Cris Cyborg looks to continue her run as the most dominant force in women’s MMA, but this story is one familiar to Holly Holm. Who will prevail?
The featherweight division in the UFC appears to finally be gaining traction after what has been more than a year of waiting. Its biggest star has signed a multi-fight contract and the prospect of new competition on the horizon is finally becoming a reality. But first, the owner of the biggest upset in UFC history will get a chance to replicate her magic when UFC featherweight champion Cris Cyborg faces former bantamweight champion Holly Holm at UFC 219.
To say that Cris “Cyborg” Justino has been the most dominant female fighter of the last decade is not enough. She has not lost since George W. Bush was in office and has made her competition look more like nuisances than credible threats. She has gone from pioneer to legend, and now holds a UFC title to validate the work she’s done in the sport of mixed martial arts.
Cyborg’s path of destruction defined the developmental years of women’s MMA. Her bout against Gina Carano in 2009 was the first female super-fight in the sport and she went on to claim titles in Elite XC, Strikeforce, and Invicta FC. She was the unquestioned queen of female mixed martial arts, running roughshod over the athletes she faced at 145. Her only setback was in December of 2011 where she failed a post-fight drug test for Stanozolol that led to a one-year suspension.
In a cruel twist of irony, the timing of her absence arguably contributed to the boom of women’s MMA. A month before Cyborg tested positive, Ronda Rousey defeated Julia Budd and campaigned for a fight with then Strikeforce champion Miesha Tate. The rest is history, Rousey and Tate would compete in a super-fight that captured the attention of the MMA world and the success led to the signing of women to the UFC.
Justino never would fight in Strikeforce again, the promotion folding before she made her return. The UFC chose to only absorb the Strikeforce bantamweight division, and Cyborg was left to find a new home in the newly formed Invicta FC. She moved to the UFC in 2016, competing in catchweight fights against lesser competition. With the UFC in need of more pay-per-view worthy bouts, Cyborg was finally given a title bout against Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 where she claimed championship gold in the Octagon.
After months of speculation, Cyborg recently signed a multi-fight deal with the UFC that assures she, and by association the women’s featherweight division, is in their plans for the foreseeable future. Even so, natural featherweights like Megan Anderson have yet to make their move to the UFC. Regardless, Cyborg is facing her most high profile opponent to date on New Year’s Eve.
Holly Holm will always be remembered for one night in November two years ago. Ronda Rousey’s popularity was at an all-time high, but it took just a little more than six minutes for Holm to dismantle everything she had built. But from there, Holm hit the roughest patch of her career. She lost the title against Miesha Tate in her following fight and losses to Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie came after.
The fight with de Randamie in particular is a major selling point of the fight with Cyborg. With Cyborg under suspension due to a potential violation (she was later found to be within USADA’s rules), the UFC put a fight between Holm and de Randamie for the inaugural featherweight championship together to headline UFC 208. The bout was a close back-and-forth battle in which de Randamie found early success but Holm came on strong late in the fight. When “The Iron Lady” vacated the title due to a refusal to fight Justino, Holm became the top candidate for a fight with the Brazilian despite having gone back down to 135.
While Holm’s job was not on the line in June, her relevancy in the division was when she met Bethe Correia back at 135lbs. It was a slow and and technical fight, but Holm recaptured a bit of her magic with a spectacular head-kick knockout in Singapore to stave off any more criticism. It appeared that Holm would begin another title run at bantamweight, but with a lack of available competition and Cyborg’s own personal campaign for the bout, Holm is now back fighting for featherweight gold.
In her last fight at 145, Holm was the more skilled and technical fighter but struggled against the bigger and more explosive de Randamie. Cris Cyborg, by comparison, is significantly larger and more powerful. Holm will need to execute a near-perfect game plan of using leg-kicks and counter-striking to slow down the Brazilian champion. Holm’s cardio is proven in five round fights and her best bet is to stick-and-move against Cyborg to get her into the later rounds where her explosiveness will be much lower. Like Rafael dos Anjos recently against Robbie Lawler, this strategy can work as long as she avoids getting in the pocket with Cyborg and tying up the bigger champion when she gets pushed into the fence.
For Cyborg, the key as always is to use her size and power to get her opponent to the fence where she cuts off her movement and can pick her apart with strikes against the cage. In the clinch, Justino is known for using her strength to drag opponents down to the mat where she is able to use her size and power to deliver brutal ground and pound. By taking away Holm’s space and forcing her to support her weight against the fence, Cyborg takes away most of “The Preacher’s Daughter’s” arsenal and should be able to exhaust her energy quickly.
Cyborg’s size and skill level make her a far bigger threat than Ronda Rousey, but Holm’s technical brilliance could be a great equalizer. Holm is by far the most talented fighter Cyborg has faced in her career and even in recent losses has been competitive against elite competition. With the featherweight division set to have it’s best year coming up, the winner of Saturday’s contest is set for critical fights in 2018.