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.
Fans are always going to draw different conclusions about the same fighters. There’s never going to be universal acclaim for even the sport’s most successful competitors, and MMA’s lesser stars tend to have their supporters, too. However, even in a world of divergent opinions, Cris Cyborg is a particularly polarizing figure. There are not just differing opinions but a genuine chasm between how alternative groups perceive her.
On the one hand, “Cyborg” is celebrated as the most successful female fighter in the history of the sport. Undefeated in MMA since 2005, she has combined dominance with longevity. It has been a continual struggle to find opponents who will take her on, and she backs that up inside the cage. The Strikeforce, Invicta Fighting Championships and Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder has knockout rates that are unprecedented at the highest level of women’s MMA. She has proven to be a ratings mover, and her showdown with Gina Carano in 2009 is one of the most important fights in the evolution of the sport.
Of course, that isn’t the end of the story. The elephant in the room for “Cyborg” will always be performance-enhancing drugs. Fans and fellow athletes accused her of being on them for years because of her exceedingly abnormal physique for a female competitor. They felt validated when she tested positive for an anabolic steroid in 2011, and in 2017, she needed a retroactive therapeutic use exemption to avoid punishment for a diuretic in her system. She is much bigger and stronger than almost all opponents, leading many to question how she would do without those advantages they rightly or wrongly associate with chemical shortcuts.
This back and forth isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. Her resume is already so strong that it will be difficult to dismiss that success no matter what happens in the years to come. However, the combination of her failed drug tests and the way she looks is all that many need to affix a permanent and unshakeable asterisk. Justino’s unique predicament in which she is unable to move opinions much either positively or negatively is compounded by the nature of her division coming out of UFC 219 on Saturday in Las Vegas. In short, she has few obvious opponents in the short, medium or long term.
A women’s featherweight division was always going to be an uphill climb for the UFC. It wants a title for which “Cyborg” can fight since she’s arguably its biggest female star, but there are so few women that fight at that weight class. Holly Holm, willing to move up to bantamweight, was the most natural option. The UFC has now done that fight. Holm was more competitive than just about any “Cyborg” opponent, but Justino still won convincingly. Outside of Megan Anderson, who has looked great of late in Invicta, there’s nobody on the horizon. Bantamweight doesn’t have the same star power it once did, either, even if there were fighters there looking to move up.
For the foreseeable future, Justino’s fights are largely just going to be “Cyborg” against an opponent. As such, they’ll serve as Rorschach tests in which viewers are free to draw their own conclusions based on their perceptions of “Cyborg.” The fights are likely to be defined by the individual viewer much more than usual. This setup was already evident against Holm, as there was plenty for fans to view either positively or negatively.
There was a lot to like about Justino’s performance at UFC 219. She took on her most accomplished opponent in quite some time, if not ever. Holm looked motivated and in phenomenal shape, and still, “Cyborg” outlanded her in significant strikes 118-44. It also spoke against the narrative that “Cyborg” wins based on strength rather than skill. “Cyborg” wasn’t able to muscle around the powerful Holm, and yet, she still outstruck the former boxing champion at range. The technique of “Cyborg” was on full display.
With “Cyborg,” there’s always another side, and UFC 219 was no exception. The flipside of Justino landing so many strikes was that Holm was able to survive that many. Since coming to the UFC and its more rigorous testing, that’s happened with much more regularity than it used to. “Cyborg” is still clearly very dangerous, but it’s an open question whether she has the same pop she once did. It’s fair for her critics to draw negative conclusions about that even as she proves her game is much more than just power.
Is “Cyborg” a hall of famer, the best women’s fighter of all-time, or is she a figure to recoil from, a product of unfair advantages and lack of competition? These questions didn’t have clear answers before UFC 219. The answers didn’t come after that card. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the questions ever feeling fully resolved. They’ll just linger in the air as Justino’s career progresses, as uncertain as her future opponents.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.