The incredible true story of Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone’s body

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EDGEWOOD, N.M. — Donald Cerrone leans back in his recliner, rubs his beard and ponders a question. “The most painful thing I’ve ever felt?” he repeats. “Hmm …”

Cerrone is nestled in a corner of the gym on his BMF ranch, a 40-acre training complex just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cerrone — also known as “Cowboy” — methodically works his way through the list of possible answers. That time he tore his groin bull riding? “No, not that one,” he says.

Or when he lost half of his intestines in an ATV accident? “Nah … that was scary, though,” he says.

When he almost severed his right ring finger in a wakeboarding incident? “Nope, but you can see how mangled my finger is,” he says, holding up a digit and wiggling it so that it looks as if it’s making a left turn to avoid the rest of his hand.

The UFC’s most durable fighter — Cerrone, 36, will break the UFC career record for most fights with his 34th bout when he steps into the cage against Conor McGregor at UFC 246 on Saturday in Las Vegas — spends a full two minutes trying to reply to a question that most of us could answer without hesitating. MMA fighters tend to geek out about human body stories the way golfers talk club selection or offensive coordinators scribble plays on napkins. And few fighters have lived the kind of life that Cerrone has, in and out of the cage, so it makes sense that he needs some time to retrieve the perfect answer from his large injury database.

Suddenly, his eyes light up and he sits forward in his chair. “Ooh, I got it …”

Before he can finish, Cerrone pauses and braces for Danger. Cerrone’s hands drift from his beard to his groin, a move even non-cage-fighting dads recognize as survival mode when a toddler is in the vicinity. Cerrone’s 18-month-old son, Dacson — who goes by his middle name, Danger — is closing in fast, dragging a big silver chain that clanks across the floor and announces his presence throughout the gym. He has pulled it off one of the all-terrain vehicles parked nearby and now he’s hurtling toward his dad — and the kind of shot that would get a point deduction in the UFC.

“Oof,” Cerrone mutters quietly as Danger lands in his lap with a thud. Cerrone scoops up his son, chain and all, and … what was he saying again? “Oh, the worst pain — it’s teeth, man,” he says. “It’s gonna surprise you to hear this, but one time I broke off a piece of my molar, and it was agonizing.”

A few years ago, Cerrone explains, while he was traveling to Las Vegas to meet with UFC president Dana White about an upcoming fight — he can’t remember which one — he bit into something that cracked off a back tooth. He thought about pulling the tooth himself, but he has never lost a tooth … and even cage-fighting cowboys want to look good, it turns out. By the time he got to White’s office, however, Cerrone couldn’t take the pain anymore. “I need to get this fixed,” he told White. “Right now.”

White chuckled and booked an emergency dentist who saw Cerrone immediately. He got his tooth fixed and was back at his ranch the next day. It’s still the only dental injury he has suffered. “I hadn’t thought about that one in a while,” he says. “I wouldn’t wish that pain on anybody.”

It’s a surprising answer, considering everything he’s put his body through. His toughness and resilience are the stuff of UFC legend. So on the eve of his biggest moment in MMA, we asked Cerrone to break down his own body — and explain why he thinks it offers him a critical advantage against McGregor. “When I walk into the cage, I know the guy across from me hasn’t gone through what I have,” Cerrone says. “My body has been forged by fire.”

His nose

Let’s start with his most infamous body part. During his fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 238 last June, Cerrone’s nose was broken for what he says was at least the 20th time. The fight continued, but between rounds, Cerrone committed the cardinal sin of blowing his clogged nostrils, which caused his right eye to almost instantly swell shut. In an odd contradiction, the snot and blood that well up after a broken nose actually slow blood flow in a way that causes a massive rush to the area around the nose once they are cleared out. Ferguson won by second-round TKO via a doctor’s stoppage. “I know better,” Cerrone says. “In the moment, I just [blew it]. I shouldn’t have. I don’t know what else to say.”

His lips

Cerrone isn’t a fake cowboy. He’s been riding horses most of his life. But around Christmastime in 2011, less than a week before his fight against Nate Diaz, Cowboy saddled up on a particularly jumpy steed. After he dismounted, the horse bucked and head-butted him right in the mouth, splitting both of his lips wide open. Over the next week, Cerrone limited his sparring and avoided any further damage. His cuts healed up … just in time for Diaz’s first punch to bust them open again in the first round of their Dec. 30 fight. Cerrone says the original blow from the horse, compounded by Diaz’s shot, resulted in the worst cut he’s ever had. Diaz won a memorable back-and-forth stand-up brawl in which Cerrone was swallowing blood almost from the time the two touched gloves. “You get used to the taste of your own blood,” Cerrone says.

His ears

Cerrone didn’t wrestle much growing up, but he has two cauliflower ears, gnarled billboards that reflect the 15 years or so he’s spent working on his grappling. Cauliflower ear is a deformity caused by trauma to the cartilage of the ear, which causes blood to pool in the lobe. “It hurts like a son of a bitch,” Cerrone says. “It’s not as bad as a tooth problem, but it’s close. Every time I’ve hurt my ears, it wasn’t from a punch or kick or anything like that. It happens when you’re grappling and something rubs really hard against your ear and you feel something pop.”

His abdominals

In 2006, Cerrone invited some buddies to go ATV riding at an expert-level track. Even longtime friend and training partner Mike Baldwin, regarded in Cerrone’s camp as a fearless wild man himself, decided the adventure sounded a little too risky. He was right: Baldwin got a call a few hours later telling him that Cerrone had wrecked his ATV and had been briefly pronounced dead at the hospital. But doctors revived him, and he woke up a few days later to find that he’d broken all 24 ribs and that surgeons had removed 12 feet of his intestines. (The average person has about 25 feet of intestines.)

Cerrone says he remembers the moments immediately after the accident — “I was holding my innards” — and then waking up and seeing part of his guts outside of his body, being cleaned. “There was all kinds of s— going in and out of him,” Baldwin says. “I tried not to look too close.”

Cerrone made a miraculous recovery, with only a small indent on his left side and an 8-inch scar running the length of his abdomen to show for it. The one time his midsection was an issue since then was before his 2012 fight against Jeremy Stephens. Cerrone went to a local buffet and chowed down, only to feel intense stomach pain later that night. It got so acute that he went to the emergency room, where doctors discovered his intestines had “kinked up like a garden hose,” he says. Cerrone was given two options: have his stomach pumped full of water to, hopefully, unkink the hose — or surgery. With less than a week before the fight, Cerrone told them to bring on the H2O. “They filled me up with all this warm water, and five minutes later I was fine,” he says. Later that week, he beat Stephens by unanimous decision.

His hands

Cerrone is one of the most prolific strikers in UFC history, and it shows on his hands. They’re not quite as misshapen as you’d expect — other than that ring finger that he almost lost on a wakeboard — for mitts that have been broken half a dozen times each by Cerrone’s count. Wild fact about all those fractures: Cerrone says that he has never broken a hand while fighting, in an actual bout or when just sparring, and that he has no lingering hand pain despite repeated fractures. “What can I say?” he asks. “I think I just have Wolverine healing power.”

His shins

If there’s one part of his game that Cerrone trusts more than any other, it’s his kicks. He throws his tatted-up shins with abandon and says the power they generate is all natural — he doesn’t buy any of the old shin-hardening tips, like using a rolling pin over them. “Nah, I was born a kicker,” he says. “If I land a leg kick anywhere, even if you block it, it’s going to hurt. I could be making 67-yard field goals in the NFL right now if I wasn’t a fighter.”

His feet

A human foot has 26 bones, and most of Cerrone’s have incurred some serious damage over the years. He estimates that he’s broken one or more bones in his feet somewhere around 40 times. (“Ninety percent fighting stuff, 10 percent stupid stuff,” he says.) He has broken toes during fights but nothing serious enough to limit him — not that he’d allow that to happen, anyway. “If I broke a foot in a fight, I’d keep kicking ’til it fell off. There’s a lot of money on the line, especially in this fight with Conor,” he says. When he daydreams about how he’d like the fight to go, he says, he sees a tough stand-up fight but then he lands a big kick that puts McGregor out.

As he speaks, his eyes dart toward Danger, who is back and armed with some sparring gloves. Dad has his legs crossed, so Danger’s first swing thwacks against Cerrone’s right foot as it rests atop his left knee. “Good one,” Cerrone says, and he pretends to flick a kick back at his son. Danger ducks away and avoids the contact, and Cerrone lets out a good laugh. “I hope Conor gets a good look at this foot on Saturday night.”

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