LAS VEGAS – By the late spring of 2011, it was well known within the mixed martial arts community that Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino was incredibly strong and an amazingly powerful striker.
But when the website MMA Heat released a video of Cyborg grappling with ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz on YouTube, her legend grew to mythic proportions.
Ortiz, a UFC Hall of Famer whose grappling skills were always underrated, caught Cyborg in a triangle choke. Cyborg, with Ortiz’s legs wrapped around her neck, stood up and slammed Ortiz in an attempt to break the choke.
It was an awesome display of sheer power to see a woman who fought at 145 pounds have the strength to slam a man who fought at 205 in that manner.
A few weeks after that training session, Ronda Rousey needed just 49 seconds to submit Charmaine Tweet with an arm bar.
Rousey would soon rocket to stardom, at her peak becoming the biggest star in the MMA universe and one of the most popular athletes in the world.
Cyborg, though, never quite reached that pinnacle despite finishing six of her 10 fights since then in the first round and gaining the UFC title.
She’ll face Yana Kunitskaya, a former Invicta bantamweight champion, on Saturday in the main event of UFC 222. And maybe, just maybe, after a decade of toil, Cyborg may finally be getting the respect her talent demands.
She lost her first pro fight, on May 17, 2005, when she submitted to an Erica Paes kneebar in Curitiba, Brazil. Since there, she’s won 19 in a row and, though she’s never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, has become the fight game’s most dominant star.
A Dec. 11, 2011, first-round victory over Hiroko Yamanaka was overturned when she was suspended for having the anabolic steroid Stanozolol in her system. The finish was changed to a no-contest.
But even without that fight, Cyborg has gone 19-0 with nine first-round finishes and three second-round finishes.
Even her relationship with UFC president Dana White, which was never good, has begun to improve. Cyborg was on vacation in Portugal when Max Holloway was injured and had to pull out of his featherweight title defense against Frankie Edgar that was originally planned as the main event of UFC 222.
The UFC turned to Cyborg to save the show. And after an initial reluctance, she agreed to take the fight.
“When they called me and said, ‘Do you want to fight?’ I said, ‘No, I’m on vacation,’ ” Cyborg said. “But I was training. I always feel in order to improve your game, you have to keep training and always be training. … I started thinking, ‘Why not?’ The champ has to be ready any time anywhere.”
And so that any time will be Saturday and the anywhere will be T-Mobile Arena, where Cyborg will attempt to extend her winning streak to 20 fights and make the second successful defense of her UFC belt.
She hasn’t become the transcendent star her talent suggests she could be. But fans love finishes, as evidenced by their reaction to Rousey, and nobody in MMA is a better finisher than Cyborg.
She finished Gina Carano, the precursor to Rousey as the so-called face of women’s MMA, in the first round in 2009, but never got the opportunity to face Rousey herself. The two battled over weight, with Rousey insisting that Cyborg fight her at 135 and Cyborg insisting she couldn’t safely make the weight.
When rumors first began that Rousey would sign with WWE and eschew an MMA career in favor of becoming a professional wrestler, Cyborg suggested on social media that they meet in WWE. But Cyborg has moved on from Rousey. She’s a consummate professional and answers the inevitable Rousey questions that come her way, but she’s fixated on making her own mark.
“The reality is, I never worried about Ronda,” Cyborg said. “Ronda was a great fighter and she did a lot of things for women’s MMA. I never called her out. I don’t think I ever did, but she was always calling me out and saying bad things about me. I think she just wanted attention, because that’s how she is. She decided to talk about me so people would look at her.”
The perception of Cyborg changed forever after her win over Holm at UFC 219 in December. She couldn’t just freight train Holm, an elite fighter who fought at 154 pounds as a boxer. Her trademark power was on display, but she’s not just a one-trick pony. Cyborg showed the entire arsenal against Holm. When you are as powerful as Cyborg, you tend to rely on it, but she’s more than just the most powerful woman in the history of MMA.
“I always want to get better and that’s what it is all about,” she said. “In MMA, you have to be ready for everything because you never know, so I always try to get better at everything. That’s how this sport is.”
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