dos Anjos."
So what's the problem? According to Cerrone, it's everything that goes on inside his mind before, during and even after the fight.
"It's like when you're watching your favorite football team play and they have a little meter running along the bottom of the screen on ESPN," Cerrone said.
That constantly updated news ticker? Those are the bad thoughts, the distracting thoughts, the thoughts you don't need. They're the things getting in the way of what you're trying to do in that very moment. They're also incredibly difficult to ignore, because no matter what else is happening, they're always right there, crawling across the bottom of the screen, pulling your focus away.
Cerrone's fears and distractions aren't necessarily what you'd expect. For most people, the prospect of suffering great bodily harm – which Cerrone's all-out style exposes him to even in victory – might be something worth losing sleep over. But as Cerrone has said, to him an injury suffered in a fight "just means another shot of whiskey" the next day.
Or what about his recent legal troubles, stemming from an alleged "boat rage" incident that led to Cerrone being charged with third-degree assault in Colorado?
"I really have no comment on it, but it's not a distraction for me at all," Cerrone said. "I'm 100 percent prepared and focused on this fight. Whatever goes to court and happens with that, I have no control over it."
Instead, his distractions and fears on fight night are back home in front of the TV, where his friends and family, even his grandmother, will be gathered to watch him fight.
"That's the hardest part, is worrying about failing or disappointing those people who are watching you," Cerrone said. "That's the biggest burden. Everyone's expecting you to win."
But with Cerrone, fans have come to expect more than victory. They expect a fight that's bloody, brutal, and ferocious, whether it lasts two minutes or the full three rounds. That, too, is a lot of pressure, but it might actually be the easiest part for Cerrone to deliver, he said, because he's not sure he's capable of fighting any other way.
"I wish I could block a little more, move my head a little more, but that's the only way I know how to do it," he said. "Don't back down, don't turn away, that's all I know how to do. ... If you had seen my early kickboxing fights, you'd go, 'Oh yeah, that is just how he fights.' Hands at my waist, giving 100 percent, just throwing punches until I couldn't throw anymore. Overwhelming guys was the one ability I had. That and taking unbelievable shots. I've been working on that, trying to calm down and bring it back down, but at the end of the day, when the s--t hits the fan, that's what I fall back on. Just fighting."
Somewhere in there, Cerrone has to find a balance. He has to find some sort of middle ground between going full throttle all the time and being paralyzed by his own anxiety. That's exactly what he's trying to do, he said, and it seems to be working. It's just that it's more of a process than an instant fix, which is sometimes a little hard for a guy who never learned how to slow down.
"Unfortunately, the mind isn't something where you can just take a pill and fix it overnight," Cerrone said. "It's something I have to work on just as much as I work on my striking or my wrestling. People keep asking me, what am I worried about with dos Anjos? This fight isn't about dos Anjos. It's about me going out there and doing everything that I do. Really, the fight is against me."