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.
Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino’s career was for years defined by her power. She put away opponents with a knockout rate unprecedented in women’s mixed martial arts. The way Cyborg connected with such concussive force overwhelmed all other attributes of her MMA career. She dropped opponent after opponent to secure first-round knockouts. When the fights went a little longer, it was often uglier as opponents would take terrible beatings from the prolonged punishment.
In many ways, that was a positive. Cyborg’s fights for most of her career generated more buzz and fanfare than those of any other female fighter except Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey. Knockout artists have always captured the public imagination in combat sports, and so, Cyborg’s fights were events even when she was matched with unknown opposition. That was not the case for other female fighters with glossy records but fewer knockouts, like Megumi Fujii and Tara LaRosa. The rivalries with Carano and later Rousey certainly helped, but Cyborg’s explosiveness drove interest in her fights.
The focus on Cyborg’s power was also a liability for the current Bellator MMA champion and former Ultimate Fighting Championship, Strikeforce and Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder. There was of course discussion about performance-enhancing drugs, both before and after her drug test failure in 2011. That topic has been discussed ad nauseam and remains fair game given legitimate questions about how she has acquired and maintained her impressive musculature. However, Cyborg’s strength has worked against her in another key way: It has masked her technical skill.
There have been plenty of fighters over the years who have relied on power to overcome deficiencies in other areas. That has been the case with fighters who exploded on the scene and then quickly faded away like Houston Alexander and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, but it has also been a factor for much higher-level fighters. Francis Ngannou did not do well on the ground at all in his first fight against Stipe Miocic. Perhaps he has patched up those issues in the gym, but we don’t know if he has or hasn’t for sure because he has been knocking out every opponent since in short order.
That power goes a long way towards ensuring a fighter’s vulnerabilities are protected. A fighter without that would have those potential weaknesses tested more often since they aren’t able to put away opponents so quickly. That’s a significant part of why smaller fighters like Demetrious Johnson and Valentina Shevchenko are so technically advanced. They don’t have the protection that often comes with the ability to put away opponents before they have the chance to implement their game plans.
That was the case with Cyborg for much of her career. She overwhelmed opponents right from the start and never let up. However, in recent fights, she hasn’t been rocking her opposition at will. Cyborg went past the third round once in her first 20 fights but has gone that long in three of her last seven. Her fights are going longer, giving opponents more time to implement different strategies and locate vulnerabilities in the Brazilian-American great.
There is good reason to have expected that those longer fights would have worked against Cyborg. She has benefited from intimidation over the course of her career, and that diminishes as a fight goes on. Moreover, power strikers in particular have a tendency to fade when they cannot put away opponents early. However, Cyborg has responded extremely well to longer fights, going 4-0 in fights that went to the fourth round and even getting a late finish against Leslie Smith in the Bellator 259 main event.
The fight with Smith was particularly impressive for Cyborg—in a different way than so many of her earlier fights. Smith held up well to Cyborg’s strikes most of the way. As a result, Cyborg simply kept outstriking Smith. She applied pressure, mixed up her strikes high and low and controlled the fight from beginning to end. It was a reminder of the technical prowess Cyborg has acquired over the course of her 13 years fighting at the highest levels of the sport.
Like in Cyborg’s fights with Holly Holm and Felicia Spencer, the Smith rematch demonstrated her ability to control and dominate fights even when she isn’t able to physically overwhelm with her power. In some ways, that’s even more impressive than her earlier runs of knockouts and it speaks to why she has been so successful for such a long period of time. Not simply a physical marvel like a Brock Lesnar, Cyborg is underappreciated for her technical and tactical superiority. Those factors together make her one of the all-time greats.