Opinion: Cyborg a Missed Opportunity for the UFC

By Eric Stinton Sep 25, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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It would be easy to say something pseudo-clever like “death, taxes and Cyborg by TKO,” but after Cristiane Justino’s 12th straight bout ended before the final bell, it seems like dodging taxes and cheating death might be easier than surviving a title fight with the best female fighter on the planet. “Cyborg” violence has become an inevitability: Her knockout streak is coming up on eight years, and in her 17 career wins, she has only needed the judges to notarize the outcome twice.

Of course, none of this is new. We’ve been saying more or less the same things about Justino since she was competing in Strikeforce. Regardless of what you can say about her competition or lack thereof -- we’ll get to that in a minute -- Cyborg is a supreme talent in the sport, and one in which the Ultimate Fighting Championship would be wise to invest moving forward.

As is starting to become customary with her UFC fights, Cyborg’s most dangerous opponent lately has been the scale, but it doesn’t need to be. The UFC is unnecessarily imposing a catchweight on her in what amounts to a contract of adhesion. For reference, think of the various terms and conditions you agree to when you get a new phone or iPad; you don’t have to accept the terms, but then you don’t get the iPad. Cyborg could put her foot down on this issue and demand to fight at 145 pounds, but it runs the risk that she won’t fight in the UFC, which would be an absolute shame.

Despite the fact that Phil Brooks is technically on the roster, the UFC is supposed to be the home for the best, a distinction that unequivocally belongs to Cyborg. The UFC has been savvy about holding on to fighters purely to keep them from signing with a competitor, but since Cyborg fights primarily for Invicta Fighting Championships, a UFC partner, it doesn’t have to worry about her jumping ship. Besides, it appears that she genuinely wants to fight for the UFC. Its brand is a form of soft power, and those who run the company flex it to make Cyborg sing and dance for them. This isn’t just needless and stupid; it’s shockingly myopic.

Brazilian MMA has been in the doldrums lately. There are very few big Brazilian names in the UFC, and only one and a half titles call Brazil home. This is not an insult to Jose Aldo or Amanda Nunes, who are both exceptional fighters. However, Nunes is the latest housesitter of the most mercurial championship in the promotion, and it is yet to be seen how long she’ll be able to hold onto it. As for Aldo, he’s in need of some image repair. Despite being one of the greatest to ever do this at any weight, he finds himself in a strange spot where the undisputed champion embarrassed him and has since been gallivanted around at other weight classes. It doesn’t help that Conor McGregor’s nonpareil popularity has injected kneejerk criticism into a large segment of the MMA fanbase.

There are other Brazilian draws to varying degrees -- Fabricio Werdum is still very much in the heavyweight title hunt, and Demian Maia could feasibly be the welterweight champion by this time next year -- but the point is that Cyborg, right now, fills an ever-unstable void for the UFC and one that is meaningfully intertwined with the soul of the sport.

Spare me the usual nonsense about division creation. There are reasonable arguments for and against a UFC women’s featherweight division right now, but if you’re not going to install one, at least let her fight at her normal weight. It’s not like the UFC is going to start a 140-pound division, either. It seems more like an attempt to sweeten the pot for more prominent names in the bantamweight division to step up and fight her. Know what would be a better incentive, though? Money. A fight between Cyborg and Miesha Tate, Holly Holm or Ronda Rousey would be huge. Instead of tempting these women with a depleted opponent, put money up. If “CM Punk” can get half a million to get smashed, why can’t a former champion?

Spare me the usual nonsense about steroids, too. The narrative that Cyborg could make 135 pounds if she were only able to get off the juice is completely contrived and without merit. Plus, if it really is a putative, retroactive punishment for her positive steroid test in 2011, then let’s apply that to everyone who has ever tested positive. If Cyborg has to fight halfway between her regular weight class and one below it, then Jon Jones should have to fight at 195, Brock Lesnar should have to weigh in at 235, Gilbert Melendez at 150 and so on. This is professional prizefighting, not middle school detention. Get real.

Finally, please spare me the usual nonsense about her thin competition. There is no question that women’s MMA in general, but especially at 145 pounds, is still very much under construction. I’m not debating that. However, pioneers like Justino catalyze the evolution of a sport. Look at all-time great basketball center Bill Russell. He played on a stacked team during an era of tremendously limited competition, but his intelligent style created an enduring big-man archetype for basketball. Prior to Michael Jordan, he was widely considered the greatest player of all-time, but if he had played in the 1990s, he probably would have been closer to Dikembe Mutombo than Shaquille O’Neal. We view him as one of the greatest, not only for his skills but also for his impact on the game. Cyborg can do the same for women’s MMA.

To carry the basketball analogies further, think about March Madness. Every year, without fail, some Cinderella team from a smaller, weaker conference goes deep in the tournament. Obviously, some conferences are stronger than others, but if you use what Dick Vitale refers to as the “eye test” -- i.e. the now-novel act of simply watching teams play -- greatness emerges from otherwise weak conferences. Cyborg is a damn good fighter on a technical level. Her physicality is daunting, but she’s by no means an unskilled oaf. Her clinch work, particularly her skipping knees and body control, is among the best in the sport. Her hands are accurate and powerful, and she throws intelligent punch-kick combinations at range and in the pocket with fluidity and precision. Show me a person who says she’s not that skilled, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Justino may be the most important figure in female MMA. She isn’t just fighting women. She’s instructing them. Where Rousey was significant by reaching women who weren’t interested in the sport, Cyborg is significant by giving the women who are interested something to reach for. Sure, Rousey was able to switch roles from fighter to model to actress in a way that Cyborg probably can’t, but that doesn’t have to be every female’s M.O. I get it, sex sells, and the fight business is indeed a business. Call me crazy, but I tend to think that talent sells, too. It’s not like male fighters are expected to moonlight as speedo models. Cyborg will be the first to tell you she’s a fighter. Sell her as such. Her nickname is “Cyborg,” after all, not “The Dainty Damsel” or “Bikini Bandit.”

We’re seeing greatness play out in real time, and yet it is being forced to jump through hoops and play by a set of rules that literally no one else has ever had to. Forgive me using a literary term here, but it’s all just so stupid. Somewhere down the road, Dominant Women’s Champion X in 2050 vs. Prime Cyborg will be debated on comment sections and forums -- or telepathic channels or whatever that strange world will look like. Ultimately, it would be nothing short of a shame to rob the sport of one of its greatest athletes for short-term, easily solvable obstacles. Put some money up, get Cyborg a fight as big as her talent demands and make it happen at 145 pounds. Let history happen.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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