Cris Cyborg celebrates after her win over Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 222. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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After Cristiane Justino won the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s featherweight title via third-round shellacking of late replacement Tonya Evinger at UFC 214, it looked like her torrid history with the promotion could be water under the bridge.
Justino’s days undertaking life-threatening weight cuts for 140-pound catchweight fights were over, UFC president Dana White had made the unprecedented gesture of admitting the company had mishandled her career, fights with Holly Holm and Megan Anderson beckoned and all conventional wisdom dictated that the organization would build a 145-pound division around her like it did with Ronda Rousey and the bantamweights. When “Cyborg” signed a lucrative new deal in November making her the highest paid female fighter on the roster, many saw that as confirmation that the road ahead had been cleared of speed bumps.
It turns out, however, that optimism was premature, as the UFC once again finds itself at odds with its most dominant female combatant. This time, the date of the highly anticipated superfight between “Cyborg” and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes is the source of friction. The Chute Boxe export, who last defended her title at UFC 222 against Yana Kunitskaya, told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani in July that the UFC had sent her an agreement for the Nunes for Sept. 8, but that Nunes was unable or unwilling to compete until December. With the UFC apparently averse to finding her an opponent in the interim, “Cyborg” says she has been effectively been left on the shelf until the end of the year and more recently has indicated she may pursue other avenues after her contract with the organization expires in March.
Given the UFC’s inconsistent treatment of its champions, Justino’s frustration is understandable. Just last month, the promotion greenlit a bout between welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley and Darren Till for UFC 228 despite having awarded Colby Covington an interim belt in June, reasoning that “Chaos” would be stripped because it wasn’t appropriate to make the champion wait around. Yet that’s exactly what’s being asked of “Cyborg” -- a demand that is made even more unreasonable given the Brazilian dropped everything to defend her belt against Kunitskaya in March after the headlining bout between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar fell apart three weeks out from the event.
While it’s hardly surprising to see the UFC employ double standards, one would have hoped for a more diplomatic approach from the organization. At 33 years old and approaching the tail end of her fighting prime, Justino’s desire to be active while she’s injury-free would normally be something the company would encourage; and as the Brazilian has repeatedly pointed out, fighting is how she pays her bills. Sitting her out for nine months, especially when the company is said to have promised her a bout as early as July seems unfair and unwise in all the circumstances, and it’s not hard to see why “Cyborg” is taking it personally.
After all, while there is hardly an excess of opponents to sub in for Nunes in September or October -- and the 135-pound champ is by far the most high-profile opponent with whom “Cyborg” can be matched -- that’s more attributable to the UFC’s lack of interest in building up the female featherweight division than it is any other factor. In the 18 months since it created the weight class, the organization has signed only one legitimate 145er in Anderson, and it’s the only division that lacks rankings. Granted, the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter” aims to finally address that problem, but if it comes off the back of “Cyborg” jumping ship to Bellator MMA, it will have been too little, much too late.
One might speculate that, like countless other abusive relationships that evolved into marriages, the union between “Cyborg” and the UFC just isn’t meant to be.
For years before Justino joined the organization, White publicly questioned her credentials and was not above hurling slurs -- including his infamous comment that she “looked like Wanderlei Silva in heels” -- when it suited him. Likewise, UFC poster girl Rousey used her platform to disparage and bully “Cyborg” on countless occasions while atop the bantamweight throne, accusing her of longstanding steroid use and, in a low point for MMA, claiming she had a penis. While fans salivated over a Rousey-“Cyborg” superfight to settle the score, for the longest time it was only the former who reaped the benefits of the UFC’s promotional machine, leveraging her stardom into a lucrative career in Hollywood while Justino could barely sustain a life in the United States.
A history so tumultuous -- it brought “Cyborg” to tears in an interview with ESPN in 2016 -- is not easily forgotten. However, if the UFC is serious about making amends and ensuring the most talented female martial artist in the world finishes her career under its banner, it should start by booking her in a fight in the coming months. Sarah Kaufman, Invicta Fighting Championships’ reigning bantamweight champion, has already put up her hand, and that bout promises to be at least as competitive Justino’s scraps with Evinger or Kunitskaya.
Failing that, one couldn’t begrudge “Cyborg” for putting the UFC in her rearview mirror when her contract comes to an end.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.