Against all odds, Cris Cyborg emerges as face of women's UFC

Just a few short years ago, UFC president Dana White didn’t exactly have the nicest things to say about the greatest fighter in women’s mixed martial arts history, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino.

In 2014, White proclaimed Cyborg, the current UFC and former Strikeforce and Invicta featherweight champion, “looked like Wanderlei Silva in a dress,” referring to the former light heavyweight star nicknamed “The Axe Murderer.”

This was also back around the time that White’s big star of the day, Ronda Rousey, who wanted no part of fighting Cyborg, referred to her as an “it.”

Fast forward four years and the tables have turned. Rousey has run off to the WWE and Cyborg is the one who has stepped to the forefront as the face of women’s mixed martial arts, a fighter White depends on to help get the company out of binds.

Cyborg saved the day at UFC 222 by agreeing to headline Saturday night’s show at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on short notice against Yana Kunitskaya after the original main event of Max Holloway vs. Frankie Edgar fell out, even though she had just gone through a tough five rounds with Holly Holm at UFC 219 in December.

Cris “Cyborg” Justino celebrates her victory over Yana Kunitskaya (R), during a featherweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 222 on Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP)

No wonder the champ and her promoter are carrying on in public like they’re best friends.

“Dana and I are friends now,” Cyborg said after her first-round TKO of Kunitskaya at the UFC 222 postfight news conference. “He likes me now.”

“Her and I are in a very good position relationship-wise,” Dana White said when it was his turn at the podium.

Cyborg’s assertion of her spot near the top of the UFC’s food chain came after the UFC fumbled around looking for another women’s headliner after Rousey’s star burned out so spectacularly in one-sided losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes.

Holm could have been the one to fill the void purely off the momentum of her November 2015 win over Rousey, but she lost steam by losing her next three fights in a row. Rousey’s longtime nemesis, Miesha Tate, was a star in her own right, but she stunningly went from defeating Holm for the bantamweight title in March of 2016 to retiring before the year was out.

Nunes, the current bantamweight champion, should have been a no-brainer to become a star, with her highlight-reel finishes of Tate and Rousey in succession and her status as the first openly gay world champion in MMA history being something that should have been easy to market.

But White damaged Nunes’ brand by publicly trashing her after she had to pull out of a title defense against Valentina Shevchenko last summer. Imagine, for a moment, how ridiculous it would come across if NBA commissioner Adam Silver publicly questioned LeBron James or Stephen Curry’s courage on the eve of the NBA Finals, and you’ll get a sense of how misguided were White’s words.

Since the UFC was purchased in 2016 by powerhouse Hollywood agency WME (now Endeavor), there has been an emphasis on trying to find the next women’s star in a manner that often seems to be based on appearance first and talent second. Paige VanZant headlined cards after starring on “Dancing with the Stars.” She’s proven plenty tough — fighting through a broken arm in her last fight — but she’s put in more losses than wins in recent outings. Michelle Waterson, nicknamed “The Karate Hottie,” was fast tracked to a level she wasn’t ready to handle.

Just last week, we saw the latest round of “next Ronda Rousey” hype in the highly touted Mackenzie Dern, a decorated, world-class jiu-jitsu player. The strawweight Dern eked out a split-decision win over Ashley Yoder at UFC 222. Then the Phoenix-based competitor smartly indicated she would prefer to work up the ranks slowly, rather than get thrown into the fire.

“I don’t want the fast track to the top of the division,” said Dern (6-0). “I want to take my time.”

Mackenzie Dern jogs before a women’s strawweight bout during UFC 222 at T-Mobile Arena on March 3, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Getty Images)

That would be smart, because Dern’s match with Yoder both demonstrated her considerable skills on the ground and the fact that her standup needs a lot of work. If the UFC resists the urge to overhype Dern and instead put her on a two-or-three year path of a slow build against competition which increased moderately in talent each time out, she very well could become that star who carries the torch for the next generation.

Until then, this remains Cyborg’s time, a well-deserved bow after so many years in which she always had to stay in the background as promoters tried to find someone else (even her star-making moment, her famous 2009 TKO win over Gina Carano in Strikeforce, was supposed to be Carano’s big night) to be star of the show.

And that will lead to what promises to be the biggest women’s fight of 2018, and one of the biggest fights of the year, period — Cyborg vs. Nunes, in a bout which could take place as soon as May, though will most likely occur over the summer. The only remaining wrinkle is what to do about a reported bout between Nunes and Raquel Pennington, rumored for May in Brazil.

“She’s going to fight now, defend her title belt in Brazil in May, I think, and then probably I’m going to fight in July if she wins and is the champion,” Cyborg said of Nunes. “And now she’s calling me out, I’m not calling Amanda out. She’s calling me out. And yeah, I could fight her in July.”

“The fight to make is her and Nunes,” White added. “That’s the fight that needs to happen. Nunes wants the fight, she wants the fight, I want the fight, I’m sure the fans want to see it, too, so we’ll get that one going.”

The matchup of the champ White was reluctant to push against the champ he publicly ran down turns out to be the fight which will draw him more money than any other women’s fight this year. No wonder everyone’s let bygones be bygones.

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