ATLANTIC CITY -- Jim Miller is a New Jersey guy, born and bred. As a mixed martial artist, he fought his first dozen professional bouts in his home state, nine of them in Atlantic City, the dusty gambling destination on the Shore. He won all but one of those early-career bouts, falling only to another native son, Frankie Edgar.
Yet once Miller made it to the UFC, his home-cage advantage seemed to dissipate. He competed on Newark cards twice within his first three years in the sport’s biggest promotion and won both times, the second capping a seven-fight winning streak that elevated him to a spot among the lightweight division’s contenders. But the next time he stepped into a cage set up in New Jersey, in a title eliminator against Nate Diaz in East Rutherford in the spring of 2012, Miller was dominated and choked out. Then, less than a year later, he was back in Newark for UFC 159 and again was submitted. Pat Healy failed a drug test that night, however, so the Miller loss turned into a no-contest. Small consolation.
On Wednesday night, the 30-year-old from Sparta had his moments early in his UFC Fight Night main event against Donald Cerrone. But in the end it was another stumble on home turf, as the visitor from out of state turned out to be the last one standing. Cerrone stunned the crowd’s hometown favorite with a body kick midway through the second round, then stalked him with more of the same before finally dropping him with a head-kick knockout at 3:31.
Then “Cowboy” walked out of the quieted theater at the cavernous, ostentatious, barren Revel resort hotel in his wide-brimmed black hat.
Cerrone (24-6, 1 NC) was far from a villain, though. He didn’t walk to the octagon to the noise with which the crowd of 4,115 greeted the home-state hero. And he had to listen to a “Miller! Miller!” chant through a stretch of the first round when Jim was the one doing the stalking, building momentum, leading the way. But the fans couldn’t help but explode in admiration when Cerrone landed the finishing blow.
“You hear the boos and ‘Miller! Miller! Miller!’ That doesn’t motivate me in any way,” Cerrone said at the post-fight press conference, before breaking into a smile. “But it would have been a lot cooler if it was ‘Cowboy! Cowboy! Cowboy!’”
It would have been deserved. The finish was the 12th of Cerrone’s UFC/WEC career, the most all-time among lightweights. He also owns a different “most” for UFC/WEC 155-pounders: post-fight bonuses. Cerrone received a $50,000 check for Performance of the Night, giving him 15 career bonuses and a bright immediate future.
Cerrone came into the fight on a three-bout winning streak and ranked sixth in the UFC’s media-voted lightweight tally. This performance could very well boost him into the Top 5. The champ, Anthony Pettis, is otherwise occupied, booked to coach against Gilbert Melendez on The Ultimate Fighter. But Cerrone is up for whichever 155-pounder the UFC wants to put in front of him. No one wants to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov? Nate Diaz has been chirping in his direction? Bring ’em on.
“I will literally fight anybody,” said Cerrone. “The UFC just has to give me the date and time. Nate. Khabib. Anybody.”
Miller (24-5, 1 NC), on the other hand, ends up as the nowhere man. He came in at No. 9 in the SI.com lightweight rankings and one spot behind “Cowboy” in the UFC voting. And as the fighting started, though, he looked to be the faster, more explosive fighter. He was taking advantage of Cerrone’s typical slow start.
But “Cowboy” didn’t allow the fight to slip away. Miller is a killer on the mat, a voracious seeker of submissions. So it was important for Cerrone to utilize his takedown defense, which coming into the fight was the second-best in UFC lightweight history, at 87.5 percent. It served him well on this night, as he stuffed all but one of Miller’s seven takedown attempts.
The fight took its dramatic turn midway through the second when Cerrone folded over Miller with a kick to the lower abdomen. The fans reacted as though they’d witnessed a low blow, and so did referee Dan Miragliotta, jumping in between the fighters as Cerrone began to swarm. But Miller motioned toward his belly, indicating that he’d been struck by a legal blow, and the ref resumed the action.
“Cowboy” immediately tested the spot he’d tenderized, and Miller did not react well. He was wounded, it was clear, and he set his defensive posture to protect his midsection at all cost. The cost turned out to be his head, as after several more body kicks — most blocked, some getting through — Cerrone went upstairs and Miller crumbled to the mat. This time, at least, there would be no Jersey comeback.