Cris “Cyborg” Justino, the same woman who UFC President Dana White once said “committed professional suicide,” is about to make her second start in the Octagon. Indeed, she’s not just participating; she’s holding up Saturday’s event. Justino is the headline attraction in a UFC Fight Night 95 card that is otherwise short on top talent.
Given White’s turnabout, it’s easy to wonder what he’s up to here. On one hand, he’s caved to Justino’s unwillingness to drop to bantamweight; on the other hand, he’s still asking her to cut to 140 pounds for no meaningful reason.
Her bout with Lina Lansberg will be the second straight at that catchweight. This one is particularly head-scratching since Lansberg has previously competed at featherweight and told Fernanda Prates of MMAjunkie that she would have taken the bout at 145.
What’s the end game here? Is the UFC trying to slowly prod Cyborg down to 135, where she can one day set up a payday bout with Ronda Rousey or be a special attraction all her own?
Joining me to discuss it is MMA Lead Writer Chad Dundas.
Mike Chiappetta: Chad, the UFC has booked this as a showcase bout for Justino, even though Lansberg is no sacrificial lamb, having competed in muay thai for a decade with 37 wins in that discipline, according to women’s fighting site AwakeningFighters.com.
Justino gets a home game and a main event slot with a chance to reassert her claim as the most dominant force in women’s MMA. She’s largely expected to do that and add to her four consecutive first-round finishes.
So let’s just go ahead and play out that scenario. What’s next? What is the UFC building toward?
Is it meaningful for her to beat people up with no possibility of fighting for a belt? Right now, the UFC has no featherweight division, and if White is to be believed, there are no plans to add one anytime soon.
From my view, the belt isn’t particularly meaningful for Cyborg in this instance. She is the Invicta champion at 145 pounds and almost universally regarded as the best in the world in the weight class. That is enough. But at this point, she isn’t going to make 135 pounds.
She’s here as a special attraction.
That approach is in line with the UFC’s shift to money (and moneyweight) fights. But at least here, it’s defensible. Unlike its simple cash-grab CM Punk signing, Justino brings bona fides and can someday hook up with Rousey (or Miesha Tate or Holly Holm or Amanda Nunes) for a compelling matchup. How many fans would object to that?
Chad Dundas: In some ways, I guess I’m just happy she’s there at all.
When Cyborg made her promotional debut at UFC 198 in May, it felt like a legitimately big moment for both the fighter and the fight company. Finally, after years of sniping back and forth, their sometimes ugly feud appeared over and done with. The most fearsome athlete in women’s MMA was at long last competing in the world’s top organization, where the lion’s share of the rest of the planet’s top talent make their living.
She blitzed Leslie Smith in 81 seconds during her first fight in the Octagon, and it felt like a gateway to bigger things. Then this booking against the relatively unknown Lansberg was announced, and it felt like…uh…another gateway?
The new owners of the UFC seem no more concerned about the health & safety of their athletes than the old
— Dr. Johnny Benjamin (@DrJCBenjamin) September 22, 2016
If I had to guess, it seems as though maybe matchmakers want to try to establish Justino as a Mike Tyson-style figure. Perhaps through a series of these one-sided squash matches they can build her into an unstoppable monster.
For hardcore MMA fans, the process is already complete, since it’s essentially the same strategy that Strikeforce employed from 2009 to 2011 and later Invicta did too. But for more casual fans who view MMA only through the lens of the UFC, maybe it will be instructive.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach, as you suggest, but it does make me wonder about the long-term plan.
It’s possible that keeping Justino at 140 pounds makes a future bout with Holm, Tate or Rousey more feasible, but otherwise it seems arbitrary. It’s not her natural weight, and it’s a limit she obviously continues to struggle to make.
So here are my ideas: Either award her a UFC women’s featherweight title and have her defend it at 145 pounds against a revolving door of challengers, or⏤and this is my personal favorite⏤just let her defend the Invicta featherweight title she already has inside the Octagon.
The UFC and Invicta already have some manner of talent-sharing agreement between them. Allowing Cyborg to defend the Invicta strap on the big stage gives the UFC a championship to advertise, offers great advertising for Invicta and gives Justino an added layer of legitimacy.
It might also create a synergy between the UFC’s main product and the Fight Pass streaming service it’s trying hard to build. Since contender bouts for Cyborg could take place in Invicta and her title fights in the UFC (hopefully on pay-per-view), it could create a nice back-and-forth between the two companies.
It would be different, but it would also be kind of a beautiful arrangement.
What do you think, Mike? Too pie in the sky?
Mike: If it wasn’t for the UFC’s long-held stance against co-promotion, that scenario probably would have happened already. After all, it makes perfect sense to the point that there’s no other reason not to do it.
At this point, the UFC is doing everything but bringing the belt along with Cyborg. During her UFC debut, the announcers mentioned Invicta. They mentioned her championship. They mentioned her history. Her past is well-documented. Her future? There was little they could say about that.
That’s a problem.
In the MMA world, we have become conditioned to look toward tomorrow. The outcome of every fight exists within two planes: the actual result and where the winner stands in the context of the championship picture. Cyborg’s current circumstance robs everyone of the latter.
A career arc is supposed to build toward something. But she’s just treading water, trying to stay afloat until some greater plan is hatched.
That is particularly troubling from her side of the power dynamic. We can see what the UFC gets out of this deal. Cyborg may not be famous in American sports circles, but she came across as a star in her Octagon debut in Brazil, and now she’s headlining a card and helping the promotion fill an arena for an event that is otherwise bereft of star power.
What does she get out of it other than a bigger platform? What will it mean for her future? All White can say is that a fight with Rousey might happen. There are no promises there, which means she’s cutting extra weight and putting herself at additional physical risk for potentially no reward.
As it stands now, the UFC is basically admitting it has no long-term plan for her. That needs to change. The UFC should chart a course for her future, placing something meaningful directly in her path. The great thing is it would benefit Cyborg, the promotion and the fans.
Look into your crystal ball, Chad. How do you think the UFC ultimately handles the Cyborg conundrum going forward?
Chad: If there’s a silver lining here, perhaps it’s that Justino just turned 31 years old in July. She’s been a professional MMA fighter since 2005 but has had only 18 professional fights⏤including years like 2012 and 2014 when she didn’t fight at all. She’s usually the one dishing out the punishment in her fights rather than taking it, so maybe there’s good reason to believe she still has a few years left in her athletic prime.
If the UFC manages to keep her under contract, then a bout with one of the fight company’s other Big Three female athletes will happen. Rousey has never seemed overly excited about the fight, but both Holm and Tate have indicated in the past they would be willing to take the booking. It would just be a matter of making it worth everyone’s while financially.
I tell you what, though: The UFC needs to get this weight class stuff figured out and quick. As we go to press Thursday morning, reports continue to trickle in that Justino is still 10 pounds overweight for Saturday’s fight after struggling with her cut earlier in the week, per MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani. We’ve seen her clash with nutritionist George Lockhart about the details of her weight cut.
On Wednesday, for reasons that still don’t make any sense, we learned she won’t even be afforded the one-pound weight allowance fighters normally get leading up to non-championship bouts.
So, what’s the deal? At this point it’s getting unseemly, and frankly I’m starting to think the UFC is just punishing her for her refusal to make the women’s bantamweight limit. Get the woman in her natural weight class, get her some people to fight and maybe even give her a title.
Just fix it.
Mike: For a long time, I argued that Cyborg could make 135 pounds. Deep down, I still believe she can—eventually. Building and maintaining muscle, after all, is a choice. But it takes time to transform your body, and three years after we began discussing the possibility of Cyborg-Rousey at bantamweight, it seems like she’s only marginally closer to making the weight.
At some point, this experiment gets too perilous and risky to continue with. We’ve about reached that point.
The UFC doesn’t want to give her fights at 145 pounds because it doesn’t have a featherweight class, but a 140-pound class doesn’t exist either. The UFC created these women’s catchweight fights just for her. The company has already given her a category of her own, just one that doesn’t come with the possibility of a belt (and a corresponding pay-per-view bonus) along with it.
It’s time to dispense with the torture and danger we’re putting Cyborg through and either let her fight at her natural class or move on and send her back to Invicta.