Donald Cerrone and Cub Swanson both fought at UFC Fight Night 151 this weekend, with vastly different results. Whereas Cub dropped his fourth in a row against Shane Burgos, Cerrone turned back young Al Iaquinta in a fight that saved the card. Both men are in their mid 30’s, are ex-WEC standouts and have enjoyed fruitful careers in the UFC. So why the huge difference in fortunes?
Why is Donald Cerrone able to entertain title shots or super fights while Cub Swanson struggles to find a place in the roster?
You may have heard this from a fight pundit or an honest ex, but size really does matter.
At 6-foot, Cerrone dwarfed his opponents in the WEC. In fact, Nate Diaz is the only fighter who matched his height in his entire lightweight career. With the departure of Michael Chiesa to welterweight, Cerrone and Diaz are actually the tallest lightweights in the UFC! So even when his athleticism and speed waned with age, Cerrone could count on a size advantage. His signature intercepting knee and switch kicks that define his late career wouldn’t be possible without this size advantage. When he decided to fight smarter, his limbs gave him the space he needed.
Contrast that to Killer Cub, who stands 5-foot-7. Even after the UFC officially absorbed the WEC divisions, featherweights took a bit of time getting off the ground. In that “take off” period, Cub put together a couple incredible streaks to earn a place in fans’ hearts. But as the featherweight ranks swelled, Cub found himself going from average-sized to pretty small. Shane Burgos and Renato Moicano towered over him while Brian Ortega looked a weight class above him.
Aging in the fight game is already brutal, but combine it with a size disadvantage and it may be insurmountable.
Rather than god-given concussive power, Cub produces knockouts with typhoon-esque torquing of his body. Swaying low, to the side or off a kick, he’ll swing with vicious haymakers from odd angles. Combination striking and timing let him land these blows with shocking accuracy for highlight reel finishes. Who can forget him coming back against Denis Siver, weaving side to side while landing huge hooks that put the Russo-German on his back.
Spectacular? Yes. Sustainable throughout a career? No.
Naturally, heavy-handed fighters can keep their power through the twilight of their careers. But Cub’s power came from his flexibility and explosive athleticism, both of which Father Time beats with a leather belt. Watching Cub as recently as his fight against Jeremy Stephens and now, the difference is noticeable. He’s just not fast enough of limber enough to send jaws into the cheap seats, especially when the opposition is getting bigger.
Cerrone never had to worry about this; his power came from the acceleration of his long limbs. Even his head kicks are less about the raw power of a roundhouse and more about deception and hitting the “sweet spot” on the end of his shin.
Despite 17 submission victories, Cerrone is actually a middling grappler. Mirroring the Diaz brothers, his offensive wrestling leaves a lot to be desired. If Cerrone takes you down, you were probably a bad wrestler. Plus, he can’t submit dominant wrestlers off his back.
But Cerrone has enough skills around his weakness to compensate. His leg kicks and intercepting knees wind opponents, making wrestling a more draining feat than it already is. And while he can be taken down, Cerrone has only suffered one submission loss. So even on his back, he knows he can make it to the end of the round.
Cub, meanwhile, has most of Cerrone’s grappling weaknesses but none of the strengths. Even Siver, prior to being knocked out, was able to bully and keep Cub down. And with all due respect to Siver, he is no wrestler. Plus he’s very vulnerable to chokes when does get grounded. Cerrone being taken down is a wasted round, but Cub being taken down may spell the end of the fight.
And when the fighters are getting larger and Cub’s getting slower, his grappling weaknesses are amplified.
It’s difficult to watch two fighters who cut their teeth together in the underappreciated WEC have such differing fortunes. Time has eroded both of their athleticism, yet Cerrone stays buoyed partially due to genetic gifts. It’s just another testament to how unfair and unforgiving the fight game can be.