It would be a travesty if after all that has occurred, Cris “Cyborg” Justino did not get the opportunity to fight for UFC gold on Saturday. The most dominant fighter in the history of women’s MMA, Cyborg has been at the top of the game for more than a decade. On Saturday, she can complete her career journey by becoming UFC featherweight champion.
There has been plenty written about the women’s featherweight situation already. No fighters were signed to the division as the UFC wished to focus on Cris Cyborg’s return before adding to the roster. Former champion Germaine de Randamie refused to fight Cyborg on the basis of schedule and the Brazilian’s past issues with PEDs. After stripping de Randamie of the belt, the UFC scheduled a bout between Cyborg and Invicta featherweight champion Megan Anderson. The Australian, however, was unable to compete due to personal issues and the assignment now goes to Invicta bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger (who subsequently vacated her title).
The situation has reached the point that even Dana White admitted that Cyborg has been through so much that the very least the UFC can do is finally get her a fight at UFC 214. Promotion for the fight has revolved around Cyborg’s status as the most dominant female fighter in MMA history. The UFC has done a bit of recounting on their part, perhaps finally admitting that the Ronda Rousey chapter in their history is over for good. While Cyborg is not the fighter who brought WMMA to mainstream prominence, she is the one who lit the match on the fuse that led to the explosion.
Cyborg’s fight with Gina Carano was the first super fight in women’s MMA. That bout occurred in 2009 and she has yet to be stopped inside the cage since her professional debut. She has faced plenty of controversy along the way. Her win over Hiroko Yamanaka was overturned after testing positive for steroids. She also faces the struggle of becoming mainstream, her heavily muscled frame is a stark contrast compared to fighters like Rousey or Paige VanZant whose looks have been used to build their name recognition outside the cage.
Regardless, a Cyborg victory fulfills her journey from the humble beginnings of women’s MMA. She would finally add the most coveted trophy in the sport to her collection, and as such gain the recognition on the sport’s biggest stage that she is the best in the world.
Standing in her way is the affable Invicta bantamweight champion Tonya Evinger. “Triple Threat” is a veteran of the sport who has won 10 of her last 11 fights, the lone outlier was overturned to a No Contest due to a referee error. But while she drew notoriety for kissing UFC and Invicta reporter Laura Sanko after a fight, it is her latest UFC opportunity that she plans to capitalize on.
Evinger already stepped up on short notice to help Invicta 24 when Anderson was promoted to the UFC. She now steps up for Anderson again on the biggest stage in the sport. Saturday’s card could go down as the biggest card of the year, and Evinger is prepared for the biggest challenge in women’s MMA.
“Triple Threat” has competed at 145, 135, and 125 lbs. While she feels best at bantamweight, she has stated that she hasn’t felt an incredible difference in strength against featherweights. While that may be true, she has never faced an athlete with the vaunted size and power of the Brazilian. Evinger has shown herself to be an adept fighter on the feet and on the ground, but she will need to rely on being the faster and more nimble fighter to secure a victory.
Stylistically, Cyborg has taken a more measured approach in recent years. Conserving her energy into brief, explosive bursts rather than steamroll opponents early. She also prefers to push her opponents against the fence and use her size to wear them down. She then uses her considerable strength to throw opponents to the mat where she can deliver devastating ground-and-pound.
Evinger is not about to outmuscle Justino, so the key will be for her to wear down Cyborg from the outside using all manner of strikes. Leg kicks will sap away her energy, as well as staying disciplined in getting in and out with her strikes. If she has an opening to get the fight to the mat she must capitalize on it as Cyborg’s strength is nullified when she’s on her back.
It is a tough test for “Triple Threat,” but on her current run there has never been a better time for her to shock the world and keep Cyborg from reaching her goal. For the Brazilian, Saturday could be the culmination for more than a decade of work and consistency in the sport of MMA. Years ago, it was believed that Cyborg was the only woman good enough to compete at the UFC level. The game has changed but the fact that Cyborg is at the top has not. She is an incredible favorite, and she only needs to be at her best one more night in order to complete her career journey on Saturday.