LAS VEGAS — We’ve seen this act play out before. A guy whose name is littered all over the UFC record books, who would fight anyone at anytime and accept a bout on a moment’s notice, gets the biggest shot of his life.
He’s doubted and treated as a necessary evil. There are complaints about why he got the fight.
And then he goes out and scores a stunning victory that turns him from a very good fighter into a legendary figure in the sport’s history.
In 2016, it was middleweight Michael Bisping, who took a fight for the title on short notice against Luke Rockhold and overcame the odds — and a previous defeat — to score a stunning knockout and win a championship.
It will be Donald Cerrone’s turn on Saturday when he takes on former featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor in the five-round non-title welterweight main event of UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena.
Cerrone has been one of the most exciting, and successful, fighters in UFC history and has built a cult following not only for his style but for his willingness to always throw down.
If there is a narrative beyond that he loves to fight, it’s that he can’t win the big one. The betting public doesn’t believe in his chances this time, either. McGregor opened as less than a 2-1 favorite and is now better than a 3-1 favorite at the MGM Grand Sports Book.
Cerrone is the UFC’s all-time leader in wins (23), bouts (33), finishes (16), fight-night bonuses (18) and knockdowns (20); is second with 1,535 significant strikes landed and ranks near the top in a number of other categories.
For as much as he’s won and for all the excitement he’s created, he’s lost his most significant bouts. He was 0-3 in title fights in the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting organization, which was shut down and folded into the UFC. He lost his only UFC title shot.
This is his first time headlining a pay-per-view, as well, and he’s heard the chatter.
“He’s the two-time belt-holding champ, so you can definitely say this is to date the toughest battle I’ve stepped in against,” Cerrone said. “I’m stoked, man. Everyone always says, ‘Cowboy, can you fight the big fight? Can you ever make it on the big fight?’ Well [expletives], here’s the biggest one. Let’s see.”
One need not be a cynic to figure why he got the fight instead of someone like Justin Gaethje, who knocked out Cerrone in the first round in September in his last fight. McGregor is the biggest star in the history of the sport and his bouts are now almost a certainty to exceed 1 million pay-per-view buys.
The UFC would like to put him into a title fight against the winner of the match between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson which will take place in April in Brooklyn, but McGregor hasn’t had a win since 2016.
A Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch would probably hit 3 million pay-per-view sales, but he needs to get a win to qualify for it. So by pairing him with Cerrone, who has lost two in row and whose chin suddenly doesn’t seem as sturdy as it once did, he’s a perfect opponent.
McGregor is an elite striker with fast hands and he’ll fight a guy who figures to trade with him. So the conventional wisdom is that Cerrone is perceived by the public as a threat but it’s a fight that McGregor wins.
Cerrone will cement UFC Hall of Fame spot with win
UFC president Dana White has tried his best to counter that narrative and has preached about Cerrone’s finishing ability.
“I was looking at the odds and you have to lay like 3½-to-1 on Conor, which is crazy,” White told Yahoo Sports’ Mad Bets. “First, Conor has fought twice at 170. He lost one and he won one. He’s fought twice since 2016. And he’s going in against Cowboy Cerrone who has fought a lot, and all the killers at 170 pounds. His ground game is completely underrated. He can knock you out with head kicks, elbows, knees, punches. He is a live dog at 3½-to-1.”
Cerrone is always confident, but there is a different vibe around him during the build-up to the McGregor fight. This is the situation he’s fought his entire career to reach.
He’s faced with the ultimate challenge on the biggest stage. A fight with McGregor now is like a fight with Mike Tyson or Floyd Mayweather just a few years ago in boxing. As an opponent, you not only have to deal with their physical abilities, but the aura that surrounds them. There is a huge mental aspect to fighting a star on that level.
[Related: How to watch Conor vs. Cowboy]
In 2015, Cerrone was giving McGregor a hard time at a news conference for moving up from featherweight to lightweight, and he told him it would be a new world at 155 pounds.
McGregor answered all of those tests, and Cerrone was asked about it on Wednesday.
“Oh man, he did everything he said he was going to do,” Cerrone said. “[Do I have] any feelings [about that?] Yeah, he’s [expletive] great. I’m honored to share the ring with him, so we’ll see. We’ll see. But this fight is at 170, and I’m still a [expletive] stick in the mud, so … ”
He just seems to be in a place like Bisping was in three-plus years ago against Rockhold. Bisping pulled it off and it was the final piece needed for him to earn a spot in the UFC Hall of Fame.
Cerrone’s chance comes on Saturday, and if he wins this one, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t wind up his career the same way Bisping did.
More from Yahoo Sports: