Chris “Cyborg” Justino was patient and methodical, stalking Tonya Evinger with leg kicks and punches for two and a half round before four crushing knees brought the game but outmatched Evinger to the canvass and forced referee Mike Beltran to intervene and stop the carnage.
The fight lasted longer than some had expected. Evinger, a bantamweight giving Cyborg a ten-pound weight advantage, was a virtual unknown amongst mainstream MMA fans before Saturday and had never competed in the Octagon despite the 135lb division being the UFC’s most established women’s weight class. To make matters worse, she’d taken the fight on short notice, serving as a replacement for the Australian Megan Anderson, who pulled out of the event in late June.
But as the dust settled, that didn’t matter. Finally, the most dominant female fighter of all time had a UFC championship wrapped around her waist – Evinger’s durability destined to be but a footnote in what was, in truth, a near flawless performance on Cyborg’s part.
The UFC is hoping that the triumph signals a fresh start for the promotion and Justino, whose relationship over the past four years can charitably be described as strained. But anyone knowledgeable about their history will tell you that’s easier said than done.
It started when the UFC, after many years of rejecting WMMA’s viability due to a lack of depth and marketability, suddenly capitulated and opened its female bantamweight division in 2013. Its queen Ronda Rousey – crowned before she ever competed in the octagon – had a longstanding feud with Cyborg from their time together fighting under the Strikeforce banner, and used her spotlight to disparage and bully Cyborg, repeatedly accusing her of longstanding steroid use and going as far as calling the Brazilian an “it”.
Despite the potentially defamatory content of Rousey’s accusations – Cyborg had only tested positive for banned substances once in her fighting career, hardly enough to support Rousey’s claims she had been “injecting herself for so long that she’s not even a woman anymore” – the UFC declined to punish or reprimand her. In fact, President Dana White lobbed slurs of his own, saying Cyborg looked like Wanderlei Silva “in a dress and heels” before impersonating her stomping across the stage at the World MMA Awards.
Fast-forward to 2015 and the UFC officially signed Cyborg while allowing her to continue fighting in Invicta, the promotion’s sister company. She competed twice under the UFC banner in 2016, however did so at catchweight (140lbs), the UFC not yet sold on opening a featherweight division, and of the belief that Cyborg could eventually make the cut to 135lbs to fight Rousey in a grudge match for the ages.
Of course, all available evidence suggested that this was impossible. The reason Cyborg had signed with Invicta instead of the UFC in 2013 was precisely because she couldn’t make it down to bantamweight, her management team even holding a press conference with a scale to show pundits her fight-weight was 160lb. Making her cut an additional 25lbs – over 15% of her bodyweight – was always going to be life threatening, and this didn’t change when members of her team started jumping on the 135lbs bandwagon to cash in on a Rousey superfight.
This reality became undeniable after Cyborg’s first catchweight fight against Leslie Smith in Brazil for UFC 198, with her excruciating weight cut forming part of a documentary released in August 2016. Scenes show a gaunt and highly distressed Justino in excruciating pain as she cuts her final five pounds. 24 hours before the fight and she can barely walk or stand; her boxing coach Jason Parillo looks into the camera and mutters: “it’s crazy s**t… what we do is we all sit in a room to watch a human being… bring themself close to death”.
Still, the UFC remained unsympathetic. After her second catchweight fight with Lina Lansberg in late September 2016, Cyborg was hospitalised for 10 days for severe dehydration and depression associated with the weight cut. Her condition was so serious the nurses couldn’t even take blood from her arms. The UFC offered her a third catchweight fight anyway. When she refused, they finally opened a featherweight division and put a championship on the line – but couldn’t wait the additional four weeks Cyborg needed to make the cut in a healthy way.
Instead, the headliners for the first ever women’s featherweight championship were two bantamweights, 5th ranked Holly Holm and 11th ranked Germaine de Randamie, who competed for the inaugural featherweight title in February at UFC 208 for purely commercial, rather than meritocratic reasons. The two women put on one of the more forgettable championship fights in recent memory, which was marred by controversy when de Randamie – the eventual winner – repeatedly struck Holm after the horn sounded at the end of rounds 2 and 3 without being punished by a points deduction, which would have made the contest a draw. Meanwhile, Cyborg was flagged for a USADA violation for using a banned substance, and within 30 minutes of hearing the news White was insinuating to TMZ that the reason she’d declined to take the fights was because she anticipated being caught.
It later emerged that the banned substance was a diuretic – ironically prescribed by her physician to help her with a disorder associated with her dangerous weight cuts – and Justino received a retroactive therapeutic use-exemption from USADA. Her path was clear to fight de Randemie. Except, in an unprecedented move, the inaugural featherweight champ had no interest in fighting Cyborg, and was promptly stripped of her title in June, before heading back down to the bantamweight division.
And that brings us to last Saturday, where just the second ever female featherweight fight took place in the UFC and gave us its first rightful champion.
The company is now wed to a woman it spent more time sabotaging than promoting, and for the first time in their strained relationship it is Cyborg that holds all the leverage. With the undisputed championship belt wrapped around her waist and her contract set to expire in October, Cyborg has the luxury of choosing whether to re-sign with the promotion that threw her under the bus merely five months ago or test her worth on the free market.
It is a decision she appears to be taking seriously. In response to questions at the post fight press conference regarding whether she wanted to extend her tenure with the UFC, Justino was non-committal, asserting that “maybe we can work together”. Whilst she also expressed interest in competing against either Holly Holm or Megan Davis – both fighters under contracts with the UFC – it’s likely her management team will demand a much more lucrative deal as a precursor to setting up those defences.
After all, whilst Rousey was making millions as the UFC’s poster girl, Cyborg was barely making enough money to sustain a life in the United States, and once considered moving back to Brazil. Only recently has she been able to afford purchasing her first home in California – a process captured by the abovementioned documentary – and at 32 years of age her window of financial opportunity is unlikely to be open for more than a few years.
With Bellator opening its own female featherweight division in 2014 and crowning its inaugural champion, Julia Budd, in March this year, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the Viacom-backed promotion would make her an offer she can’t refuse.
And if that happens, nobody could blame her for putting the UFC and its erratic president in the rear view mirror.
Some might even say it would serve them right.