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Friendship powers late replacement Cerrone

Lightweight Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (above) is a late replacement on Saturday's UFC 137 card, where he'll go up against Dennis Siver. (AP)

Donald Cerrone -- who will fight Dennis Siver at UFC 137 -- doesn’t do anything halfway, not even his nickname.

The UFC lightweight has been called “Cowboy” since he started wearing Cowboy hats as a Denver high schooler. “In Denver there ain’t that many,” Cerrone explained. Now no one calls him anything else.

Cerrone’s all-out-all-the-time attitude sometimes got him into trouble outside of the gym, but it’s also the reason he met Leonard Garcia, who grew up on a ranch and jokes that Cerrone is a “city slicker.” Garcia, a UFC featherweight, had the same intensity and was also trying unsuccessfully to stay out of trouble.

“If you’re having fun as a young person, you’re probably getting into trouble,” Garcia admitted.

Cerrone and Garcia met eight years ago, before Cowboy was a professional fighter and while Garcia was fighting in the Ring of Fire promotion. They’ve been inseparable ever since -- interviews with Cerrone during fight week were set up by Garcia -- and made the journey to the UFC together.

“We truly believe that we’re blood brothers in some way, even though our skin complexions obviously show otherwise,” Garcia said. “I don’t know anybody that’s closer to me,” Cerrone added.

When Garcia was invited to train at Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque, N.M., for his UFC debut against Roger Huerta at UFC 69 he recommended Cerrone to be his training partner. They lived in a tiny room with bunk beds above the gym (The room was 8-by-10 or 12-by-6 depending on which fighter you talk to). Cerrone and Garcia still train at Jackson’s gym, but they don’t live in a glorified closet anymore. They live on the TapouT Ranch, a 10-acre training facility complete with cardio equipment, weights and a full-size octagon cage as well as goats, pigs, horses, chickens, peacocks, a boat, four-wheelers and motorcycles.

“Our house is basically an amusement park for grown-ups,” says Garcia.

Garcia and Cerrone paid for the property with bonus checks give by Dana White for the pair’s brawling style. Cerrone has earned a Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night bonus check from White, and was a five-time Fight of the Night winner in the WEC. Garcia has won Fight of the Night twice in the UFC and twice in the WEC.

Now they use the ranch to house promising young MMA fighters and give them access to Jackson’s gym. The up-and-coming fighters don’t have to worry about the financial strain of training (or live in a closet) while they try to make it to the UFC. The kind gesture has helped the sport of MMA grow and led to some amusing stories.

“We’ve had some guys, I’m talking 25-to-30 year old grown men, that’ll spend 2-to-3 hours outside after training just messing with the goats and stuff,” Garcia said. “They’ve never seen them.”

Cerrone and Garcia have found a place to escape the stresses of professional fighting and stay out of trouble while still living life to the fullest -- activities at the ranch include racing four-wheelers and riding bulls. They have what Cerrone calls a “train hard, play hard,” mentality. Both  Garcia and Cerrone agree a fighter is only as good as his training partner.

“It’s better to be injured in a gym than in a fight,” Garcia said. “It’s better to be tired in the gym than in a fight.” He adds that people that don’t come to the gym regularly are often shocked to see him hop into a car with Cerrone smiling after a tough sparring session. The beat each other up almost everyday, but they look after each other just as often.

Cerrone told Garcia not to come in the Monday after his UFC 136 fight against Nam Phan because he didn’t want to make the cut on his face worse and set his training back further. Both fighters insist that their intensity in the cage, even when they’re fighting each other, doesn’t affect their close friendship. If anything, it’s made it stronger.

“If you can’t punch your brother, who can you punch?” Cerrone said.

The duo’s constantly intense training is part of the reason why Cerrone been able to take so many fights on short notice during his UFC career. The former WEC lightweight champion has fought three times in the UFC, twice as an injury replacement. In Saturday’s fight against Dennis Siver he’s filling in for Sam Stout with his patented intensity. Garcia will be cheering for Cowboy with the same intensity. Regardless of the result they’ll head back to the ranch together.

-- Stephen Boyle

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