Viewpoint: Women’s MMA Has Life Without Cyborg

By Tristen Critchfield Jan 9, 2012
Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos will not fight for at least a year. | Photo:

It was but a brief segment in the Strikeforce “Rockhold vs. Jardine” event on Saturday, but it held significance nonetheless.

In an interview with Showtime analyst Mauro Ranallo prior to Luke Rockhold’s successful middleweight title defense against Keith Jardine, UFC President Dana White did the unthinkable: he promoted women’s mixed martial arts. The same guy who once claimed that female divisions lacked the overall depth to be viable commodities was doing his part in trying to build hype for an upcoming 135-pound title fight between Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey.

It does not mean women are headed to the UFC anytime soon, but it does mean that, even in this Cyborg-less climate, they still have a future.

What made the moment even more unlikely was that, just a day earlier, the UFC boss had basically pulled the plug on Strikeforce’s 145-pound female division by announcing that suspended champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos would be stripped of her championship.

“We were going to hold that division and just do fights with Cyborg whenever there was a new contender,” White told ESPN 1100 Las Vegas on Friday. “She’s getting stripped of the title. This pretty much kills the division.”

Before her positive test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol on Dec. 16 resulted in a one-year ban, it was Santos who was pretty much killing the division.

The Curitiba, Brazil, native has encountered little resistance since joining the promotion in 2009, tearing through foes with such ferocity that it became difficult to find worthwhile competition. Gina Carano, the sport’s biggest female star, has not competed since taking a beating at the hands of Cyborg in August 2009. Carano’s new movie, “Haywire,” hits theaters this week, but her return as a real-life action hero is still to be determined. Hiroko Yamanaka, ranked by some as the No. 2 featherweight in the world, appeared comically overmatched in her 16 seconds with Santos on Dec. 17.

Miesha Tate File Photo

Tate will defend her title in March.
Naturally, critics will point to Cyborg’s failed test and say the Brazilian had a helping hand in achieving her dominance. That is fair enough, though Santos, in following the lead of many a shamed athlete in the era of performance-enhancing drugs, blamed her result on a supplement.

“While I was preparing myself for my last fight, I was having a difficult time cutting weight and used a dietary supplement that I was assured was safe and not prohibited from use in sports competition,” she said in a statement on her website.

Whether or not Santos was the victim of some bad advice is irrelevant at this point. Although the grand plan may have been to build the entire women’s featherweight division around her, the simple truth is that Cyborg’s reign of terror was not compelling television. Contract disputes were partially responsible for sidelining Santos for 18 months prior to her fight with Yamanaka, but so, too, was a lack of quality opposition. Even the outspoken and talented Rousey seemed more interested in pursuing a title shot at 135
pounds than getting into the cage with Santos.

Often, a seemingly unbeatable champion possesses a sort of mystique, an aura of invincibility that builds with each triumph. Overpowering as she was, Santos did not have that, which is why women’s MMA is not irrevocably damaged by her suspension. Santos’ blowouts had an air of inevitability, and with no legitimate challenger on the horizon, there was no sense of anticipation regarding her future.

As White stood next to Ranallo to hype the upcoming showdown between Tate and Rousey, it became clear that Cyborg’s absence will not push women out of the Zuffa LLC picture entirely. Their scheduled March 3 showdown has already been buoyed by a social media-fueled feud between the two women. More importantly, the fight figures to be competitive.

Is it a guaranteed ratings bonanza for Strikeforce? No, but it is the type of bout that should prove that women still belong on the national stage. In a Santos fight, it often looked as if only the champion belonged in some of the cringe-worthy beatings she authored.

The Strikeforce brand is not so unassailable that it could not use a shot in the arm, either. Take Saturday for instance, as a listless crowd watched some of the top remaining talent in the promotion perform on a largely unremarkable card. At the conclusion of the night, Rockhold said he wanted to fight the top talents from the UFC. It was the same thing lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez said about three weeks earlier. At a minimum, Strikeforce will have to put on five more shows in 2012 under similar conditions.

While they are not ready to carry a card by themselves, compelling women’s bouts would inject some life into what appears to be a staggering promotion. With Santos on the shelf for the foreseeable future, White might even deem it worthwhile to dust off the 145-pound division down the road. Without the imposing former champion looming, the playing field could get a lot more level.

So, no, even with its most dominant champion on hiatus, women’s MMA is far from dead. In fact, with the rest of the Strikeforce lineup looking like it is on life support, the female division might be the only thing in the organization that is close to full health.


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