Why Cyborg, and UFC, Need Ronda Rousey Now More Than Ever
At UFC 214, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino once again became a champion, only the second ever UFC women’s featherweight champion, in fact, an accomplishment that Cyborg had been working toward for years. Cyborg tormented her opponent Tonya Evinger, a sacrificial lamb if there ever was one and, a short notice replacement for Invicta FC featherweight champion, Megan Anderson, who pulled out of the fight just several weeks earlier citing personal reasons.
Despite having held multiple world titles in other organizations, this accomplishment was the one that was supposed to mean the most for Cyborg, one that cemented her as one of the greatest women’s fighter in history and the pinnacle of a career that has spanned nearly 13 years. The new champ had now reached the same zenith within the world’s premier martial arts organization as she had previously in the Strikeforce and Invicta FC organizations.
But this accomplishment carried with it a number of blemishes. Cyborg has been the beneficiary of maneuvering between weight classes and mismatched opponents throughout her career. The inclusion of Evinger into the title fight was just the latest example; Evinger was the reigning Invicta FC bantamweight champion but had apparently never been deemed worthy enough to test her skills within the UFC’s own 135-pound division. Until, at least, a new a new division was created, one Evinger had never even competed in, and Anderson pulled out at the last minute.
Gary A Vasquez – USA Today Sports
Beating Evinger was just the necessary matter of course for Cyborg, the death and taxes type of inevitability in a career that has had more than it’s fair share of unique ups-and-downs.
To be fair, Cyborg is heavily complicit in the position she’s in, good and bad. She holds a record of 18-1-0-1, her lone loss being her first ever MMA fight against Erica Paes in her native Curitiba, Brazil in 2005.
Since then she’s been on a bionic tear.
She was one of the modern pioneers of women’s MMA competing in front of a network television audience beating Shayna Baszler on a live EliteXC event on CBS in 2008. That show was seen by over 2.6 million viewers, a decrease from the promotion’s initial offering in May of that year but still a healthy audience.
She competed a second time for EliteXC on the ill fated “Heat” event, which was to feature a main event between Kimbo Slice and Ken Shamrock before Shamrock was ruled unable to compete just hours before due to a “freak” warm-up cut. That show ended with Slice getting knocked out by last minute replacement Seth Petruzelli. Public comments made by Petruzelli shortly thereafter where he indicated he was told not to take the fight to the ground along with a potential investigation by the Florida State Athletic Commission ultimately led to the demise of EliteXC.
Cyborg was quickly picked up by Strikeforce, the San Jose-based promotion headed by current Bellator MMA President, Scott Coker, which was in the midst of a national expansion following its purchase of the assets of Pro Elite, parent company of EliteXC. At the time, the UFC wasn’t interested in creating a women’s division. Knowing this, Coker felt having the women would be a coup, especially since Cyborg along with the biggest women’s star at the time, Gina Carano, had both received exposure through EliteXC’s network television events already.
Cyborg debuted in a 150-pound catchweight bout beating Hitomi Akano, the catchweight being the result of Cyborg failing to initially make the original 145-pound limit by 6 pounds. The win led to a main event bout versus Carano in August of 2009, the first time a women’s fight would main event a major MMA event. The event ended up one of the most successful in Strikeforce’s entire history culminating with Cyborg winning the inaugural women’s 145 pound championship with a TKO at the very end of the 1st round.
Ironically enough, Carano never fought again leaving Cyborg to carry on without a real plethora of challengers in the featherweight class.
She would make a successful defense against Marloes Coenen. Then fought Jan Finney, an 8-7 fighter at the time, and demolished her. The fight was such a mismatch that at one point Finney was hanging onto Cyborg’s ankle like a weeping puppy to its owner. Following an 18-month absence, Cyborg would fight Hiroko Yamanaka and then test positive for stanozolol. Her win was changed to a no contest and Cyborg suspended for a year.
When the UFC purchased Strikeforce in 2011, Cyborg’s contract would come along with it. Unfortunately, Cyborg spent nearly two years promulgating her inability to drop enough weight to safely make the 135-pound weight limit required to compete in the UFC’s newly formed women’s Bantamweight division. That made it impossible to match her up with the newest up-and-coming star in women’s MMA and the woman that reportedly convinced Dana White to change his mind about bringing female fighters into the UFC, then undefeated Strikeforce bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey.
Cyborg would end up signing with Invicta FC, further detracting from the potential of a Rousey showdown, but maintaining a loose possibility based on the company’s close relationship with the UFC, if Cyborg were to successfully begin experimenting with a weight drop.
Cyborg didn’t though. Instead she won Invicta’s 145 pound championship and subsequently defended it three times with three first round finishes. Likely sensing that time was running short, the UFC re-signed Cyborg and booked her in a 140-pound catchweight fight against Leslie Smith. Smith, an undersized middle-of-the-road fighter that Cyborg predictably blitzed, looked as if she was only attempting to survive. Next up was another 140-pound catchweight fight, this time Lina Lansberg, a challenger in theory only and another win for the Cyborg team. Lansberg spent much of the fight just holding on for as long as she could until Cyborg TKO’d her in the 2nd.
But while the UFC was hoping that trial runs at catchweight would prove to encourage the full on cut to 135, footage released showed the tumultuous, brutal experience of Cyborg cutting weight prior to the Smith fight. Ironically, former fighter and current UFC commentator Brian Stann had proclaimed during the telecast that this particular weight cut had been “the easiest she’d ever had”, clearly a falsehood funneled to Stann from Cyborg’s camp. Cyborg was shown actively weeping while laying on the floor with her team consoling her down to 140 pounds.
Despite several years of declaring that cutting weight to 135 would be devastatingly unhealthy for Cyborg, many insisted that it was simply a degree of grandstanding from the Cyborg camp, hoping to draw Rousey up to a more favorable catchweight bout. The videos of Cyborg experiencing what appeared to be incredible pain showed that, for better or worse, cutting to 135 was probably out of the question.
The UFC made the decision that if Cyborg couldn’t compete in its bantamweight division, they would simply have to create a featherweight division for her, worthy opponents be damned. The dearth of talent was immediately apparent when the UFC booked Holly Holm vs Germaine de Randamie to crown the first ever UFC women’s featherweight champion. The timing was peculiar considering Holm was on a two fight losing streak and had just over a year earlier, upset Rousey for the bantamweight championship. She could easily be a marquee opponent for current 135 pound champion Amanda Nunes with another win. Arguably a better use of her in terms of continuing to build a division that also isn’t filled with depth.
Meanwhile, Cyborg was popped by USADA for a doping violation. Cyborg’s camp would claim that the violation was a result of diuretic prescribed to her because of her hard weight cuts. Cyborg would end up applying for and receiving a retroactive therapeutic-use exemption (TUE) from USADA. The fact is, though, a combination of Cyborg’s previous positive test and her constant inability or unwillingness to drop weight properly, led many fans and fighters alike to throw up their hands at Cyborg’s saga.
Germaine de Randamie would win a decision over Holly Holm, despite two different instances of illegal shots from de Randamie after the 2nd and 3rd rounds. Many believed it was Holm that was the victor. Then de Randamie would refuse to fight Cyborg leading to Cyborg versus Megan Anderson, and then Tonya Evinger.
Well Cyborg is finally a champion and someone the UFC can market to the world. The weight issue, for now, has been alleviated by the creation of the new weight class. Despite all the obstacles along the way, Cyborg does, in fact, have the opportunity to be a big star. Artificially designed or not, she has certain intangibles, physically and otherwise, that set her apart from the rest of the women fighters. But with 3-women’s divisions to build and the new women’s flyweight divison on the way, how exactly does the UFC build up a dominant champion in a division that she has already dominated.
The first challenger appears to be Holly Holm and that is fine. Holm at least competed at 145-pounds in the inaugural bout and has enough shine still from her win over Rousey that a Cyborg-Holm title fight would be headline worthy. But after that the options become very limited. Megan Anderson, despite being the Invicta FC 145-pound champion, was just a fill-in. The UFC’s own official website doesn’t even feature any other competitors in the divison aside from Cyborg, Anderson, and Evinger.
The long awaited fight with Rousey could be a catalyst for the entire division. There was a time when it would have easily been the biggest women’s fight of all time and perhaps one of the biggest fights in MMA period. While Rousey’s two recent performances may have revealed that she lacks the adaptability that’s needed in modern day UFC, or should at least experience a new training environment, she’s still by far the biggest star in women’s MMA and the biggest star besides Conor McGregor. Despite little to no press done by Rousey, she drew a million buy PPV against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 last December, equaling the amount of buys she did against Holm at UFC 193.
Admittedly a fight with Rousey is, perhaps, its own dead end even if she wins. Her future is still very questionable. Dana White has already publicly admitted that he doesn’t think she will ever fight again. A once unbeatable anomaly of a fighter, Rousey looked a shell of herself in her last fight against Nunes. She’s largely disappeared from the sport entirely since that loss and her few public appearances have come with the stipulation that she won’t even actually talk about fighting.
One of the things we have learned from the return of Jon Jones at UFC 214 is that fans are willing to forgive a fighters transgressions. Rousey saw many fans turn on her following the loss to Holm. Many were turned off by Rousey’s over-the-top smugness, particularly during the UFC 193 weigh-ins that saw Rousey aggressively approach Holm and shove her. Many more were equally turned off when the brash champion was knocked silly by Holm the following night.
But time softens those feelings. Much like the rumored Jon Jones vs Brock Lesnar fight, a Cyborg-Rousey fight could help catapult Cyborg into the top tier of true superstars within the sport. Cyborg might even come off as the hero in the story against Rousey, the one that’s faced all the obstacles and is still competing while Rousey shut herself off from the MMA world.
With the UFC in need of real superstars, those that can draw television ratings, pay-per-view buys, and mainstream publicity, a Cyborg win over Rousey would mean a great deal. Back-to-back wins over Holm and Rousey would push Cyborg into that “best ever” role and give the UFC time to begin building up additional challengers for down the road.
And if Rousey were to win and want to continue, then you have automatic rematches set up with Holm and Cyborg as well.
Every great superstar has had a great rival. For Cyborg, that role is still open.