With all of the embarrassing insanity Jon Jones foisted on us this week, perhaps you forgot there was an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view on Saturday -- a UFC pay-per-view headlined by a title fight, no less; and this championship fight features one of the most exciting and violent fighters in the sport and perhaps the greatest woman to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves: Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.
That is what happens when Yana Kunitskaya is your challenger.
UFC 222 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas was not supposed to be this way, of course. We were supposed to be treated to a different featherweight clash, a blockbuster main event between champion Max Holloway and former lightweight kingpin Frankie Edgar, but the leg injury Holloway suffered in training temporarily nixed those plans. Disappointment turned to surprise quickly, as just four weeks ago, “Cyborg” threw her hat in the ring to “save” this card; however, the fact that she already lacks a deep pool of challengers meant we were not going to get a particularly intriguing opponent for her second UFC title defense. Justino is now nearly a -2000 favorite on some sportsbooks, so the hope for this makeshift headliner is simply that it exposes more folks to the Brazilian’s legendary brand of beatdowns and orients us toward a more palatable fight for her later this year.
Not all is lost, though. Edgar is still on the card; and while you cannot exactly replace the thrill and intrigue of Holloway-Edgar, the UFC still made lemonade with the lemons it was dealt, as “The Answer” will take on undefeated grappling wiz Brian Ortega in an outstanding 145-pound affair. Ortega is one of several undefeated prospects on the card -- a list that includes wild-striking weed enthusiast Sean O’Malley, emerging bantamweight contender Ketlen Vieira and highly touted Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Mackenzie Dern.
Are we in for a legendary upset in the Octagon? Probably not, but there is only one way to find out. Onward with your odds and analysis of UFC 222:
UFC Women’s Featherweight ChampionshipCristiane Justino (19-1) vs. Yana Kunitskaya (10-3)
ODDS: Justino (-1750), Kunitskaya (+1125)
ANALYSIS: Everybody and their mother will be watching the UFC 222 main event with bated breath, not because of any serious level of drama or intrigue but simply to see when “Cyborg” will land her heavy artillery and put away an undeserved challenger in her second UFC title defense. With such monstrously lopsided odds and the MMA mythos that “anything can happen,” the real question becomes whether or not there is anything about Kunitskaya’s game that could make lightning strike and allow her to author one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
This is what is particularly tough for the 28-year-old Russian. It is not just that Justino is a “better” fighter in an abstract sense or that she is a physical monster, but rather that Kunitskaya’s strengths figure to be completely neutralized by what the champion brings to the table. Kunitskaya has some clean, snappy boxing, and she sprinkles in quality kicking offense from distance once she gets her jab and one-two going. However, we just watched Justino soundly outbox a world-class boxer in Holly Holm, who also supplements her handcraft with kicks. On top of that, Holm’s southpaw styling and elusive footwork made Justino a bit more tentative early on, which will not be the case with the far more conventional Kunitskaya. Kunitskaya has more pop in her punches than Holm, but she typically excels when she is going forward rather than fighting off of her back foot, which is where the Brazilian is going to force her to fight, given Justino’s constant forward pressure.
Kunitskaya does not have a bad dirty boxing game, but this supposes that she is going to want to -- or even can -- grab Justino, who is the bigger and stronger woman; never mind Justino’s own power punching in close quarters, her ability to grab the collar tie and dish out devastating knees to the head and body and penchant for ragdolling opponents to the floor from the body lock.
On the ground, Kunitskaya is not a poor offensive grappler, but even though we do not see it that often, Justino has massively improved her technical grappling over the years -- a far cry from when she once momentarily pulled Gina Carano into full mount on top of her. Worse for the former Invicta Fighting Championships bantamweight queen, “Cyborg” is at her best when she is on top of her opponents, flailing them with heavy ground-and-pound as she continuously squares up her hips and keeps moving and attacking while landing her ground strikes with the same full extension she does while standing.
I know this is MMA. Crazy things happen from time to time, and it just takes one heavy strike or one slip on the ground to set an upset in motion. Perhaps if this was the “Cyborg” of years past, darting into the pocket with wild, hooking combos and haphazardly lunging at her foes on the floor, the “Foxy” Russian would have a better chance to make history. However, under the tutelage of Jason Parillo, Justino has become a much more buttoned-up, patient boxer, despite still landing a whopping 6.92 significant strikes per minute. The elements of an upset just do not appear to be here, even with “Cyborg” taking this fight with just less than four weeks to prepare and the difficulties that may introduce with her weight cut. However, even an incarnation of “Cyborg” in less-than-ideal shape presents as stylistic poison for Kunitskaya. “Cyborg” will aggressively stalk Kunitskaya behind her jab, land powerful shots on the counter when the Russian opens up and retain her title, knocking out the challenger in the first 15 minutes of the fight while hopefully setting up a more competitive and interesting third defense in the coming months.
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