It was only after he won his most recent fight that Donald Cerrone admitted how close he’d come to retiring, and for a reason that few fighters ever discuss.
According to “Cowboy” Cerrone, he’d gotten too comfortable. As he said in post-fight quotes distributed by the UFC, “Money starts to come and people start to recognize you, and the drive slips. I always told myself that wouldn’t happen to me, but it did.”
Which, when you think about it, is kind of a serious conundrum for a pro fighter. If the goal is to win fights, make money and get famous, and if doing those things makes you complacent to the point where it harms your ability to keep doing them, you’ve got yourself a vicious cycle. Success breeds complacency, which breeds failure, which breeds a renewed hunger for success, which breeds complacency. Wash, rinse, repeat.
It’s an old problem, as far as free will goes. You can do everything in your power to go get what you want, but how do you keep wanting it once you’ve got it?
Cerrone’s statements intrigued me enough that when I saw him at UFC 168 in Las Vegas this past month, when he was looking as dapper as ever in a leather vest and his trademark cowboy hat, I had to ask him: Isn’t this a pretty serious problem? Won’t this cycle just keep repeating itself every time he gets a good win streak going?
“I hope to hell not,” Cerrone said. “I mean, it was crazy. I lost that deep love and fire for the sport. It was weird. I wouldn’t even say I lost it because I’d go out there and fight and I love to fight, but that hunger was just not there. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
Cerrone’s longtime coach, Greg Jackson, does. He’s seen it before in his many years of experience with professional fighters, so he knows how it works for those who thrive on a certain kind of do-or-die energy that can get lost when fighting for a living becomes routine.
“It’s hard when you get comfortable,” Jackson said. “Like everybody says, it’s harder to stay the champ than it is to become the champ. They’re right. Comfort, when you’re dealing with something as intense as this gladiatorial combat stuff, it’s tough. There has to be something that lights that fire for you. I think for ‘Cowboy,’ at least in his case, he needs to feel like his back is against the wall.”
As powerful a motivator as that may be, it’s also a visceral feeling that most people can’t talk themselves into at will. It can be a hard feeling to come by when things are going well, too.
It’s also probably not a state most people would want to live in long-term, which is one of the inherent problems with the whole success-breeds-complacency formula. Hunger might push you to train harder, but, at the risk of taking things too literally here, who wants to walk around hungry all the time? Where’s the line between enjoying your success and letting it ruin you?
That’s the struggle for a guy like Cerrone, who seems to thrive on that razor’s edge, whether he’s climbing mountains or riding bulls or fighting in a cage. After his decision loss to Rafael dos Anjos – his second loss in three fights – he got his drive back by telling himself that if he didn’t bring it against Evan Dunham at UFC 167, he’d quit.
Also, Cerrone said, “I went flat broke.” So that helped motivate him too.
Then he went out against Dunham and notched a second-round submission win. Perhaps more importantly, he said, he put on the type of performance he could be proud of.
“That’s the ultimate test,” Cerrone said. “If I didn’t do what I needed to do, I would have quit. Because you can tell yourself anything. Talking s–t right now, telling you, ‘Oh yeah, my next fight I’m coming out hard.’ You know, words are easy. But actually doing it? I had to tell myself, all right man, go out there and fight like you said you were going to. I flipped the switch, and now I’m back.”
At least, for now. But coming back is one thing. It’s staying there that’s the really hard part. Especially when there’s always someone younger, poorer and hungrier coming up through the ranks.