Jon Jones finally returns to the Octagon to rematch Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight title on Saturday in Anaheim, California. A rematch two and a half years in the making, it's perhaps the most anticipated and significant fight in MMA history. However, the historic second clash between Cormier and Jones is not the most overdue moment of UFC 214, not by a long shot. No, that is the overwhelmingly likely coronation of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, nearly a decade in its actualization.
This week marked nine years since Cyborg's stateside debut for EliteXC -- on network television for CBS, no less -- as she memorably destroyed Shayna Baszler and then prematurely jumped onto the fence to celebrate. Scott Coker's Strikeforce acquiring EliteXC assets would make the Brazilian a staple of premium cable on Showtime and set up her historic showdown with and retirement of Gina Carano. She has been the Strikeforce women's featherweight champion and Invicta Fighting Championships 145-pound titlist. She has been the best in her division for years; she may be the best woman to ever fight in the cage. Yet, for better or for worse, when it's all said and done, nothing confers and confirms greatness in the modern MMA era than winning UFC gold. Now, Cyborg has the inside track.
Unfortunately, like most of her career, what looks to be her crowning moment is bittersweet and conflicting.
First, let's be clear: While I'm describing Cyborg becoming UFC women's featherweight champion as an inevitability, Tonya Evinger is a very good fighter. In fact, considering a fighter's competitive value at the time of the fight, Evinger is the best opponent Justino has taken on since her first bout with Marloes Coenen over seven and a half years ago. Nonetheless, there's a reason she is a -1300 favorite on some sportsbooks.
The biggest reason, of course, is that it shouldn't have been this fight. It should've been Germaine de Randamie, but she opted to vacate her title rather than ever face Justino, who she deemed a steroid cheat. When it couldn't be de Randamie, it should've been Australia's Megan Anderson, who is far from a finished product but a powerful striker and the best prospect the women's featherweight division has seen in years. Then Anderson pulled out citing personal issues. It's brilliant to see Evinger, even if she has to go through a 145-pound beatdown first, finally get her UFC deal. Still, this is hardly the best way it could have happened for either woman vying for the vacant title.
Even UFC 214 itself is an embarrassment of riches that slights Cyborg. The card is in the middle of her adopted Orange County backyard, yet she is third fiddle to Tyron Woodley's welterweight title defense against Demian Maia and obviously Cormier-Jones 2. If Donald Cerrone-Robbie Lawler does turn into the “Fight of the Year,” she may sit in its shadow, too. If she becomes UFC champion, she will not have beaten de Randamie. She will not have beaten Ronda Rousey. Nothing is ever as grand as it seems for Cyborg.
Never mind the money, I'm sure Cyborg would love to bust up Rousey for other reasons. Here's the “Rowdy” one, alleged hero to women, on Cyborg in April 2014: "This girl has been on steroids for so long and injecting herself for so long that she's not even a woman anymore. She's an 'it.' It's not good for the women's division. It's not good at all.”
Again with the dualities. On the one hand, Rousey's comments are nasty, transphobic drivel. On the other hand, Cyborg's December 2011 win over Hiroko Yamanaka -- and her Strikeforce title -- were vacated because she tested positive for the steroid stanozolol; she wouldn't fight again for another 17 months. Last December, she was popped for spironolactone use in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency test, a banned World Anti-Doping Agency Code substance, though she eventually applied for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption, was granted one and was cleared of any wrongdoing. Her explanation was that she was prescribed it by a physician to recover from previous weight cuts. She also complained about being on a birth control containing drospirenone, a similar but legal dieuretic agent, during her weight cuts.
Her explanation is credible but inherently suspicious, tainted by her unquestionable test failure nearly six years ago. Once more with the complications. The MMA world by and large want cheaters to be punished and repent, but there are no guidelines or timelines for public forgiveness, and worse, Cyborg's history with positive tests has created a gleeful cadre of freaks who use it to advance the repugnant “Cyborg is a man! Cyborg is a freak!” invective. Cyborg gets it twice as bad because she's a woman, twice as bad as that because, according to some, she's not enough of a woman.
Is a positive steroid test grounds to strip someone of their competitive and human dignity?
It may not be so bad if it wasn't the work of her promoters and contemporaries, as well. Rousey, most likely owing to her celebrity more than anything, escaped Cyborg's form of street justice. Angela Magana? Not so much. At the UFC Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas in May, Cyborg punched the UFC bantamweight in a well-publicized fracas after Magana had spent weeks antagonizing the Brazilian on Twitter. Most notably, on April 27, Magana sent out a “Who wore it better?” poll on Twitter, juxtaposing a picture of Cyborg visiting young cancer patients in the hospital and a picture of film slasher Jigsaw of the “Saw” series.
Angela Magana (@AngelaMagana1) April 27, 2017
When Rousey called Justino an “it” back in April 2014, let's remember how UFC President Dana White responded to his golden girl's miserable comments:
"I said, when I saw her at the MMA Awards, she looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels. And she did, did she not? Who wants to dispute that she didn't look like Wanderlei? She was walking up the stairs, jacked up on steroids beyond belief and looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress and heels.
"When you're a female and you've taken that many drugs for so long, when you've been on steroids for as long as this girl has, it's tough. This isn't the same as a guy who had taken some stuff before and got busted, he comes back and is fighting other men.
"It's not that she's beyond redemption. She's a nightmare in every way, shape or form to bring in as a professional athlete in an organization like this. At the end of the day, it's not worth it in the big picture."
For a guy so concerned about Cyborg's physical and promotional health, White sure grabbed her in a hurry when it suited his needs. He then forced her to agonize in order to make 140-pound contract weights instead of just doing the sane, savvy and even compassionate thing and just green-lighting the women's featherweight division. When she had her failed test in December, you'd think he would conference with her and her team before running to air her out to TMZ.
As for UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, one of the three men who will call her title fight on Saturday? He had White and fellow professional merrymaker Tony Hinchcliffe on an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” in November 2015, when Rogan dropped a zinger about Cyborg having “a d---.” He would apologize a few weeks later, all while couching it around the idea of “Hey, we were talking about roasting here!” Rogan's pal Hinchcliffe was less sympathetic:
You took male hormones & it shows. I couldn't make that joke about Holly or Ronda cuz they're feminine..like my mom. https://t.co/nWHmA4Pv6s— Tony Hinchcliffe (@TonyHinchcliffe) November 17, 2015
This is how it has been for Cyborg. She undermined herself when she tested positive for stanozolol back in Strikeforce, but since then, the MMA game has punished her incommensurately, not necessarily because she may or may not be cheating now but because she has been the primary MMA magnet for a particularly disgusting kind of vitriol that permeates women's sports; and she has been subject to some truly wicked, reprehensible comments from people that are supposed to be keepers of the sport. Well, other than Magana, of course.
Now, Cyborg's future may be of a much finer sweetness. So long as she can make weight, continue testing clean and wrecking faces, she can make her former tormentors pay. She can make Rogan eat his words over and over again from cageside on pay-per-view. She can make White look like a fool at UFC 214 and every time after he puts the UFC title around her waist. Then, after she makes them pay, maybe she can really make them pay. After all, this is a new era of the UFC, one where no one fears their promoter anymore. The word is out: The UFC needs stars and Cyborg had an organic fanbase and crossover awareness even prior to the UFC. She beat up Carano. She's one of the first two fighters, alongside ex-husband Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos, to appear in ESPN The Magazine's “The Body Issue.” She gets transparent BS coverage from World Wrestling Entertainment, too.
If Cyborg is champion when her contract is up, sure, she'll have it automatically extended by the champion's clause, but what if she wants to be the first fighter to challenge it? What if she wants to vacate the title, force the UFC to strip her or simply sits out a full year to potentially take a deal from Bellator MMA -- an outfit that has already amassed a better featherweight roster than the UFC -- or Rizin Fighting Federation?
In the post-Rousey, post-Conor-McGregor-needing-the-company era, the UFC is desperate to find draws and develop big names. At the same time, it can't have precious titles that its views as promotional bargaining chips held in limbo. Why do you think we get so many interim title fights? The UFC would really have to make a move then. All the past strife and suffering aside, if she doesn't undo herself again -- if she doesn't vindicate her most vicious, callow critics -- this is a realistic future Cyborg can create ... if she does it the right way.
Kill them all and make them pay. Then, make them pay again.