There were big expectations for the UFC featherweight division when it was created. But for unknown reasons, they have not been met.
When the UFC officially announced that they were beginning the women’s featherweight division in December 2016, a new wave of talent was expected to be on the horizon. However, no women who regularly compete at 145 have yet to be signed. In fact, no fights have taken place in the division besides four title bouts. In each of those matches, at least one of the competitors was a fighter who regularly competed at bantamweight and was moving up in weight.
Since 2014, Cris “Cyborg” Justino has been under contract with UFC parent company Zuffa. At the time, the UFC was working to provide Justino with a dietician in the hopes that she could make the cut to 135 pounds for a super fight with then-bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Cyborg is widely regarded as not only the best featherweight but also the greatest women’s fighter in MMA history. A fight with Rousey at the height of her popularity would have been a pay-per-view juggernaut.
The bout never came to pass, and it wasn’t until 2016 that Cyborg made her UFC debut. Even then, Justino was only fighting in catchweight bouts of 140 pounds against smaller women moving up in weight to face her. In 2017, with the UFC in need of bouts to headline pay-per-view events, they opened the featherweight division. Justino was embroiled in controversy and was unable to compete for the inaugural championship. But in a turn of events, she would go on to win the once again vacant belt later that year.
At the time the division debuted, it was believed that the move was a sign that the UFC would be investing in the development of the weight class. The expectation was that it would begin by signing the top fighters from Invicta FC, as it had with the bantamweight and strawweight divisions. Also, there was speculation of a season of The Ultimate Fighter to help find more talent.
So far, Cyborg has fought Tonya Evinger, Holly Holm, and Yana Kunitskaya in bouts with the world championship on the line. While all three women have previous experience at 145 lbs, they are all widely considered natural bantamweights who give up too much in terms of size and power at 145. While the move did not draw criticism at first due to the necessities of the UFC schedule, it has become blatantly apparent that the UFC has been slow to sign new talent.
Even more confounding is that the UFC extended the nearly expired contract with Justino last year. Justino said in January that she had three fights left on her UFC deal, which is now two due to the unexpected bout with Kunitskaya. What was believed to be the UFC investing in the division has now given cause for concern for women who expected to make their way to the Octagon. If the UFC sees no future in the division beyond Cyborg’s current deal, will they elect to simply fulfill her contract with fights against bantamweights already in-house rather than pay to sign natural featherweight talent?
One of the most obvious choices to bring into the UFC is fan-favorite Megan Anderson. The Australian born striker possesses a massive following and in the past year has been seen as the only woman who can compete with the physicality of Justino. However, due to reasons still unknown, Anderson has yet to make her UFC debut after having to pull out of a bout with Cyborg last July due to personal reasons.
Yana Kunitskaya was set to be in the first non-title featherweight fight in the UFC against Leah Letson at UFC 222 before the Cyborg opportunity materialized. A positive sign, but Kunitskaya stating she would be moving back down to 135 undid whatever positive momentum could have been gleaned from news of the announcement.
Perhaps the most telling statement was from Cyborg herself. Following her victory over Holly Holm, at easily the height of her powers, she admitted that she may have to go to rival Bellator to prove she is the best featherweight in the world. Bellator, although admittedly still at a slow rate, has had several more fights in their women’s featherweight division. They also have talent such as number two ranked Julia Budd as their champion, Arlene Blencowe, and Talita Nogueira under their banner. Cyborg has said repeatedly that she wishes to build the 145 division. But the fact remains, that has yet to happen in the UFC.
For now, Cris Cyborg is expecting a challenge from bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes later this year. It is a super-fight, to be sure, but noticeably against another opponent who is already under contract and moving up in weight from her natural division. There is still hope that the next wave could arrive in the UFC in a big way. But as the months continue to go on, the fact is it appears less and less likely to happen.