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By the time she marches into the Bellator MMA cage to face incumbent 145-pound champion Julia Budd, it will have been a cool six months since we last saw Cristiane Justino in action; and even though her last fight saw “Cyborg” hand the previously undefeated and tough-as-hell Felicia Spencer a three-round shellacking at UFC 240, you’d be forgiven for thinking that her time as one of the most feared female mixed martial arts fighters in history had somehow come to an end.
That has been the story of Cyborg’s MMA career—both before she signed with the market-leader in 2016 and certainly since she elected to fight out her Ultimate Fighting Championship contract and test free agency, which ultimately led her to sign with Scott Coker’s Bellator in September. Dominant performances inside the cage have unfolded against a crusade outside it to undermine her achievements and jeopardize her market value, led by the UFC President Dana White and the UFC itself.
Back in 2014, after the UFC had gone all in on Ronda Rousey with the 135-pound division and Justino was the only legitimate claimant to the Olympic bronze medalist’s WMMA pound-for-pound spot, the tactic was to ridicule the former Strikeforce champion for her physical appearance and 2011 PED infraction. When she made it to the Octagon and the promotion finally went ahead and greenlit an inaugural featherweight title fight in 2017—after she fought a couple of life-threatening catchweight bouts—Cyborg’s request for an extra month to prepare due to illness associated with her last fight was characterized as evidence of duplicity, fragility or both, and the bout was spitefully contest by two career bantamweights.
It was only when Cyborg captured the vacant title at UFC 214 that White and the UFC seemed amenable to working with her in good faith, but even then, it quickly devolved into a one-sided relationship. Cyborg stepped up to fight Yana Kunitskaya on three weeks’ notice to save UFC 222 after the Max Holloway-Frankie Edgar title fight fell through; the promotion repaid her by forcing her onto the shelf for nine months until Amanda Nunes was ready to move up in weight and challenge her in a superfight. It the exact same courtesy Cyborg was denied when she was first offered a shot at UFC gold.
When “The Lioness” ultimately stopped Cyborg in just 51 seconds at UFC 232, it was all White needed to shed the pretense and get back to white-anting her. For a good six months, he told anyone who would listen that Cyborg didn’t want any part of a rematch with Nunes and her decision to fight out her contract was about securing easier fights due to physical decline, not securing bigger pay checks. Cyborg seemed to retaliate by releasing dubbed footage which misrepresented her conversation with White after UFC 240—she claimed this was done by her “production team”—leading ultimately to her departure from the promotion. Her full UFC release was accompanied by a media campaign designed to revise history, impugn her character and push the narrative that she was a cheater and a coward.
A week away from Cyborg’s return against Budd, who is riding a 10-fight winning streak that includes finishes in three of her four championship victories, her torrid history with White and the UFC is a thing of the past. However, his talking points and personal animus towards her will follow Cyborg to Bellator 238 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, and beyond.
A spot in the UFC Hall of Fame, otherwise a no-brainer, is likely off the table, such is the capriciousness of the selection process when White holds a grudge. Despite the fact that Bellator has twice as many female featherweights on its roster and actually cares to maintain the division, rather than using it as an occasional stage for fun fights, a huge section of the fanbase will also regard her defection as proof that she didn’t want to hang around with the elite or seek redemption against Nunes. Cyborg will still sell tickets and participate in meaningful fights, but it’s almost impossible for her to ever recapture the WMMA pound-for-pound spot or usurp the Greatest-of-All-Time moniker she held for a large portion of her career. The question then is whether, despite all these sacrifices, Cyborg can make the next—and likely final—chapter of her career the most rewarding.
If she overcomes Budd on Jan. 25—oddsmakers predict she will by a landslide—she will be the only fighter in history to have ever held UFC, Strikeforce, Bellator and Invicta Fighting Championships titles. The possibility of crossover bouts, in boxing and perhaps professional wrestling, are also part of the deal she struck with Coker, providing for experiences and a potential second career that would never have been possible in the UFC.
Cyborg has always possessed a fighting style and star power that has allowed her to thrive outside of the UFC’s orbit. She was already a household name before debuting with the promotion in 2016, having captured the Strikeforce and Invicta titles. Her 2009 bout with Gina Carano was for a time the high watermark for women’s MMA.
The good news is we get to keep watching her compete, and she’s now doing it with a partner in Coker who’s all in on the Cyborg business. In the end, that’s more than you could ever say for White; maybe that’s all that really matters.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. 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.