Cris Cyborg said she wanted to face a natural featherweight in her next outing, but she’ll be given a pass for stepping up on a month’s notice.
The UFC has replaced one featherweight champion with another as Cris “Cyborg” Justino will defend her title against Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 222. After losing Max Holloway, the UFC was able to salvage the pay-per-view event with the women’s featherweight champion as the new headliner with just under a month to go. A fact that peers and pundits should consider before bringing up that this will be her fourth consecutive bantamweight opponent in the UFC.
Cris Cyborg last fought in December at UFC 219, where she bested former bantamweight champion Holly Holm by unanimous decision. Since then, she has been attached to rumored bouts with Amanda Nunes and Megan Anderson. Kunitskaya’s name did not come up until recently, when she revealed she would be making her UFC debut as a featherweight. Justino is undefeated in more than a decade of competition that spans runs in Elite XC, Strikeforce and Invicta FC. In 2016, she made her UFC debut and fought twice at catchweight before officially fighting for the featherweight championship in July. None of those bouts came against fighters who usually stalk the 145lb weight class.
Justino stated recently that she wished to face natural featherweights, as in the last two years she has fought opponents who all normally compete at 135. With no update on Megan Anderson’s return to action, Justino was tied to rumors of a bout with Pam “Bam” Sorenson, who competes in Invicta’s featherweight division. Due to the UFC not signing any women at 145, Cyborg hinted that she could leave for the more competitive Bellator featherweight division. Notably, Justino has only three fights left on her UFC contract.
Yet you can’t blame her for budging here, to save a card badly in need of a valid headliner.
As for her opponent, Yana “Foxy” Kunitskaya has fought for the last two years at bantamweight and will be making her UFC debut after winning the 135 title in Invicta. However, she has gone between both featherweight and bantamweight in the past, with her most high profile bout at 145 coming in 2010. Back then, she defeated Cindy Dandois. In Invicta, at bantamweight, she had back-to-back fights with Tonya Evinger. In their first bout, Kunitskaya defeated Evinger for the promotion’s 135lb title. The victory was overturned on appeal, however, when it was deemed the referee made a crucial error that led to Evinger’s arm-bar finish. Evinger would later defeat Kunitskaya in an immediate rematch to settle the controversy. She’d then jump to the UFC, losing to Cyborg like so many before her.
When Evinger was called up to the UFC to face Cyborg in July, Kunitskaya went on to challenge for the now vacant title against Raquel Pa’aluhi. Kunitskaya would win the bout by unanimous decision to capture the belt, but has not competed since the victory in August. Until the announcement of the Cyborg fight, she was tied to a bout with Leah Letson. That would have been a notable moment for the UFC, for being the first women’s featherweight bout in the promotion that was not for a world championship. Additionally, the CSAC recommended following Invicta 25 that Kunitskaya move up in weight, as she weighed in at more than 15% above the weight class on fight day for the event.
So while yes, Yana Kunitskaya has been fighting mostly as a bantamweight, her excursions to 145lbs also help to take a bit of the sting off this booking. A card is salvaged, Kunitskaya is at least a larger bantamweight at worst, and Cyborg saves the day.
UFC 222 is set to take place on March 3, giving both women will less than a month to prepare for the bout. The card will be co-headlined by the recently announced bout between Frankie Edgar and Bryan Ortega.