Donald Cerrone isn't afraid to admit that for a while, he had forgotten why he had become a fighter in the first place.
"I lost the love," the popular lightweight known as "Cowboy" said at Saturday night's UFC on FOX 10 post-fight news conference. "But I'm back. I'm back. I feel good."
As well he should. Cerrone provided the crowd at Chicago's United Center with the evening's most memorable moment, as he dropped Adriano Martins with a picture-perfect head-kick knockout in the first round of their main-card bout. For doing so, the Colorado Springs native picked up a $50,000 Knockout of the Night bonus.
That was Cerrone's 13th post-fight bonus between the UFC and WEC, giving him the most in Zuffa history, one ahead of Anderson Silva and Joe Lauzon.
Asked about the bonus record, Cerrone (22-6, 1 no contest) said he has his eyes on another mark.
"I want to set a record for most fights in a year, so if I can get six, that's [expletive] great," Cerrone said. "I think Baltimore [UFC 172] or Dallas [UFC 171] would be great. Some of those guys out there who said they can't get fights? Hey man, I'm your guy."
Several times in his career, the Jackson's MMA fighter has appeared on the cusp of taking his game to the championship level. He won six consecutive fights in 2010-11, only to come up short against Nate Diaz. One-sided wins over Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard gave him eight wins out of nine and a key showdown with Anthony Pettis a year ago Saturday in the same United Center.
Pettis crushed Cerrone and went on to defeat Benson Henderson to win the lightweight title in August. Cerrone, for his part, appeared to be going through the motions, with a lackluster win over K.J. Noons in May and a loss to Rafael dos Anjos in August.
That led the 30-year old Cerrone, one of the sport's most notorious free spirits, to slow down and re-assess his career in an industry which isn't known for longevity.
The conclusion? Time to get back to basics.
"I had to just figure out why I do this, again, do you know what I mean?" Cerrone said. "I got really comfortable at this. I made more money than I ever made in my entire life. I just got very comfortable with where I was and I forgot the love of what I did this for."
Cerrone harkened back to his professional kickboxing days, predating his MMA career, when he traveled around the world for little money and without the incentive of the UFC's post-fight bonus system.
"I remember when I was kickboxing around the world and making $1,500," Cerrone said. "'Fifteen hundred bucks to go to Japan, are you kidding me? Yeah!' So, you know what I mean?"
The first hint that Cerrone had come back around on his love of the game came at UFC 167, when he got locked into a dogfight with a game Evan Dunham. Cerrone rallied with a ferocious onslaught in the second round and finished Dunham with a nifty triangle choke, earning Submission of the Night honors.
Then came Saturday's bout against the unheralded and underrated Martins (25-7), a cagey Brazilian who came into the evening having won 12 of his past 13 bouts. Cerrone and Martins went back and forth for the bulk of the first round before "Cowboy" pulled his fight-ending kick from out of nowhere, his right shin landing on Martins' chin and neck. Martins was out cold on impact, which Cerrone recognized, as he refrained from adding more damage before referee John McCarthy could stop the bout at 4:40 in the first.
"I want to be a world champion, so I said, let's take him down and see what he's got," Cerrone said. "Why not? I wanted to do what I do best. You got to see the old cowboy with a little bit of the new."
While Cerrone has clearly matured as a fighter, his cowboy persona hasn't changed a whole lot. Cerrone drank a beer at the post-fight news conference, a rare sight on the UFC podium. And he had some tart words for featherweight Cole Miller, with whom he's exchanged barbs for years.
Miller called out Cerrone after he submitted Sam Sicilia on Jan. 15, daring Cerrone to come down to featherweight.
But after his third win in four fights launched him back toward the top of the lightweight division, Cerrone isn't in the mood to engage Miller.
"Miller is a turd the UFC hasn't flushed yet," Cerrone said. "I think the UFC is against me going down to 145. I can drink delicious full-bodied Budweisers when I [fight at lightweight], so a lifestyle change right now, I don't know if I'm committed to that. But Cole Miller, win some fights and then come see me. You're at the ass end of a long line of people, so, we'll see."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA.